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May 27, 2017

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Australia prime minister says nothing could be done to stop Toyota pullout

SYDNEY -- Prime Minister Tony Abbott insisted Tuesday there was nothing he could do to prevent Toyota halting car manufacturing in Australia as the opposition expressed fears it would spark an economic crisis.

The Japanese giant on Monday said it would stop making cars in Australia in 2017, citing high production costs, a strong local dollar and a small domestic market. The decision will kill off the country's 66-year-old auto manufacturing industry.

It follows Mitsubishi shuttering plants five years ago, Ford halting production in 2016 and U.S. giant General Motors announcing in December that its Holden offshoot would cease local manufacturing by 2017.

The demise of the industry has sparked a political firefight, with the Labor opposition blaming the government for not doing enough to prevent Toyota from walking away. Unions said 50,000 jobs could be lost down the supply chain, mostly in components manufacturing and transport.

"The Australian people will mark you down for the death of the car industry because we hold you responsible," Labor opposition leader Bill Shorten told Abbott in parliament.

Shorten's industry spokesman Kim Carr compared the impact on the major carmaking states of Victoria and South Australia to the Great Depression which struck the nation in the 1930s.

"There's likely to be, for many blue-collar Australians, an economic crisis the like of which we haven't seen since the Great Depression," he told ABC radio.

"There are going to be families that won't be able to get work. There will be whole communities that will be savaged by this decision."

Since coming to power last year, the conservative government has adopted a hard line on industry assistance, warning only last week that "the age of entitlement is over" when it comes to taxpayer-funded handouts.

Abbott said Tuesday that tens of millions of dollars had been thrown at the ailing car industry in recent years to no avail.

"This is a very considered decision (by Toyota) and it is a final decision. It's not as if the government could have leapt in at the eleventh hour and said here's another AU$100 million or AU$200 million, please, please, please stay," he said.

"We've tried that with the motor industry. It hasn't worked, and the best thing now is to focus on things that we can do and which are profitable."

Victoria state Premier Denis Napthine met workers at Toyota's Altona plant in Melbourne and said "there was a sense of disappointment, but also a sense of where do we go from here."

Napthine held talks with Abbott and Treasurer Joe Hockey in Canberra Tuesday afternoon to thrash out a package to assist those facing redundancy, as well as to drum up more money for infrastructure and industries of the future in the state.

"I can give the auto workers these words which I will think give them some hope for the future, that we are a strong economy in Victoria, triple-A rated," Napthine told reporters after the meeting.

Toyota has manufactured cars in Australia since 1963 and still produces the top-selling Camry sedan and other models in the country.

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