Richardson: Holden transforms the election battle

Dec 13, 2013

There is nothing inevitable but death and taxes, and certainly the taxing cost of doing business has hastened the inevitable demise of an Australian institution.

Amid the uncertainty, the one constant appeared to be the growing confidence that Holden’s business case simply didn’t stack up. That was ultimately the view of GM in Detroit; it was certainly the view of a majority of the fledgling Federal cabinet, whose whispering campaign against the carmaker conspired to hasten its demise.

Even if leaks that GM had already decided Holden’s fate were true, cabinet ministers leaking to journalists against a company with which they are in active negotiations is surely a new low in Australian corporate diplomacy. And surely the claim that Holden “didn’t want to be saved” was particularly disingenuous; if no amount of funding would have made the difference (as Ford claimed when it similarly resolved to quit these shores) then why put the decision off beyond the September election? Why tender submissions to the Productivity Commission and outline a business case to successive governments? And why, oh why, make the workers go through the painful charade of voting away their own pay and entitlements?

For a company that didn’t want to be saved, the cries for help were almost deafening.

Of course, it’s long been presumed that no Government will take companies like Holden off the taxpayer teat because while most recognise there is no future for them without corporate welfare, no-one wants to actually be there when the axe falls. In that sense, I suppose we must give the Abbott administration some credit; it didn’t see Holden as a viable investment, and was willing to wear the opprobrium for saying so.

And, boy, did it say so, bullying and cajoling the auto-maker into revealing its plans. Poor old Tom Kenyon was scoffed at a few weeks back for his po-faced warning that if the Commonwealth wasn’t careful, Holden would be gone by Christmas. It turned out to be prescient, except for one thing: this wasn’t a decision arrived at by some subtle communication breakdown between the friendly deaf. There was evidently a very deliberate strategy to call Holden’s bluff.

In the midst of a Productivity Commission inquiry – instigated by the Commonwealth – into the viability of auto industry co-investment, Tony Abbott went on radio to blithely reveal there would be no new money for the carmaker. Meanwhile “senior Liberal ministers” peppered the national media with briefings about an imminent shutdown. The tough talk continued through sneering insinuations about “intergenerational theft” and the like, before Treasurer Joe Hockey and Acting PM Warren Truss spent a fiery Question Time pouring scorn on Holden and daring it to leave. Which it promptly did.

This is not to say it wouldn’t have anyway. But while the Abbott administration may have the clarity it sought about the carmaker’s longevity, it will bear the political brunt of its sledghammer handling of what remains a highly sensitive issue – the lives and livelihoods of almost 3000 blue collar workers.

I sense a shift in the public mood about subsidising failing industry; when Mitsubishi (a far less iconic brand to Australia) went under, the prevailing wisdom was that no expense should be spared to safeguard the Lonsdale and Tonsley plants. Now though, a GFC and several Holden bailouts later, there appears less sympathy for propping up the US-owned carmaker with the smooth, slick American boss.

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The economic ramifications remain unclear (economist John Spoehr argues it could take a billion dollars of investment in Adelaide’s north to avert a employment disaster), but in truth there are as many dries in the Labor caucus as the Liberal one who are uneasy about spending taxpayer funds profligately on loss-making enterprises. What is unarguable though, is that the Coalition has butchered the politics of Holden’s exit.

If this had happened a year ago, in the aftermath of BHP Billiton shelving its Olympic Dam expansion, it would have been the end of Jay Weatherill’s Government. No question.

But so convincingly has the Abbott Government allowed itself to play the villain in this piece, it has handed Weatherill a weapon to not merely leverage more Commonwealth investment for State Government promises such as a South Road upgrade and the Tonsley rail electrification, but to demonise the Liberal brand in a swathe of marginal northern seats. It’s really been quite a feat.

Weatherill – who has effectively been powerless throughout this process, told by Holden early on that his chicken-feed $50 million contribution could wait until the main game was played out – has been able to establish himself as the auto workers’ champion. He has done so, it must be said, cannily and passionately, with an urgency rarely seen in his two years at Labor’s helm. He seems at his best when remonstrating with other state and federal governments; he finds an extra gear, a frisson of outrage otherwise seldom sighted. His strategy then has been: I can’t do much, but I can make a lot of noise while doing it. Full page ads, rallies with component suppliers, futile mercy dashes to Canberra; all in vain, but successful in keeping the Holden issue at front of mind and establishing himself as the generous benefactor to Abbott’s miserly autocrat.

Steven Marshall’s tactic (for want of a better word), in the meantime, has been the “Let’s just wait and see what happens” approach. He’s stuck to the lackadaisical theory that if he happens to be elected a thorough and exhaustive review will be instigated relatively quickly, which will give us a fair idea of what we might like to do next if we still feel like keeping Holden open. Seemingly oblivious, of course, to the fact that Holden’s own deadline was somewhat more urgent than that.

The Liberals, for so long demanding a “seat at the table” with the State Government, didn’t even bother addressing the Productivity Commission when it visited Adelaide for public hearings, largely because “there’s nothing we can do about it”. Finally, after the stable door had been kicked down, Marshall leapt into action, jumping on a plane (the same one, incidentally, upon which Weatherill had been booked for some days) to talk to Tony Abbott (much like Weatherill) in a bid to convince him to come to the party on a transition arrangement (the substance of which Weatherill had already outlined). It was, one presumes, his way of saying: “Look at me, I’m here too, being Premier-like.”

The State Liberals have been so afraid of picking sides on Holden that they simply sat on the steps of parliament with their thumbs in their mouths, occasionally throwing their dummy at passers-by. By accident or by design, Weatherill has redrawn the political enemy at the forthcoming state election, not as Steven Marshall but as Tony Abbott.

As it stands right now, only three months before the 2014 South Australian election, the State Liberals are largely irrelevant to the political process. They have tried so hard not to be disliked that they have simply vanished from all discourse. And with Holden’s fallout set to dominate that discourse for the foreseeable future, they may have left their run too late to re-engage.

For Marshall et al, it really is the worst possible outcome. After all, as Oscar Wilde once wrote: “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

Tom Richardson is InDaily’s political commentator and Channel Nine’s state political reporter.

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