Former treasurer Joe Hockey in 2013 (Image: AAP/Alan Porritt)

How bemused would Joe Hockey, who these days has found his niche as a K Street lobbyist in Trumpworld, be by the reaction of his erstwhile colleagues to the final closure of Holden?

Hockey was the treasurer who chased General Motors out of the country. Having declared that the age of entitlement was over in opposition, Hockey began his stint as Tony Abbott’s treasurer full of neoliberal enthusiasm.

The car industry, which had enjoyed decades of taxpayer handouts and tariff barriers (even now, you can’t import a second-hand vehicle without paying a punitive tariff), was a particular target.

As questions swirled about the future of the last three local manufacturers — Ford, Holden and Toyota — in December 2013, Hockey rose in parliament to castigate General Motors and its local subsidiary.

We want them to be honest about it — we want them to be fair dinkum –because, if I was running a business and I was committed to that business in Australia, I would not be saying that I have not made any decision about Australia. Either you are here or you are not.

The next day, GM told the government that it would not be here, thanks very much. Ford and Toyota followed in short order.

Yesterday Hockey’s colleague from back then, Scott Morrison, claimed he was angry about GM’s decision to shutter the Holden brand altogether and close its remaining design and finance operations. Angry and disappointed.

Presumably he raised his concerns about Hockey’s language back in December 2013. After all, you can’t invite a company to leave and then turn around and complain when they do, can you?

Industry Minister Karen Andrews went further and said “it’s appalling that Holden did not reach out to the government, didn’t speak to the Prime Minister until just before they made the announcement today”.

When pressed on exactly what the point of that would have been, though, Andrews said it was so they could have given the government a “better explanation”.

While everyone’s lamenting the end of the “iconic” Holden brand, overlooked is the extraordinary waste involved in propping up the car industry for so long, with taxpayers spending $18,000 to protect each job in a heavily unionised, politically well-connected industry while less well-connected industries or those with high levels of female participation were left to wither.

Much of the money flowed into the coffers of the big Japanese and American car multinationals — vastly profitable corporations that exploited protectionist sentiment and economic irrationalism and tax laws to reap billions and pay little or nothing in tax.

Not that the government is mentioning that. The kind of rhetoric Hockey used six years ago is now unthinkable. Morrison and Andrews have to feign outrage. Neoliberalism and the kind of hardline economic policies it drove, like slashing protectionism and industry assistance, have become politically unacceptable.

But it’s not merely a change of rhetoric: to back up its words and signal to the electorate that it gets the turn against neoliberalism, the government — first Malcolm Turnbull, then Scott Morrison — has had to plunge deep into protectionism and re-regulation.

Whereas we once spent $18,000 per automotive industry job, we’re now preparing to spend 10 times that, perhaps 20 or 50 times that, per defence industry job, to locally build submarines that by any rational assessment should be built overseas (something Abbott originally wanted to do, but then was forced to abandon for South Australian electoral reasons).

Taxpayers have been signed up for decades to come to fund a naval shipbuilding program that will end up employing maybe 20,000 people — far fewer than the automotive industry just a few years ago.

It’s as if the incompetence and learned helplessness that now pervades government in Australia extends to us not even being able to do protectionism well any more.

If only GM had found a way to make cars out of coal, eh?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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