Holden plant closure
The now-closed GM Holden factroy in Port Melbourne, 2008 (Image: AAP/Andrew Brownbill)

Murray Bail’s overlooked novel Holden’s Performance begins with the removal of the tram system in Adelaide in the 1950s, and the citizens’ sudden awareness of the sky, now cleared of webs of black cabling.

The image serves as one of hope and promise, felt at the time by many, with the coming of the car and the freeway. Going wherever you wanted, no longer stuck in these old cities, moving along these grooved lines, your life.

Central to that was the creation of a mass-produced Australian car, a suddenly affordable item, and that was the Holden.

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For a generation from the 1940s until around 1970, it was pretty much a Holden or nothing for millions of people. But it was also what being in a more self-sufficient society was like, one in which the car you drove had been made a short drive from where you got it.

(Time for the regular reminder that I may be the only one in the ensuing commentary who has actually built cars, spot-welding on the Toyota line at Fisherman’s Bend. Never, never buy an ’89 Camry.)

People who know about these things tell me that the Holden is a distinctively engineered and designed car, and that it had world export potential.

If that sounds silly, imagine telling Americans in the 1950s that in the 1970s millions would be starting off with a Volvo and upgrading to a Saab.

General Motors certainly thought that Holden was a threat, which was why they took it over, restricting Holden export markets to the bits GM didn’t want. You can find EJ enthusiasts across the Carribean, South America and parts of Africa.

So, the announcement that GM is to end the line entirely comes at a point long after its real existence ended. It’s like the moment when Arnott’s Biscuits was taken over. Who ever ate Arnott’s Biscuits enthusiastically at the time?

The brand lingered long after the biscuits had gone stale. Older people — very old now — tell me they used to taste a lot better, but also that everything tasted a lot better back in the day.

This appears to be the tenor of much of the commentary: ah well, world moves on, can’t be sentimental, fade to sepia photos framed and hung in old cafes.

The nostalgia is a distraction, of course, from the big story that people are beginning to put together.

That over the course of three decades or so this isolated continent-nation has given away vast productive resources — including virtually our entire national car plant — which constitute the means of modern life.

It has done so with the enthusiastic support of an elite of senior public-servants, economics academics, a section of the Labor Party right (and its left) and the command centre in News Limited (as was).

As Michael Pusey documented in his key book Economic Rationalism in Canberra, this was an epochal shift in rapid time, occurring across the 1970s and into the 1980s. It started in the universities where Keynsian economics was replaced as orthodoxy by neoliberal economics, which then supplied the new ranks of Treasury and other public service staff.

They were helped by the global economic collapse of the 1970s, and the defeat of the left within the Labor Party, as the possibility of a return to power loomed in the early 1980s.

Part of what was required to get that power — i.e. for News Limited to be at least even-handed in its coverage — was a renunciation by Labor of statist nation-building, and in particular of seeking capital outside of normal global markets. The “free”-market ideologues took over.

Thus, what began in the first Hawke government as some necessary reconstruction of a manufacturing base rendered sclerotic by interest-driven protection soon became an ideological mania, made all the more forceful because it was Labor wot was doing it.

To our great ill-fortune, that move coincided with the resources boom as China took off. So the second part of dismantling old industries — i.e. creating new ones — never occurred at scale.

We rejoiced in the freedom to chip off bits of the continent and float it north and use the payments, and then future payments, to pay for imports. Heck of a plan.

The demand would always be there, and as Boris Frankel ironically noted, “the boat would always come in”.

The final act was the Abbott/Hockey destruction of what remained of the car industry — and really “car industry” means industry; “car industry” is simply a nation’s core industrial plant — in a manner that, as regards the Hawke-Keating reconstruction, is like the short farce that followed the presentation of a tragedy in the old music hall.

In doing so, the Abbott-Hockey government did what right-wing governments have been doing since that of Stanley Bruce.

It defeated any drive to Australian self-reliance in order to weaken any forces — unions, communities, locally-owned sectors — that might provide a resistance and alternative to the total capitalist globalisation of everyday life.

In this they were helped by eager neoliberal ideologues — some now trying to work out where it all went wrong — a non-class left more interested in the cultural benefits of cosmopolitan globalisation, and Marxist-internationalists who damned any sort of localism as nationalist and reactionary.

Yeah, uh, how’s that working for y’all now in a world of facemasks and quarantine?

Didn’t really take much for the whole web of global “interdependence” — which is, in our case, dependence — to run aground short of the harbour did it? One disease of unknown virulence and it all comes apart pretty quickly.

As Phil Coorey’s Australian Financial Review story on medical supply chains makes clear, we’ve outsourced huge amounts of this to China (just as Brexit made clear to the British that they did not produce any of the essential drugs they needed), and if true emergency threatened for China, they would quite reasonably divert their industrial plant — which they built up, as we gave it away — to the needs of their own people.

So, yes, the killing-off of Holden as a brand and a line is more symbolic than real. But what a symbol it is.

Look up and the cities of Australia now fill with tram cabling once more, as people realise that vast systems of the most modular and scalable form of public transport were destroyed for no reason, and must now be rebuilt.

Eventually, sometime after we put the neoliberals and economic rationalists on trial — not for treason but for their fatal, superficial, smug, self-flattering reasoning — we will have to rebuild.

Under circumstances of greater difficulty than had we left it in place and developed it strategically, reflectively and case-by-case, on the basic principle that a society should produce the means of its own life.

And those which don’t quickly reach the end of the road. 

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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