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GM puts brake on producing Oz mobiles

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BRISBANE -- Australia no longer makes tires or electric motors, and soon, after an explosive announcement Wednesday night, motor cars.

The news that Australia will close down its Holden factory was a bombshell that exploded far beyond the business pages, penetrating deep into a national consciousness that views the Holden as a national emblem, like Vegemite and a Hills Hoist clothesline.

That such obscure consumer items mean little to the Canadian reader in no way detracts from the reality that Australia's manufacturing sector, much like Canada's, has been in a sharp decline for decades.

Much like the celebrated frog in that slowing warming pot of water, many ordinary Australians were largely unaware we didn't make things anymore until the Holden announcement.

That the Holden belongs here is not a matter for debate. A popular advertisement affirmed as much in the 1970s with the irritating jingle "we love football, meat pies, kangaroos and Holden cars.''

Australians beyond a certain age (all right, around 70) can actually use this car to notch-mark their journey through life.

The FX came out in 1948, representing the new world of optimism following the Second World War while the EH in the early 1960s represented a slick modernity and the looming technological age.

That was soon eclipsed by the HQ, which ushered in the sexual liberation of the 1970s with powerful muscle cars and the potency of the Sandman Panel Van -- a nightclub on wheels complete with lurid artwork and a mattress in the back not intended for gentle repose.

That Holden was an offshoot of GM, as Ford was also a Down Under version of Henry's Model T American dream, was of small matter to Australians.

These cars (the Fords included) were built here and tailored to a wide brown land where a family might think nothing of travelling 1,000 kilometres in one day to start their annual vacation.

Now, all seems lost. As Holden's U.S. bosses announce Australia's two plants will close down in just four years, Toyota remains the only car company committed to making cars in Australia.

Ford has already pulled the pin -- it won't create cars in Australia after 2016 while Nissan and Mitsubishi walked away a long time ago.

And Toyota has already fired off a warning the loss of the Holden plants will dry up supply chains and compromise the company's ability to build cars Down Under.

"This is beyond politics,'' was the strangled the cry in Canberra as politicians played blatant politics in a savage debate Wednesday that saw around half a dozen MPs thrown out of the lower house.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten accused newly installed Conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott of sabotaging Holden by refusing to continue to prop it up with taxpayer money.

The Australian Manufacturing Workers Union estimated the closure will mean 50,000 job losses and a $21-billion hit to an economy already staggering under the downturn in the resources sector.

Even the share market stopped wagging its tale as it turned south Thursday, with the prospect of a Santa rally fading.

Many economists remain in a state of serene calm, pointing to that invisible hand first noted by the sage Adam Smith who insisted the free market will take care of our needs.

Australia has done more than most to rid itself of the perceived evils of tariff protection, and the promised land outlined by Smith in the Wealth of Nations might yet be our inheritance.

But another great philosopher, Frank Zappa, once noted a country can't really be a country unless it has a beer and an airline.

Frank might well have added a car.

A homegrown set of wheels provides a solid grounding in national identity, even if that identity stems from nothing more than a clever exercise in advertising and marketing.

Tony Abbott, just three months into his tenure, has a serious political problem on his hands.


Michael Madigan is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in Australia. He writes mostly about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 13, 2013 A13

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