Holden – Australia’s “own car”?
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On Friday 20 October 2017 the last assembled General Motors Holden passenger car rolled off the production line, bringing to an end mass production of passenger cars in Australia. Sad times for the thousands of workers directly and indirectly affected by the destruction of a whole industry, not just the Holden plants in Australia. Sad times for many families who grew up in Australia where the jingle "Football, meat pies, kangaroos and Holden cars" did reflect an identifiable way of life with many working class people buying a Holden car in the knowledge it was made here.
The modern day version of the Holden, the Commodore, will continue to be in car yards in Australia but will be produced in General Motor's Opel plant in Germany. According to the Australian Financial Review reporter Simon Evans, General Motors "is attempting to blunt any consumer backlash against the Holden brand as it shuts down local car making after almost 70 years, with an unprecedented seven year warranty offered to entice new car buyers in a fiercely competitive market where 65 car brands jostle for sale."
General Motors is well aware that most people in Australia identify Holden and now Commodore as Australia's "own car", so how will these cars sell when fully imported from now on?
Chances are there will be a sales decline as it is also true that many people in Australia tolerated General Motors as long as there were still Holden cars made locally, but to what extent Holden was "Australia's own car" is only half the story.
Laurence Hartnett who was hired by General Motors from the UK to lead the company's manufacturing in Australia from the late 1940s wrote in his book Big Wheels and Little Wheels in 1964: "Australian money given readily by the Chifley Government as a most generous long term loan, enabled Holden to come in to production. So there is no question that the Australian people have a genuine financial interest in the Holden."
"Australian money started it, Australian money has made its profits."
The long term loan from the Chifley Government was 2.5 million pounds in 1944, a significant amount of money. It was this money that was the pre-condition for General Motors Holden (a company formed by the take-over of Holden Motor Body Builders by General Motors in 1931) agreeing to manufacture passenger cars from 1948 with the first Holden.
However the long term loan from the Australian Chifley Government was not the only pre-condition for the manufacturing of Holden passenger cars in Australia.
General Motors also demanded the following from the Australian Government
* The Government shall not itself engage in car manufacture. (In 1941 the Government had agreed with Australian Consolidated Industries to set up a 1 million pound company to manufacture motor engines and chassis in Australia with import control of engines and chassis - a direct threat to General Motors)
* No restriction on the type of vehicles General Motors Holden would make
*The Government to give General Motors first refusal on the purchase or lease of items of government-owned equipment installed in General Motors Holden plants during the war years by tax payers’ money
* Importation, free of duty and sales tax of machinery, equipment, tools unobtainable locally. Foreign exchange for this to be provided by the Government
*Travel to and from Australia by personnel required by General Motors in Australia, transport for equipment and development material from overseas to Australia to be given "suitable government priorities, and the allocation of foreign exchange for these purposes to be guaranteed" (from The Golden Holden by Arrowsmith and Zangalis 1965)
* The Government to drop its planned 10% tax on profits exported to the parent company General Motors in the USA.
General Motors got what they wanted not surprisingly from the Government.
Another significant point in the journey of Australia's "own car" was in December 1959. General Motors registered a US-owned company in Australia called General Motors (Aust) Pty Ltd, designed to buy out all Australian shareholders in General Motors Holden Ltd, the company formed in 1931. Under the Menzies Government, General Motors succeeded in doing so.
Laurence Hartnett said in his book Big Wheels and Little Wheels,"For General Motors to have acquired those shares was a harsh ungrateful act. And the Australian Government allowed it to happen. No other country in the world would have allowed a situation like that to develop".
From that point on, in terms of Holden being Australia's "own car", the destiny of the General Motors 100% owned car plants in Australia and all the thousands of jobs of Australian workers both direct and indirect relied totally on the decisions made by General Motors’ US owners.
Since General Motors in Australia announced the closure of manufacturing in Australia, the two main parliamentary parties, Labor and Liberal, have blamed each other for the closure. However both parties from early on in the life of General Motors Holden and indeed other multinational car manufacturers have implemented policies which fitted in nicely with the global plans of these same multinationals.
From the Chifley loan in 1944 to the Button plan of the 1980s, to the neoliberal policies of governments into the 21st Century, both Labor and Liberal have danced to the multinational car makers' various tunes.
Bill Shorten's latest announcement of a $1 billion Manufacturing Future Fund for car component companies to "retool and diversify" will leave the decision making and ownership of manufacturing in Australia in the hands of the corporations in receipt of the Future Fund, with history repeating itself.
As one young Flinders University graduate said recently at a forum on the Industrialisation and De-Industrialisation of South Australia: "These latest announcements (by Shorten) are really part of a 'small bar culture' and attempting neoliberalism with a human face."
October 20 2017 falls just short of the anniversary of the Russian Revolution which led to the working class, not huge privately-owned corporations, determining the economic future of their country.
That is the path of self-reliance that Australian workers will follow in ways appropriate to Australian conditions.
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