But when I got there, the job was very different. Instead of launching new cars, I was thrown in at the deep end into a sea of government lobbying and political posturing. Australia was in the middle of a general election campaign and the domestic car industry was being thrown around like a tampered-with cricket ball.
GM had recently asked the Australian government for AUD 250 million of support (at the time, that was about £180 million), and the country’s Murdoch-dominated press had labelled it as a ‘bail-out’, a copycat of the car industry support package offered by the US government after the 2009 financial crash.
It wasn’t, of course. That little episode cost the US $38 billion. Holden’s ‘demand’ was for co-investment to help develop the antiquated factory in Elizabeth, South Australia, to bring it up to the standards of a modern car plant.
By contrast, it was less than a third of the money that BMW had received from the US government to build a factory in South Carolina, but Australia is a small country in a large land mass, and its citizens and media struggled to grasp the concept of global companies using government cash to bring manufacturing to their shores.
Australia’s ‘big three’ – Holden, Ford and Toyota – were battling against huge manufacturing costs led by a strong currency. Australia’s mineral reserves were making the nation wealthy but also a difficult place for foreign companies to invest. And despite the efforts of those of us in corporate affairs (we actually worked closely with Ford and Toyota on policy), there was no way of getting the Aussie media to understand that governments and car makers did this all over the world.
Soon after Ford, Toyota announced it would cease manufacturing at its Altona plant in Melbourne, leaving Holden as the sole Australian manufacturer, building the Cruze and Commodore at Elizabeth on the outskirts of Adelaide and V6 engines for domestic and global use at Fisherman’s Bend in Victoria.
Julia Gillard – the prime minister and a supporter of the co-investment plan – was ousted from parliament, and with her Labour government went Holden’s last hope. Her successor, Tony Abbott, withdrew any level of support and by 2017 the production line at Elizabeth had ground to a halt.
Holden was Australia’s national car company. It was bigger to Australians than MG Rover or Vauxhall ever were to us Brits and for years its cars were the best-selling models in a country that was fiercely patriotic. But as patriotism diluted and import tariffs were dropped, Japanese cars in particular became popular.
When I left Australia, the top two sellers were the Mazda 3 and the Toyota Corolla. The new VF Commodore, which was a genuinely brilliant car, could muster only fourth place in the sales charts, and 80,000 cars per year wasn’t enough to keep a factory in business, or indeed a brand. Holden, too, was tarnished.
Its reputation for big cars and utes gave it a ‘bogan’ image – an Australian slang term that means something between hillbilly and chav. The Bathurst 1000 saloon car race and a range of branded singlets worn by baseball cap-toting beach bums hardly screamed sophistication, and Holden had no place left in a cosmopolitan Australian society.
Its demise will cause anger and outrage, but it’s hardly a surprise.
Craig Cheetham (director of external communications for GM Holden, 2012-2013)