The Death of Holden

As General Motors kills off its Holden brand, I bust the myth about its dubious Australian identity and lament for a local electric car industry that never was.

The Death of Holden

I've never been a car person. Car culture is an incubator of toxic masculinity, at least where I grew up. As a nerdy, bookish immigrant, Holden represented everything about Australian culture I despised as a Welsh teen who didn't fit the narrow definitions of Australian masculinity. So, when news broke today that American giant General Motors was retiring their Holden brand, I wasn't exactly sad.

Today, a lot of middle-aged white Australian men are rather pissed off, from PM Scott Morrison down to bogans on twitter pining for their daddy's Kingswood. Unsurprisingly there's even conspiracy theories emerging, bizarrely blaming Rupert Murdoch for the decline of Australia's manufacturing at the behest of a shadowy group of international lobbyists.


Calling Holden an Australian icon is questionable at best, and rather laughable if you know your history. The company was bought out by General Motors way back in 1931, and by the end of the 1970s it had stopped designing cards here in Australia. From the late 70s, everything that rolled off the local assembly line was a rebadged model from GM's global fleet. Even the much loved Commodore was merely a German Opel Commodore tweaked for Australian conditions.

For decades, successive Australian Governments have propped up the local car industry with tax breaks and subsidies. Yet, one-by-one -- Toyota, Ford, Mitsubishi, General Motors -- they've all pulled out. The reason is painfully simple: sales of locally made cars began a terminal decline from the 1990s. The cause is equally obvious, at least in hindsight -- they didn't adapt to change.

40 years ago when Holden was king, Aussies loved gas-guzzling V6 and V8 monsters. Back then petrol was cheap, families were big, our cities were small, and our houses large. Then came the 80s and 90s when recession hit, tariffs were lowered, and the first Gulf War ended the era of cheap oil. Australia's demographics too was changing. Family sizes were shrinking, yet immigration and population centralisation were making our cities (especially Melbourne and Sydney) grow at rates that far outpaced our ability to expand our infrastructure, resulting a rapid and sustained high-density shift.

Taken as a whole, markets did what markets do, and consumers changed their habits rapidly. Local manufacturers couldn't complete with the influx of affordable, and quite frankly better made imports. Holden didn't make anything that people wanted as their needs and preferences change. They had nothing compelling in the small car space, while families abandoned sedans and station wagons in droves for SUVs made by Toyota, Ford and Honda.

Holden's strategy however, wasn't to adapt and make cars people actually wanted, but rather to put their hand out for government money. Governments on both sides complied for years, desperate to prop up the unsustainable industry and voters' jobs that hung in the balance. Some even justified the handouts according to the belief that Australia needed heavy industry in case of a war. As an aside, the Government hoped to transition the failing car industry into weapons manufacturers, hoping to turn Australia into one of the top-ten arms supplies in the world, however that's not exactly working out as planned.

Handouts and subsidies only papered over the problem, and in Holden's case, sales continued to plummet. GM's decision was inevitable -- an 'inescapable reality', according to Holden's acting general manager, Kristian Aquilina. General Motors faces problems in its own backyard, and has decided to pivot the company around electric and autonomous vehicles.

Alas, the Australian Government is openly hostile to electric vehicles, and they're not exactly enthusiastic about autonomous vehicles either. Given our toxic political environment, is it surprising that GM and similarly minded car companies have fled to greener pastures?

The failure isn't GM's, it's ours. Our elected parliamentarians in the Commonwealth Government's have spent the last 12 years knifing each other in the back over energy, carbon and climate change policies. A decade's inaction on energy and climate, has created no end of uncertainty in the private sector. This has crippled investment in green start ups, and in major unstructured projects alike.

The lack of long-term thinking here has always astounded me. Australia was primed to be a leader in electric vehicles design and manufacture -- after all we've no shortage of lithium, iron, aluminium and rare earth minerals. Our universities pump out thousands of talented engineers and designers. We had manufacturing facilities in place. All that was needed was investment.

And yet, investment wasn't forthcoming from the private sector (as noted above) or the governement. For ideological reasons, Australian's Commonwealth government, ruled by the climate-change denying Liberal National Coalition is happy to pour billions of taxpayer dollars into coal, and petroleum based cars. Meanwhile renewable energy and electric cars are publicly scorned as an affront to Australian values by the very arseholes in Canberra now lamenting the loss of brand that was only fleetingly Australian.

So, I'm not sad to see Holden become a footnote of history. While I feel sorry those who've lost their jobs, I'm far more angry at the wasted opportunity, a criminal squandering of our potential as a country. And for what? The ideological nonsense of a government that cares more about coal and military exports than it does about tackling climate change and creating a new manufacturing sector built on renewable energy in the post-carbon economy.