End of Australia auto-making sector as Holden closes doors

Sydney: The last car rolled off the production line of Australian automaker Holden on Friday, marking the demise of a national industry unable to stand up to global competition.

The closure of the Elizabeth plant in South Australia is the end of an era for Holden, which first started in the state as a saddlery business in 1856 and made the nation’s first mass-produced car in 1948.

The brand has long been an Australian household name, with 1970s commercials singing that “football, meat pies, kangaroos and Holden cars” were part of the nation’s identity.

“I feel very sad, as we all do, for it’s the end of an era, and you can’t get away from the emotional response to the closure,” Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told Melbourne radio station 3AW on Friday.

Holden was marketed as “Australia’s Own Car” and became a symbol of post-war prosperity Down Under despite being a subsidiary of US giant General Motors.

At its peak in 1964, Holden employed almost 24,000 staff. But just 950 were able to watch the final car leave the factory floor Friday.

“There are a number of people who have been here since the seventies and today will be a very emotional day for some people and a very sad day,” Australian Manufacturing Workers Union state secretary John Camillo told reporters.

The union blamed the federal government for causing the closure by withdrawing support to the auto sector.

The death of the industry was always on the cards after subsidies were cut off in 2014. Some Aus$30 billion (US$24 billion) in assistance was handed out between 1997 and 2012, according to the government’s Productivity Commission.

‘Obviously very sad’

The nation’s three car manufacturers — Toyota, Ford and Holden — all announced they would cease production by the end of this year. The last Australian-made Ford car was rolled out a year ago, while Toyota closed its factory in Melbourne earlier this month.

Among their reasons was the small size of the domestic market and competition from lower-cost manufacturing sites in Asia.

“It’s obviously very sad if you are an auto worker, but for the Australian economy it doesn’t mean a lot,” National Australia Bank chief economist Alan Oster told AFP.

“The economy is very strong at present in the services area. If you go back into the seventies, (manufacturing) was 25 percent of the labour force and roughly the same numbers in terms of GDP.

“Today’s it’s about seven percent and slightly less in terms of employment. It’s a process that’s been going on for a long time.”

Some 2,900 jobs have been shed by Holden over the past few years ahead of the plant’s closure. The firm said Friday it would retain 350 designers and engineers and some 700 corporate staff.

Holden cars are now expected to be imported into Australia from countries such as Thailand and South Korea.

IBISWorld senior industry analyst James Thomson said the exit of Holden and Toyota would hurt other companies along the supply chain, with some motor vehicle parts and components manufacturers “expected to become unviable”.