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Holden disaster casts electoral shadows


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The devastating news of Holden’s closure in 2017 will transform the dynamics of the upcoming State election.

While it’s unlikely to save all of the marginal Labor seats under threat in Adelaide’s suburbs, it could at least buffer the party from the wider electoral wipeout that has been threatening.

It will also focus voters’ minds on something that has been mostly absent from political debate for too long – industry policy.

After the pain of the initial blow subsides, voters will ask both parties – what next?

So far neither has articulated a credible plan for economic growth, with Jay Weatherill pitching an old-fashioned Left concept of an economy forever propped up by government spending, and Steven Marshall offering little more than free-market platitudes about allowing businesses to flourish.

After yesterday’s blow, both approaches are wearing thin. Very thin.

In relation to Holden, Weatherill, while forever to be remembered as the Premier in power when the local auto industry died, has articulated a clear, if contestable, position – governments should do whatever it takes to ensure that Holden stays open.

Marshall’s message has been less trenchant (and less memorable for voters), his most common refrain being that “bipartisanship” is essential. That stance looks more and more ironic given events in Canberra over the past week in which the federal Liberals’ internal divisions over assistance for the car industry have been played out publicly.

The scenes in federal Parliament this week must have been astonishing to Holden’s harried workers, as well as the thousands of worried employees of the numerous businesses that rely on the car industry for survival. Not to mention Holden’s executives in Detroit.

The vision of Treasurer Joe Hockey and Acting Prime Minister Warren Truss berating Holden on the floor of Parliament – effectively goading GM to announce a decision – is potentially devastating fodder for Labor’s state campaign, in some seats at least.

And then there was Prime Minister Tony Abbott earlier, declaring there would be no more money for Holden – a move interpreted by more than a few observers as the final nail in Holden’s coffin.

State Labor and the unions will be banking footage of all three for the political battle ahead.

Labor’s heartland in the north is likely to solidify behind the party, with potential electoral spin-offs for MPs in adjacent seats, such as manufacturing minister Tom Kenyon in the marginal north-eastern suburban electorate of Newland.

Elsewhere, the political effects of the closure itself will be more diffuse: the community is clearly divided on ongoing taxpayer support for the auto industry.

There is a widespread view that auto industry subsidies have gone far enough – too far – and that it’s time for governments to focus on more sustainable industries.

There is also an argument that we survived Mitsubishi closing and we’ll get through this too, particularly with the four-year notice given by GM yesterday.

The emotional argument about the loss of a great Australian brand has also been losing power over past years, even in Holden’s SA heartland, as more and more motorists turn their loyalty to the affordable quality offered by Korean and Japanese brands.

These are commonly held views, so it doesn’t seem likely that the Holden issue – in isolation – will be enough to save Labor’s hide.

However, the events of this week do open up a bigger political opportunity for Weatherill.

With the comments from Hockey, Truss and Abbott on the public record, Weatherill will tell the community that South Australians can’t trust the Abbott Government to look after this relatively small state’s best interests (Hockey and Abbott are from NSW; Truss from Queensland – neither state has a particular interest in the car industry).

It’s an argument he will pitch relentlessly in the lead-up to the March election.

Just as importantly, Weatherill – for the first time in many months – has gained some moral high ground and some real passion. A rare moment for our mild-mannered Premier.

The dangers for the state Liberals are clear.

Marshall, so far, has played nice with his federal Liberal counterparts. But, along with the tired “small target” approach, this is a strategy he might be forced to rethink.

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