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Richardson: SA's Punch-drunk love was doomed from the start

Opinion

#Jay4USA is about more than a Detroit post-mortem, but it was never genuinely about a Holden revival, argues Tom Richardson.

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Jay Weatherill is in the USA, talking to the mandarins of reformed rust-bucket states about vibrancy and innovation and a few other superlatives.

He’ll talk to companies investing in emerging technologies, and curators of cultural festivals that entice internationally-recognised artists – who don’t go home bitching about the experience.

That’s the upbeat, forward-looking part of the trip.

Then there’s the bit where he visits Detroit.

That might be a less convivial conversation.

The sort of conversation one might have with an unhelpful undertaker when you’re trying to lock down funeral arrangements for a close relative.

A conversation shrouded in frustration and loss.

In this case, the close relative’s demise was long drawn out and painful, and while it was expensive to keep them alive for as long as we did, we were still apparently content to do so because, well, that’s what you do for close relatives isn’t it?

And a decent send-off is really the last, best thing to do for them.

Which is pretty much what Weatherill will be talking to GM about.

Or at least, it was when the meeting was originally slated.

Until Weatherill decided it should also become a meeting to get straight answers from GM about that other late-lamented entity – a plan by Belgian tycoon Guido Dumarey that would see his company Punch Corp take over Holden’s Elizabeth operation and keep making Holdens there.

You can see why that appealed to a lot of people in SA.

“Wow, someone wants to make everything just like it was before – let’s do it!”

Except that it was never going to happen. It was about as likely as Eddie McGuire’s new stadium.

The Government always knew that, but saying as much publicly in the current environment would be akin to saying: “Sure, it would be great to build all the boats and subs in Adelaide, but the most important thing is that the nation gets the best product at the most cost-effective price, isn’t it?”

In other words, political suicide.

As important as it is, Weatherill’s pilgrimage to Detroit was only ever going to be a negotiation over burial rites.

So Weatherill and his gang politely played along, holding court with the mysterious Belgian tycoon and nodding politely as he articulated his vision.

In public, #Jay4USA was lukewarm at best, to the point of being targeted by the Opposition for failing to display the requisite enthusiasm for the plan to save Holden by a guy most of us had never heard of before.

“Before we start giving people some false hope about what may be happening to the Adelaide plant, we first need to get some clarity around some of these issues,” Weatherill quietly suggested.

And then he did something very un-Weatherill-like.

He got his timing wrong.

He promoted his US trip, surely long-scheduled to discuss the Holden wind-down and take in a raft of other meetings besides, as a sit-down to gauge GM’s receptivity to the Dumarey plan.

“Obviously material to this idea from Punch Group is GM granting access to the site,” he told InDaily.

“Punch Group can’t take the next step unless GM is on side, so we’re doing everything we can to encourage them to do that… we’ll speak to the key decision-makers there.”

But that’s the thing about those key decision-makers at GM: whenever Australian governments start pressing them to make decisions, they tend to decide pretty quickly – and rarely in Australia’s favour.

And so it was that a mere three days after Weatherill promoted his US venture as a Dumarey Dash, GM dashed his hopes with a statement concluding “that a viable business model was not possible for this case”.

And while that was unsurprising, it was still pretty annoying for the Premier, given he’d finally started to shift his rhetoric from ‘cautious’ to ‘cautiously optimistic’.

Which was a shame.

It’s too easy to make political mileage in SA out of the audacity of doomed hope.

Adelaideans cherish their icons – and Holden was certainly one – which is why their downfall tends to prompt such collective self-flagellation.

Realising that GMH was running a business model that just didn’t fit in SA is a bit like realising there are better iced coffees these days than Farmers’ Union or that our internationally renowned Fringe Festival might actually be widely considered a bit crap.

So the hope that Dumarey sold was enticing: we could still make those cars that bore the name that South Australia has revered ever since 1856, when a saddlery called J.A. Holden & Co first opened in Adelaide.

But it was a false hope.

It was a vision still predicated on vast public subsidies, and still only likely a stay of execution for a decade or so.

Time enough, perhaps, for an orderly transition. But we have had time enough now for an orderly transition for the past several years, since well before Mitsubishi closed – and the state’s and nation’s politicians and public have wilfully refused to accept the inevitability of what we are now seeing.

Weatherill was correct to cool expectations on a Holden revival. His one failure was to briefly bow to the prevailing political breeze.

The genuine fortitude will not be in selling false hope, but in accepting Holden’s fate, fighting for every possible concession from its parent company and steeling South Australia for a protracted but necessary transition.

As important as it is, Weatherill’s pilgrimage to Detroit was only ever going to be a negotiation over burial rites.

The rest of his trip – the part that doesn’t attract headlines – is where South Australia’s true hope lies.

Tom Richardson is a senior journalist with InDaily. His political column is published on Fridays.

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