GM to close last Holden factory, ending over a century of car manufacturing in Australia

General Motors will close its Holden factory in the South Australian suburb of Elizabeth on Friday (Oct 20). PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY (BLOOMBERG) - As thousands of people attended an automobile rally in Australia's blue-collar heartland on Sunday, many knew it was also a funeral procession for the nation's car industry.

General Motors will close its Holden factory in the South Australian suburb of Elizabeth on Friday (Oct 20), ending more than a century of car manufacturing in the country.

Hundreds of workers will be left jobless, just weeks after Toyota Motor shut its plant in neighboring Victoria state, where Ford Motor closed two sites last year.

The closures mark the end of home-grown icons such as the Holden Commodore and the Ford Falcon driven by Mel Gibson in the original "Mad Max" movie. But they also strike an economic blow, especially in the rust belt state of South Australia, where recent signs of recovery haven't been enough to stop people leaving in droves.

"It is clear that the automobile industry is a very significant industry that once it is gone, will leave a very deep economic gap, an investment gap and an employment gap," said John Spoehr, a professor of economics and director of the Australian Industrial Transformation Institute at Flinders University in Adelaide. "Holden injects a billion dollars plus into the South Australia economy. So its loss is going to be very significant."

More than 25,000 people attended the weekend parade in Elizabeth, including Holden workers past and present, to watch around 1,200 vintage models take to the streets. The last car rolled off the production line today more than 50 years after the factory opened.

South Australia, which is 60 per cent desert, gained little benefit from the mining boom that spread wealth among other resource-rich states. Instead it suffered from the side effects of the soaring currency and rising wages. While its jobless rate has this year dropped from 7 per cent to 5.8 per cent, a record 6,900 more people departed the state than arrived last year.

The state has a "solid foundation from which to absorb this shock," South Australia Premier Jay Weatherill said in a television interview on Friday morning. "Of course it will put upward pressure on the unemployment rate, but I think it will be temporary, I think it will be manageable."

Victoria is better placed to absorb the shock of its closures. The state is booming, with net interstate migration soaring over the last five years to a record 18,000 arrivals in 2016 as workers moved for jobs and slightly cheaper homes than New South Wales, the most populous state.

"Victoria's economy is more diverse and has stronger business services and financial services sectors, and stronger population growth, which help mitigate impacts," said Spoehr. "The opportunities for workers in other sectors of manufacturing are more substantial too."

Still, the jobs market in Australia has been an economic bright spot of late. Despite losses from car manufacturing, more than 800,000 roles have been created since the first closure was announced four years ago. In the past 12 months, most new jobs have been in healthcare, construction and education.

Australia's car industry traces its roots to 1901, when land surveyor Harley Tarrant built the first petrol-driven car in a small workshop in Melbourne. By the end of the century, Holden's Commodore was the country's best-selling car and remained so until 2011. As well as the currency, there was fierce competition from low-cost labor in countries such as China and Thailand.

The pressures took their toll. Ford, Holden and Toyota said separately in 2013 and 2014 they would cease production Down Under. At that time, just over 11,000 people were employed directly by the three car makers in Australia, according to the Productivity Commission.

"If only Australia had held its nerve, the car industry might have just hung on, and taken advantage of new innovation in hybrids, driverless cars etc," said Tim Harcourt, an economist at The University of New South Wales Business School, who advised on a state-commissioned review of the car industry in 2008. "Australia failed. To hang out the car industry to dry is very sad."

Since the announcement of the closure of the Elizabeth plant, almost three quarters of departing workers have found roles, according to Holden, which has provided career counselling, interview training and other services. While many of the 950 workers who remain at the factory will wake up without a job on Saturday, it's not just them who will feel the pain.

"We are more concerned with workers of the supplier companies, and then the general ripple effect on the wider community as the economic activities slow down," said Peter Sandeman, chief executive officer of AnglicareSA, a Christian charity which helps South Australian communities.

Sandeman estimates another 2,500 jobs will be lost in the region from suppliers, and the effect will be palpable. Over the past year, his organization has seen an increasing demand in Elizabeth for emergency assistance, including groceries and meals, and he expects that to only rise further following the Holden plant's closure.

There are some brighter spots on the horizon. The government has announced an A$89 billion (S$94.9 billion) shipbuilding plan, which includes constructing 12 submarines mainly in South Australia and should generate thousands of jobs. But the key part of the programme isn't scheduled to start until the early 2020s.

"That's four or five years away," Scott Batchelor, South Australia vehicles secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers' Union, said in a telephone interview. "That's a long time between the auto industry closing-down and then people getting employed in shipbuilding."

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