Holden is now a symbol of an increasingly precarious economy for workers

Royce Kurmelovs
Photograph: Kelly Barnes/EPA

The late afternoon sun had begun to turn golden as the camera crews on the lawn of the Holden factory at Elizabeth, South Australia packed away their equipment. Three years of waiting had culminated in an Irish wake on 20 October 2017 with a phalanx of reporters on hand to record the local colour for the evening news.

The narrative was straight forward that day: a cornerstone of the Australian identity had been shaken. Local production was closing down, the Holden workforce was being serenaded by Jimmy Barnes at Adelaide Oval and an impromptu car show had taken place in front of the factory by hundreds who had come to salute the workers. The mood had been solemn but upbeat.

The very next Monday, about 60 members of the former workforce would be brought back in labour-hire company uniform to help pull apart the machines. A little over two years on, what people said then was the end of one story would begin its next chapter when General Motors put a fatal bullet in the old lion, ending the Holden brand for good.

Related: Angry Scott Morrison accuses GM of letting Holden 'wither away' after taking $2bn in subsidies

For a nation which had switched off since the closure, the decision might seemed to have come out of nowhere. The Commodore was the Australian car. It represented hope, independence and freedom to generations of migrants and working class families from the Ten Pound Poms on, who had been promised a life of hard work would see them through.

The old car advert – the one singing about meat pies, kangaroos and Holden cars – might have been ripped from an American television commercial but hearing it again still tugged at the heart strings.

If an Australia without the Holden was once unthinkable, keen-eyed observers picked the end years out. Once the emotional connection was severed with the end of local manufacturing, the biggest deregulated car market in the world offered seemingly endless choice. An Australian national icon assembled in Germany and imported by an American multinational which closely guarded its intellectual property simply had no commercial value.

Sales soon dropped.

The long arc of that decline made the decision by an anonymous boardroom somewhere in Detroit to end the iconic brand into a mercy killing. The bigger shock would come when the federal government complained it had not been consulted before the announcement.

Memories may be short in politics, but it is hard to forget how former federal treasurer Joe Hockey set events in motion when he dared General Motors to leave from the floor of Parliament.

Who could have known how that would end?

Now another 600 Holden workers will follow thousands of automotive workers who stepped bravely into an increasingly precarious job market, with the company said to pay up to $1bn in redundancy payouts.

What future they will find remains an open question. In November last year, the AMWU released the findings of a small survey of former car workers. Though 80% reported finding other work a year out from the closure, their new jobs were part-time, casual, and on contract – all different ways of saying “precarious”.

An interim federal government survey would similarly find car workers were now working harder, longer and for less pay than they did before, though it tried to put a happy spin on the story.

Its breakdown on non-standard work found 39% of workers at the major car makers were now precariously employed, while the same was true for 49% of those in the supply chain.

Though the government has promised to release the full report, it has yet to do so.

If Holden truly is a symbol, than the decision to throw the makers out of work may instead be read as a metaphor for an economy now increasingly reliant on mines and mortgages.

Some of this background explains how Australia is about as complex as Senegal and Pakistan. Since 1995, Australia fell from 57th out of 133 listed economies to 93rd in 2017.

The implications are profound. The lack of skills and basic infrastructure makes it harder to transition to zero carbon economy while at the individual level it means a new kind of fragility.

As the social security system has been shredded and the numbers of those in full-time work has hit historic lows, those looking for a little upward social momentum are swallowed by a yawning wealth gap.

If Holden was a national icon in the good times, it remains so in the bad. As the rolling, growling embodiment of the national promise, losing the car for good might now mean we are forced to confront the reality of Australia’s new American dream.

  • Royce Kurmelovs is a freelance journalist and author of The Death of Holden