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Tim O'Brien | Nov, 04 2011 | 6 Comments

It's a no-win for Holden.

When the Association of Professional Engineers, Scientists and Managers Australia (APESMA), the engineers union - in the middle, not coincidentally, of enterprise bargaining negotiations with GM - announced this week that it had been told the 2014 Holden Commodore will be the last one engineered in Australia, it put Holden in a confected and damaging media vice.

For Holden boss Mike Devereux, it leaves him fending off the classic loaded question: "Are you having discussions about the future of the Commodore?"

What can he say?

Answer "yes", and the 'jobs at risk' hue and cry will run up and down the country like a wildfire. Answer "no", and who will believe him? Because every company discusses its future and the future of its products.

So it doesn’t matter that Mr Devereux has denied the claims, and denied that a decision has been made, neither does it matter that Federal Innovation Minister Kim Carr also scotched suggestion that “the next model Commodore would be produced overseas” - the rabbit is out of the hat.

Of course Holden has had discussions about the future of Commodore. What's so unusual about that?

It’s a rough and tough market out there and only the best prepared, the most agile, and the most responsive to buyer needs, will survive. That involves the best forward planning, the best products and the canvassing of all options. Who would expect anything other?

But, in this tough Australian market, one thing is absolutely certain for Holden, it can do without a hollow beat-up.

Because it hurts the company, it damages confidence in the brand, and it hurts sales. Talk a company down too often, and the damage inflicted becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

So let's look at how one media outlet rolled out the story: we'll quote in full here from the Herald Sun online, the underlines are mine.

At 2:15pm, Thursday, it said:
(The) Association of Professional Engineers, Scientists and Managers chief Chris Walton said senior Holden staff were told the 2014 Commodore could be the last made in Australia.

"Mr Walton said the union, which represents engineers who design the Commodore, was told of the possible changes while negotiating a new pay deal.

“The members heard a rumour after someone from Detroit came out, and so we approached Holden and they advised us that it was highly likely the next Commodore, the 2014 model, will be the last Commodore engineered and designed in Australia,” he said.

“We believe the decision is imminent … we believe Detroit will be making this decision in the next few weeks, we also believe, we suspect they’re negotiating with the Australian government on taxpayer subsidies right now.”

For goodness sake; "could be", "possible", "heard a rumour", "highly likely". It's easy to find the beat-up, but the story, actual facts, are harder to find.

It leapt from this heresay, delivered to it by a party involved in an arm-wrestle with Holden, to aver in its opening, as some sort of statement of fact, that:

Hundreds of workers at Holden's Melbourne operations could be out of work after the company told senior staff it would stop making the iconic Commodore.

"Job losses could start early next year with up to 350 staff losing their jobs by mid-2013." (Herald Sun 2:15pm)

That’s one heck of a leap.

If there is any good to come of this for Holden, it may be that it will assist its cause in pushing the Federal Government to return to the commitment of the Rudd Labor Government’s Green Car Innovation Fund, since scrapped by the Gillard Government.

And yes, one day, the Commodore will come to the end of its run. Perhaps, as Australians downsize, the Cruze – or some other successor – will replace it as the number one model in GM Holden’s Australian operation.

Mr Devereux, meanwhile, might seek to ask those who have run with this story as some sort of "done deal" as to whether the damage the story inflicts to sales, confidence, to the brand and, ultimately, to jobs, is really worth the 20 or so column inches devoted to it.

Perhaps it might have been more productive to grill APESMA as to its motives in beating the drum with such a thin and damaging claim.

It’s getting easier to do, but, for their own curious reasons, the engineers’ union has played the media like bunnies.

Tim O'Brien
TMR Managing Editor

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