Top model … the 1969 Monaro GTS. Photo: National Archives of Australia A1200, L81537 Holden Royale … Queen Elizabeth II at the Holden plant in 1963. Photo: GM Holden Ltd
It’s moving. You know it’s meant to, but the line in the general assembly area at General Motors Holden in Elizabeth, South Australia, still looks faintly disorienting. Today’s “takt time” – the period it takes a car body length to pass a set point – is 57 seconds. You wonder how anyone could keep up, but they do.
The machinery provides the initial spectacle, such as the IP robot that slips bulky dashboard assemblies through windscreen spaces with the sleight of a sinuous arm. But it’s the people who are transfixing – their concentration, dexterity and agility, physical and mental. General assembly puts together no fewer than 45 different models, and no two consecutive vehicles on the production line are alike. As each gleaming shell looms the operator must identify it – yellow Cruze notchback, red Commodore VF sedan, black Calais, white wagon, blue ute, long wheelbase, short wheelbase, front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive – and have the requisite bits of metal, plastic, wiring or harness ready for installation inside a minute.
Watch a while and it becomes exciting. Will they get it done? They never fail. It’s even beautiful, in the physical precision and kinaesthetic awareness on display. “On production you learn skills you never thought you had,” says Lucinda Gregory, a petite 33-year-old mother of two with 15 years at Holden, of her intricate choreography. “Using two hands at once; doing this while you’re doing something else over here … Each job has a flow. You start one job, and you flow to the next. There’s no point zig-zagging all over the car, so you have to get a nice flow going.”
“You can go into a blind spot underneath the dash and put a nut on a stud just by feel,” says quality checker Tony Poole. “Your arm automatically goes there. It’s just … incredible.” He still gets a thrill from observing skilled colleagues. “I was watching an operator putting in side-rail airbags and he wasn’t even looking!” he says. “Y’know, in – click-click-click.” He laughs gustily: “Lad’s been doing that job for a while!” Poole, a father of three, has been at Holden 26 years; he would like, he says, to stay another 26.
Until 2039? For the automotive industry’s detractors, Poole, Gregory and more than 2000 others at Holden’s remaining vehicle assembly plant in Australia cannot be gone quickly enough. To them, the industry, despite still employing almost 50,000 people and turning over almost $50 billion, embodies an old Australia and has become a luxury that a country with a small population can no longer afford.
Locally produced passenger motor vehicles now represent a fraction of a market they dominated before the phased reduction of tariffs began in the 1980s. To continue, American-owned Holden and Ford, and Japan’s Toyota, have needed billions of dollars of state support, through a $5.4 billion Automotive Transformation Scheme from 2008 to 2020, plus a range of project-specific grants – what critics call “handouts” and defenders call “co-investment”.
The car makers argue that for that outlay, they create many times as much economic activity: sales, wages, taxes, expenditure on materials, research and development. Nonetheless, when Ford in May foreshadowed closure three years hence, it reopened a debate about an industry through which money can appear to flow like water through a bucket with a big hole. Pressured to respond, Julia Gillard, the prime minister at that time, was hesitant. “I think supporting the car industry is important for our nation’s future,” said Gillard, the “I think” diluting it from confident assertion to bland opinion. It was hardly a resounding riposte to shadow treasurer Joe Hockey’s lambasting of the “waste of taxpayers’ money” involved in industry assistance.
Strangely, nobody seems bothered by the stupendous subsidies our giant mining companies, domestic banking oligopoly and private healthcare industry enjoy; nor by the fact that high levels of state support for local car industries are often uncontroversial overseas.
Not long ago, ironically, the industry was regarded as a shining light. While imports’ share of the market grew from 15 per cent in 1985 to 60 per cent in 2000 as tariffs were wound back, vehicle and component exports grew tenfold in the same period. Optimism abounded. Greg Combet, then secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, gushed in the Canberra Times that the car industry “should rightly be regarded as Australia’s biggest manufacturing success story”. Quite. Forced to compete, Australian cars have never been of higher quality. The problem has been quantity.
In the first half of the noughties, local vehicle production surged. In 2005, when Holden was employing 5600 people in Elizabeth and making 900 cars a day across three shifts, it exported more than 60,000 sedans, utes and coupes in right- or left-hand-drive configurations to five continents. But despite growing local car sales, Australian production began trending in the opposite direction. Last year, Holden, Toyota and Ford sold just 224,000 vehicles, and only 139,000 domestically – 12.6 per cent of the total number of vehicles sold in Australia. They have survived this downturn with the help of government support and by self-administered austerities. Holden at Elizabeth, down to a single shift in general assembly and now making only 400 cars a day, is in the process of finalising 400 voluntary redundancies, and next month will ask workers to vote to cut their own wages.
What happened? Traditionally, the Australian vehicle market has been dominated by powerful, rear-wheel-drive “family cars”, particularly the Holden Commodore and Ford Falcon, the type of vehicle that offers slightly better profit margins and longer production runs.
Over the last decade, however, the market has not so much shifted as fissured, moving in several directions simultaneously, with the growth markets being smaller cars with lower fuel consumption, luxury European marques, and sports utility vehicles. Australian consumers are demanding cars that are bigger, smaller, fancier, simpler, thirstier and more abstemious than local manufacturers provide. Why? Because they can. The lowering of tariffs has, as prophesised, been a boon for buyers, especially since the managed plunges of the greenback and yen slashed prices.
As a result, Australians now buy as many cars imported from South Korea as they do cars made here; they buy twice as many from Thailand, four times as many from Japan. More than 60 car brands and 360 models are on sale here – more than in Japan and China; more, even, than in the US, a market nearly 15 times the size of Australia’s.
What this means is that nobody sells much of anything: no SUV sold more than 20,000 last year, while 2012’s highest-selling car enjoyed half the sales of 2002’s highest-selling car. Those numbers are fine for importers, but local manufacturers have been stretched every which way, producing ever more varieties in ever diminishing volumes at ever falling prices. Worse, the strength of the Australian dollar has largely excluded them from the export markets they cultivated: Holden sold just 14,100 cars abroad last year, and Elizabeth has felt the pinch.
It might now be fraying at the edges, but Elizabeth was Australia’s first “new town”, built in the 1950s with implicit support from the state government to perpetuate South Australia’s lower living costs and provide the state with an industrial bedrock. Finding that the residents of Adelaide were reluctant to travel 30 kilometres north to work in Elizabeth, premier Thomas Playford laid out a welcome mat for Holden, offering cheap land and infrastructure support in the town’s south.
New British arrivals came in the tens of thousands (Elizabeth’s most famous son, Glasgow-born singer Jimmy Barnes, claims that he did not hear an Australian accent until he was 11 years old). Perhaps the biggest day in the town’s history was the 1963 visit of the Queen, who came to the Holden plant and waved to employees from a specially built verandah.
The area’s vestigial Britishness has faded; so has the industry. Today, unemployment in the City of Playford, of which Elizabeth is part, is 14 per cent, youth unemployment 44 per cent, and localities such as Davoren Park bear the blights associated with joblessness: derelict shopping marts, shuttered community facilities, drive-through bottle-ohs with security guards, and graffiti tags, of which the council removed a record 180,000 last financial year.
Yet range farther afield, for Playford spreads its 80,000 inhabitants over 346 square kilometres, and the picture changes. An affordable housing project, Playford Alive, has attractively regenerated Smithfield Plains. A Lend Lease development, Blakes Crossing, offers “stylish village living”. Far from shrinking, Playford is officially “the fastest-growing council in South Australia”, its population forecast to grow 70 per cent by 2026. Which causes you to wonder: where will these new arrivals work?
Probably not at Holden. Because it has recently been contracting rather than expanding, it has taken only eight of the 500 apprentices placed by the impressive local technical college, St Patrick’s, in the last five years. “We certainly get the sense that there’s no point engaging with Holden,” says principal Rod Thomas, “because there’s no guarantee that a young person will be able to finish an apprenticeship there.” Nonetheless, Thomas feels, the company’s leaving would devastate the city: “Holden is the glue of this community.”
That feeling envelopes new arrivals as they circle the “Holden Bulldogs roundabout” on entering town. Holden has sponsored the dearly loved Central District Bulldogs Australian rules club since 1989, and the club’s veteran chief executive Kris Grant supports them right back: “I’ve never driven anything else my whole life. I don’t think there is a better car for Australia.” He’d rather not contemplate their closure: “We have a membership of 2500, and I’d venture to say that 50 per cent work at Holden, with another high percentage in associated industries. So it all filters down, because people’s spend here is relative to how things are going there. If Holden disappeared, it would be pretty difficult for us to carry on.” Among the jokey fines the players levy among themselves is a $5 penalty for being seen in proximity to a Ford.
Above all, perhaps, Holden has traditionally defined “work” in Elizabeth. Economists like talking about Australia’s “inevitable transition to a services-based economy”. Tourism. Hospitality. Education. Health. Aged care. At his triumphalist best, Paul Keating once dismissed the employment cost of restructuring secondary industries: “People have found better jobs. I mean, did we ever hurt anybody liberating them from the car assembly line?”
But nobody here craves such “liberation”. When Holden offered redundancy packages in April, senior technical officer Steve Brecht did consider ending his 25-year career: “I went through moments of sheer clarity. ‘Yes, I’m going to go, and take control of my future.’ But five minutes later it would be, ‘Why would I want to leave this place?’ Because despite everything that’s going on, I love it. Outside of the people here, none of my friends have worked in the same place for more than 25 years. Most of them have been through multiple jobs, some of them dozens.”
Brecht wonders aloud what could ever replace his existing job satisfaction: “I read a local report about an aged-care facility saying: ‘Oh, we’d be looking to take on Holden workers.’ Really? Because I can’t see myself wiping some 90-year-old dude’s butt in the middle of the night for a job. No disrespect to him, or the person who might do that job, but I don’t want to be that person; I don’t look on that as a great way to earn a living.”
Brecht says this advisedly: his own grandfather is 96. But the thing is, his grandfather also worked at Holden, as did his father and his brother. Between them, they have invested almost 100 years in the company. And they’re not unusual. Critics who deem automotive manufacturing an “industry of the past” are in one respect correct: institutional loyalty and identification run deep.
The average Holden career lasts 16.8 years; the average Toyota career lasts 12.8. Employees commonly wear Holden shirts and jumpers casually, even after retirement, and Lucinda Gregory describes “the nod” that workers exchange at the sight of one another, which in her case is especially meaningful, as she married another general assembly worker, a so-called line chaser, who supplies operators with the components they need.
It can be tough work – confronting, wearying. “Toyota are putting people on at the moment, and they’re lasting half a day, maybe a few hours,” says Dave Smith, national secretary of the vehicles division of the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union. “Most people think you just sit there and bolt things on. You have to understand the production systems, the quality regime. People come and either leave very quickly, or stay a long, long time. Because it’s difficult.”
But difficult is also challenging and energising, and critics, most of whom will seldom do other with their hands than scuffle keyboards, also reveal something of their metropolitan alienation from the sheer joy of planning, making and fixing stuff. Because in conversation with Holden workers, this theme recurs. “A lot of people probably look at us and think, ‘There they are walking into that same plant, every day, same thing again’, ” notes dimensional engineer Dan Hayward. “I’ve been here 15 years and I’ve never had a dull day.”
The joy is real; nor does it fade. Bubbly human resources manager Jody Williams recalls the general assembly job she began 31 years ago as a first glimpse of accomplishment. “We were making the Gemini at the time. There were two lines, a slower line and a faster line, making door trims, and once you got proficient at it, you went over to ‘the rocket line’. And I got there. So I was pretty proud of myself … I thought I’d be here two years while I figured out what to do with my life. Then I realised I could make it my life. I cry at ‘Football, meat pies, kangaroos and Holden cars’. Holden grabs you like that.”
So it would seem. “This industry attracts problem solvers,” says Joel Buchanese, a serious young electrician who joined Holden in 2002 by obtaining one of 10 apprenticeships from 1000 applications. “Some people prefer a cruisier job, mowing lawns or whatever. I’m in my element when I’ve got a puzzle in front of me, and this place sometimes fires them at you like a machine gun. In metals stamping, we’ve got huge machines worth hundreds of millions of dollars with complex control systems. When they stop throwing panels out the back end and you have guys standing around doing nothing, you’ve really got to switch on your A-game.”
Because what’s worst understood about Australia’s automotive industry is how exacting it has needed to become in order to meet a low-volume, high-competition market. Holden is a prime specimen of technology honed by a century of improvements: 300,000 square metres of floor space turning half a million parts a day from 650 different suppliers, worth $3 billion annually, into tens of thousands of cars in six body styles, nine variants and 45 different models. General assembly is only the culmination of a 22-hour, seven-kilometre process beginning in the stamping plant with the pressing of body sides, floor pans and roofs from steel, and ending with a complete car.
Automotive is the industry that trailblazed techniques of “lean production”, in which inventory is anathema, supply lines are taut and mutual dependence acute. In adjacent Edinburgh Park, connected to Elizabeth by a private bridge, are 10 key components suppliers, such as Futuris, which manufactures seats and door trims, and Tenneco, provider of exhausts. A few others are located elsewhere in Elizabeth, like Exide, maker of batteries, and Hirotec, stamper of doors, bonnets and boot lids. “Trucks leave here every 21 minutes,” says Hirotec’s assistant manager, Brett Heaven – note, not “every 20 minutes or so”.
Some components are sourced from as far away as Mexico and South Korea; the bulk from Victoria. For example, three semi-trailer loads of 50 different parts arrive daily from a former sauce-bottling factory in Reservoir, Melbourne, owned by Diver Consolidated Industries, a third-generation, family-owned metal fabricator with 100 employees. Founded in 1937, DCI still has on display its original hand-operated metal stamp. Having provided components for the first Holden in 1948, it now exports to Holden’s parent company, General Motors, in China, Thailand and Brazil.
Jim Griffin, the Holden alumnus who runs DCI, is a manufacturing man through and through. “We can’t all be baristas on the Gold Coast,” he says sardonically. Examining one of his beams, his expression grows almost beatific, like that of a new father overlooking a cradle.
It’s marching in step with Holden that entrepreneur Andrew Downs says has helped him build a $70 million business in Adelaide’s Melrose Park. Downs founded SAGE Automation in his mother’s backyard 20 years ago. His breakthrough was obtaining a contract to supply Holden, he says, because their demands were so relentless: SAGE control boxes with touch screens now festoon Holden’s general assembly and body shop areas.
“If a water plant stops, usually they’ve got some backup, and it’s pretty slow to move,” says Downs. “When automotive lines stop, every man and his dog is affected: that’s irrecoverable costs of many thousands of dollars a minute. I’ve witnessed it, unfortunately. As the minutes go by, the number of suits pouring out of the offices grows exponentially. I’m telling you, it is the worst feeling.”
While economists conduct angels-on-a-pinhead debates about the degree of innovation “spillover” that the automotive industry offers the wider economy, DCI and SAGE are the phenomenon’s living embodiments. DCI has applied its fabrication expertise to heat shields for fire engines, foldaway steps for trucks, and the popular Triton Work Bench. SAGE cites a host of intellectual properties originated at Holden: a fault-alert system for a Beringer Vineyards bottling line; a smart control network connecting pump stations and tank sites for SA Water; a railcar-dumping system adopted for ore in Perth.
Interestingly, each shows the slipperiness of industrial definitions. Data collectors might deem them, respectively, investments in food and beverages, utilities and mining. But, observes SAGE’s CEO Adrian Fahey, they’re all manufacturing processes. “If you’ve got a 12-kilometre train of trucks and want to dump from them in a hurry, you must have processes that are best-in-class, high-speed, super-reliable – which we can achieve because of the knowledge we’ve gained from automotive about stripping out cycle time.”
Manufacturing is usually presented in Australia as a discrete sector – one which, in fact, we can comfortably dispense with, on grounds that labour will almost invariably be cheaper elsewhere. Yet the manufacturing that has endured here with little encouragement, in often adverse market conditions and with few natural advantages, is often extremely good. And business knows it. The bosses of Australia’s top two resources giants, BHP Billiton’s Jac Nasser and Rio Tinto’s Sam Walsh, are veterans of which industry? Automotive. Why? Because after a decade of effortless growth, mining is suddenly about cost.
Rio Tinto’s revolutionary iron-ore operations centre at Perth Airport is inspired, Walsh says, by the model of a “vehicle assembly plant”, as he saw first at Holden, later at Nissan. “In the car industry, you measure things in cents,” he explains. “That cost focus, that cash focus, is awfully important. That’s what I brought over to mining, a focus on every part of the business – productivity improvement, efficiency – the things the car industry has had to focus on to survive …
“The mining industry obviously focuses on its exploration and finding world-class deposits, on mine planning, mine design and plant design. Once you’ve got those in place, you’re probably 80 per cent of the journey. But the last 20 per cent is where the car industry excels.”
At mention of Elizabeth, Walsh lights up with his own memories. “You would have seen an enormous amount of effort going into ensuring that the right component is there at the right time, in the right cycle, in the right quality and with the right skills. There are jobs there I swear you could never do in the time cycle those people have. People putting a roof lining in a car inside a minute? There’s no way you could do it! But streamline, streamline, streamline, train the operators, and they do.”
Though Ford was their company’s perennial rival, nobody at Holden took pleasure at the demise of its Australian manufacturing operation. It hurt in the aftermath, moreover, to see the whole industry dismissed as a kind of corporate dole bludger. “Those things are extremely difficult to swallow,” says engineer Nick Baloglou, another 25-year veteran. “We’ve got a very nice factory, very nice, with a well-trained, engaged workforce which you’re probably getting a sense of. We are not ‘unproductive’. We are not ‘inefficient’. ” He sighs. “How do we demonstrate to people what we do here, without bringing every single Australian through one by one, so that they can go, ‘Holy moly, look at these guys!’?”
Solace has been drawn since from the release of the VF Commodore, probably the best car Holden has ever produced. “Every time you see one on the grass here, you just want to smile,” says engineer Paul Sakowits. “We’ve done it: what a great car.”
Morale, as a result, fluctuates. “To be honest, we’re on a fine edge, and it could go either way,” says Anthony Roder, who runs general assembly. “We’re obviously going through a restructure. That brings uncertainty. It’s a topic of conversation, as you can imagine. But now people can see the VF, there’s excitement around it.” Andrew Shaw, Roder’s maintenance chief, still buzzes with the memory of the seamless changeover. “That was my job – to make sure it dropped on the line,” he recalls. “The last VE, then the first VF after a 10-car gap. It was a big day. Our maintenance crew pulled it off. It was an unbelievable experience. I will sell this car until I’m blue in the face.”
So, thanks to an additional $40 million assigned to the marketing budget, will Holden. In February, the VF was unveiled in its American alias as the Chevrolet SS when it won its debut NASCAR race, the Daytona 500. Next year it will become the first passenger car Holden has exported to the US since its parent unexpectedly terminated the Pontiac G8, based on Holden’s Monaro, after the global financial crisis hit. To Elizabeth personnel, that will feel good. “There is a lot of pride at seeing things you’ve been involved with in the manufacturing process,” says Nick Baloglou. “I’ve been able to travel extensively with Holden, and when I see our cars on the road in America and Korea and China, I think: ‘Yes! We made that!’ ”
The VF affords quiet satisfaction to Elizabethans generally. Not withstanding negatives about the entwinement of the City of Playford and an industry in regular turmoil, mayor Glenn Docherty wouldn’t change it. “Elizabeth has gained a lot from having a focal point,” he says. “There’s nothing better, I think, than looking at cars in the port of Adelaide waiting to be shipped abroad, knowing that families somewhere will be taking their kids to school or driving to a sporting event in a car we made here.”
Does that mean he disagrees with Joe Hockey that industry grants are a “waste of taxpayers’ money”? This is a potentially awkward question for Docherty, who will be Liberal candidate for Newland in next March’s South Australian state election, but he replies without hesitation: “I do disagree with him. Yes, I do. That money has helped continue the next version of the Commodore and investment around that … That is a good thing to do. Because we have no other plan from either side of politics.”
Quite. The federal Labor government abruptly scrapped a key element of its New Car plan, the Green Car Innovation Fund, in June 2011, although it had already enabled production of the Camry Hybrid at Toyota’s Altona works as well as many of the VF’s weight-reduction and aerodynamic improvements. The Coalition, meanwhile, feigns rigour by promising a token cut to funds allocated under the existing Automotive Transformation Scheme and to refer the industry to the desiccated calculating machines of the Productivity Commission.
And yet … and yet … there remains strong support for the automotive industry, and even for its special assistance, among that curiously neglected group, the Australian public, who when polled never fail to value the proposition that their country should “make things”. It could be argued that in their buying preferences they express different views, but perhaps they also subtly sense – as their increasingly detached political, economic and media betters do not – what would be lost in the way of skilful, dignified and fulfilling work if Elizabeth’s assembly line ever stopped permanently.
Lead-in photograph: An FJ Holden outside General Motor-Holden’s Fishermans Bend plant in Melbourne in 1953. GM Holden Ltd.
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The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Shanghai Night Net.
Into the melting pot … Pauline Hanson at the Sydney home of her friend Bev Wallice. Photo: Jacky Ghossein Out there … Hanson on the campaign trail at Westfield Parramatta. Photo: Jacky Ghossein
Pauline Hanson’s campaign slogan may be “The Redhead You Can Trust”, but another phrase she keeps bringing up would serve just as well: “I’ll be Tony Abbott’s worst nightmare.”
This coming federal election is personal for Hanson. After all, Abbott was instrumental in putting her in jail a decade ago on a conviction that was eventually overturned. If Hanson can score a Senate seat, she could be in the delicious position of being someone the prime ministerial hopeful Abbott has to call upon if he doesn’t want his party’s policies obstructed.
To help propel her into the upper house, Hanson has discovered unlikely supporters. “She’s huge among the ethnics,” says her campaign manager Brian Burston, an affable, white-haired former councillor turned political comeback strategist.
We’re at Westfield Parramatta, a shopping mall in Sydney’s greater west. Most Parramatta residents – 64 per cent – come from families where both parents were born overseas, mainly in China, India and Lebanon. Labor holds the surrounding federal seat of Parramatta by the slimmest of margins. Burston says the ALP will lose it at this election. “Good,” Pauline Hanson says. “Before they destroy the entire country.”
“HELLO!” an excited gnome-like man says, appearing out of nowhere. He shakes Hanson’s hand warmly. “I was from Sri Lanka!” he says. “I love you, because you love this country!”
Hosts of people swarm around Hanson to get photos. Women in hijabs shake Hanson’s hand; an Indian woman in a sari wishes Hanson the best. Lebanese men, Anglo teens, Chinese women, they all approach Hanson with smiles and smartphones. Someone offers her a free blow-dry.
Part of me suspects some of these shoppers are only posing with Hanson for the same reason they’d pose with Queensland’s Big Pineapple – it’s there – but it’s obvious many of them adore Hanson and her politics.
“So much for being racist, eh?” Burston says. What am I supposed to say to that?
When I leave Parramatta, my cab driver, a Lebanese Muslim, asks about my day. I say I’ve spent it with Pauline Hanson. Perplexed, he looks at me in the rear-view mirror, perhaps to double-check I am, in fact, an Asian-Australian.
“You have an opinion on Pauline Hanson?” I ask. He nods slowly. “She doesn’t like … us,” he says, probably wondering whether he needs to spell it out.
On the day I first meet Pauline Hanson, it doesn’t get off to a great start. We’re in Charlestown Square, a shopping centre in Newcastle, NSW. She addresses a small cluster of reporters outsider Myer wearing patent-leather alligator pumps, a black scoop top, a gold bow brooch and a skirt the colour of spilled blood. Flame-haired and feline, she hasn’t aged a dot.
Once we start walking – Hanson out the front, reporters trailing like bad sitcom spies – no shoppers seem interested in saying hello. People keep their distance. I catch murmurs as they walk past.
“The lady from …”
“… fish’n’chip shop …”
“… meant to be in Queensland?”
Irritated, Pauline Hanson turns to us. “See, this is what scares people off.” Part of me wants to roll my eyes – politicians can’t just call on media when it suits them – but I also sympathise. In the mid-1990s, when Hanson went door-knocking, residents would close their doors upon seeing the scrum of reporters behind her. Journalists then published sensational stories about how people kept slamming their doors in Hanson’s face.
Finally a bespectacled young man named Martin comes up and asks for a photo. Hanson immediately brightens. Martin says he’s not interested in politics and just wants a photo, really. But he somehow changes the chemistry. Now a steady tide of people approach Hanson. Middle-aged women feel especially comfortable in her orbit. In the food court, Joan Raper, 47, greets Hanson like an old friend. “What are you doing here?” she exclaims.
“She’s portrayed as this racist person,” Raper says, “but what she’s actually saying is, ‘If you want to live here freely and happily, and abide by our rules and culture and society, you’re more than welcome. But if you don’t – go away! Take your war back to the country you came from.’ ”
Another Hanson fan says she’ll vote for her, but begins by saying, “I’m not a racist, sweetheart.”
Nearly every One Nation voter seems to start with the same disclaimer: they support Hanson, but they’re not racist, sweetie. Whether Hanson likes it or not, her brand – and One Nation’s – is still synonymous with racial bigotry. Even her supporters recognise that.
When the other reporters leave, Hanson, Burston and I sit at a muffin shop to discuss the ins and outs of social media. Hanson may have only just discovered Facebook, but already she’s taken to it with the enthusiasm of a teenager, posting multiple times a day on her fan page. She suspects social media will be a game-changer for her in this election – finally, a way to communicate directly with supporters without the meddling media.
Emboldened, she has bought her first smartphone (Sony Xperia, running on Android), but is still getting used to the digital age vernacular. Several days ago on FM radio, she made a gaffe by referring to young people using tablet devices as “fingering a pad” (she laughs about it now). It has been a steep learning curve. After all, she’s campaigning with a skeleton crew, doesn’t have a background in journalism and …
“Do you want to come and work for me?” she says, interrupting herself. “I’m actually looking for someone who could put out press releases.” I chuckle, pointing out a possible conflict of interest. Hanson grins.
“As long as you’re on side with me,” she says. “If you’re not on side with me, don’t!”
God knows what my Chinese-Australian parents will make of this. Later, when I tell my dad I’ve been interviewing Hanson, he laughs darkly.
“This is a terrible woman,” he says.
Pauline Hanson has an appalling track record for getting elected. This will be her eighth stab at a parliamentary seat in 17 years. She has won only once: the Queensland lower house seat of Oxley in 1996, in the federal election that saw John Howard become prime minister. Hanson was 41 then; she’s 59 now. If John Howard was Lazarus with a triple bypass, Hanson is someone who can miraculously resurrect herself on a regular basis, without ever finding a way out of the tomb.
Still, to dismiss Hanson would be naive. At the height of One Nation’s popularity, it secured almost 23 per cent of the vote at Queensland’s 1998 state election, winning 11 seats on National Party preferences. When Hanson guns for parliamentary seats now, she often scores highly enough on primary votes to secure electoral funding from the Australian Electoral Commission. The only reason Hanson hasn’t secured any seats outright is because major parties are so loathe to preference her, they’ll preference each other first. It speaks volumes of their disregard for her.
On June 3, Hanson announced she would run for a NSW Senate seat in federal parliament under the One Nation banner, more than a decade after their political divorce. Election analysts say complex Senate preference deals – and the fact Hanson is back with One Nation, consolidating brand recognition – makes her first ever Senate seat a possibility.
To outsiders, her return to One Nation this year is surprising. From the start, the party was marred by mismanagement, savage infighting, highly publicised court cases and elected members turning their backs on the party. In 2002, One Nation forced Hanson out of her own party. “One Nation was destroyed from within,” she says. “That hurt. We could have been a major political party in this country. But it’s reinventing now I’m back. It’s going to be a lot of work.”
One week later, Pauline Hanson and Brian Burston drive to Sydney from northern NSW for a 48-hour itinerary of meet and greets. First, the Western Sydney Careers Expo at the former Olympic Games site in Homebush. Year 12 students arrive in uniform. Lebanese girls in hijabs lock arms; Asian nerds play video games with their Anglo counterparts; African and Asian girls play Uno together on the cement. Born in the mid-1990s, they’re not old enough to remember Hanson as a political force to be reckoned with. If they know her at all, it’s from Dancing with the Stars and Celebrity Apprentice.
When I was their age, in Queensland, schoolmates’ parents drove cars plastered with One Nation stickers. We’d tape Pauline Pantsdown’s devastating vocal mash-up Backdoor Man on to cassette, before a court injunction ruled ABC youth radio station Triple J couldn’t broadcast it any more. Sometimes it felt Hanson didn’t even need to be parodied, like the time she recorded a video that began, “Fellow Australians, if you are seeing me now, it means I have been murdered.”
It wasn’t all laughs. It was during this time that a Chinese-Australian relative of mine was bashed in a petrol station by angry white racists and hospitalised. Strangers drove past me calling out “chink”, “gook” and “f…ing Asian”. If you were on the receiving end of these attacks, you didn’t have to draw a line between them and the rise of One Nation. You just knew.
Hanson arrives at the expo in black and turquoise. Burston assures me this stopover isn’t about courting first-time voters, but about One Nation’s keen interest in apprenticeships. Hanson’s proposed policy – that the government pays 75 per cent of all apprenticeship costs in the first year, 50 per cent in the second and 25 per cent in the third – gets the thumbs up from Deb at the apprenticeships marquee. Validated, Hanson beams.
Burston, meanwhile, has been dealing with prank calls. Facebook may be a blessing for them but it’s also attracted trolling. Pauline Pantsdown, the drag queen responsible for Backdoor Man, has re-emerged on Facebook and has somehow gotten hold of Burston’s mobile number. He has bombed Facebook with it, encouraging everyone to pester and protest.
Out of nowhere, a solidly built 17-year-old named Jason confronts Hanson, arms crossed. “What’s the way you think about Asian immigration? Have your views changed?”
Hanson is gentle but firm. “Yes, they have, because that was 15, 16, 17 years ago. Have you read my maiden speech?”
“No, I haven’t,” Jason admits.
“I think you should read my maiden speech,” Hanson says. “When I made that comment in parliament, it was because we had a huge number of immigrants coming to Australia who were of a … ” She stops herself. “And we had to take control of it,” she finishes.
Unlike Jason, I’m familiar with Pauline Hanson’s maiden speech, a blistering bit of oration most Australians over 30 vividly remember. “We now have a situation where a type of reverse racism is applied to mainstream Australians,” Hanson said, “by those who promote political correctness, and those who control the various taxpayer-funded ‘industries’ that flourish in our society, servicing Aboriginals [sic], multiculturalists and a host of other minority groups.”
Horrified, my family watched on the evening news as Hanson said, “They have their own culture and religion, form ghettos and do not assimilate.” She was talking about Asians.
Still, for every Australian who heard Hanson’s speech and felt a new dimension of bigotry entering the political discourse, there were just as many who found her arguments – that Aborigines receive more benefits than non-Aborigines; that multiculturalism should be abolished; that Australian youth undergo mandatory 12-month national service; that Australia was in danger of being “swamped by Asians” – refreshing and galvanising.
I remind Hanson of how she singled out Asians in her maiden speech. Surely it’s one reason why people still think she’s racist.
“Look, I think so,” she says, sighing, as if expecting this from me. “It’s the words that I used. But I had to have the impact to tell the government, ‘Have a look at the figures.’ Most of the figures we were getting, in people migrating to Australia, were actually … Asian. So there was going to be imbalance in years to come.”
Hanson is right when she says Australia’s migration patterns are changing. Australia’s last census, in 2011, will probably be the last to show that Europeans account for the majority of new arrivals. By the 2016 census, it is anticipated that most of Australia’s migrants will come from Asia. Does Hanson see that as a problem?
“You’ve got to have a balance, otherwise you have a dominating culture. I suppose I’m a proud Australian! I don’t want to see my culture gone. Does anyone? Would Asians like me to go over [there] with heaps of our people and take over?”
How does she propose “a balance” be enforced? Some form of racial capping?
“Look, it’s not about ca-,” she says, breaking off, as if that notion is preposterous. “Australians have never been asked. We’ve never had a discussion on immigration or multiculturalism.”
The next morning, Pauline Hanson waits for me on the driveway of a home in Sydney’s Sylvania Waters. It is the home of Bev Wallice, one of Hanson’s closest friends. The two met in 1999. Wallice’s husband had been diagnosed with cancer and they sought Hanson in Queensland to ask her to examine the inadequacies of private health insurance in covering cancer treatment. Since Bev’s husband died, Hanson often stays in Wallice’s home when she’s in town.
Bev Wallice is 76, sports jaffa-red fingernails and is full of fizz. She reminisces on how she and Hanson secured their friendship. “A couple of chardies and that was it,” she says. “She’s the nicest friend, and I have a lot.” Wallice cracks up at her own joke. “She’s not racist in any single way,” she adds reassuringly.
Wallice’s home bar is lined with framed photos. One is a signed portrait of Alan Jones. Next to it is the well-known photograph of Hanson draped in the Australian flag.
At the dining table, Hanson and I talk about her kids, all of them adults now – Tony, 42, Steven, 38, Adam, 32, and Lee, 29. Hanson is a grandmother now to Lee’s boy, Rielly. Her fish’n’chip days are long behind her and she now splits time with her partner Tony Nyquist – who works in real estate – between properties in Ipswich and the north coast of NSW.
I ask about money. It seems staggering that Hanson would keep putting herself forward after so many back-to-back defeats. Earlier, Hanson told me she puts her own money into campaigning, as One Nation has no backers, big donations or significant membership base. “In the last federal election, it cost me just over $100,000.”
Electoral funding helps. When Hanson ran as an independent for an upper house seat for Queensland in the 2004 federal election, she received $199,886 in electoral funding. In 2007, her Pauline’s United Australia Party received $213,095. This election, if One Nation obtains at least 4 per cent of first preference votes in NSW, the party will receive a fraction over $2.48 for every vote counted. Later, when I phone Hanson to confirm those figures, she is livid.
“Ben! That is garbage,” she shouts. “Do you ask Tony Abbott how much electoral funding he’s going to get? Do you ask Kevin Rudd? Wayne Swan? Barnaby Joyce? I am frickin’ sick and tired of this! I am not getting electoral funding. I stand with the party. Nothing goes directly to me.”
It’s a sore spot. In August 2003, Hanson and One Nation’s co-founder David Ettridge were sentenced to three years in prison after being found guilty of fraudulently registering One Nation in Queensland. In November that year, their convictions were overturned and the charges dismissed. But by then, Hanson had already served time in jail.
The person who established the trust fund to pursue court cases against One Nation was Tony Abbott. Hanson not only loathes discussing electoral funding, she loathes the existence of electoral funding itself. She has publicly campaigned to have it abolished. Still, it’s a system that has aided her political longevity. And her fury at journalists for asking her about it far outstrips her anger at the system itself.
ABC election analyst Antony Green has bad news for Hanson: she won’t win. “Oh, she gets a significant vote,” he says, in a don’t-get-me-wrong voice. “When she stood for the Senate [representing Queensland] on an independent’s ticket in 2004, she got a higher number of below-the-line votes than any other candidate in the history of the ticket voting system.” But preferences will work against her, he says.
When I tell Hanson this, she is angry. No one, she says, has insider knowledge that the Coalition parties won’t preference One Nation this year.
I point out they haven’t in the past. “They haven’t,” she says. “But Tony Abbott wants to consider who would be the best choice in the Senate. I’d like to know where he bloody well stands on this, because if he doesn’t flow [preferences] to me, he’s nothing but a bloody hypocrite. I’m against the carbon tax. I’m against the illegal boats.”
It’s true. Many of her platforms square up with the Coalition. It’s why Hanson doesn’t strike me as an extreme figure any more. Burston agrees: One Nation isn’t a fringe party, because Labor and Liberal have caught up to it. Hanson nods and says that has been validating.
But doesn’t that diminish One Nation’s appeal? Reshaping Australia’s politics might be Pauline Hanson’s legacy, but coming into an election, it is also her key strategic weakness. When the major parties blunt your competitive edge, why would anyone vote for Pauline Hanson now?
Lead-in photograph by Emma Phillips
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The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Shanghai Night Net.
Mike Quigley said on Friday he would step down from the company charged with building Australia’s largest infrastructure project. Photo: Louise KennerleyMalcolm Maiden: Quigley jumped – with a push
Outgoing NBN Co chief executive Mike Quigley has played down the difficulties of his role, saying he will hand over a company to his successor that is in good shape.
Mr Quigley said on Friday he would step down from the company charged with building Australia’s largest infrastructure project as soon as a replacement could be found. But he said the design and the architecture of the $37.4 billion national broadband network were now complete and his job was done.
He also dismissed claims by opposition communications spokesman Malcolm Turnbull that his retirement suggested the NBN project was in crisis.
”It’s certainly a tough project, we have our challenges,” Mr Quigley said. ”And by the way, when the vision of the company is a source of debate, it is a hard [job] to do. Having said that, the management team that reports to me is a very good group of people, that work well together and deal with the challenges.
”I believe – and what HR people tell me – is that our retention rate is considerably better than the national average. Our turnover is half of the national average … that doesn’t smack to me of a company in crisis.”
A global search by an executive recruitment agency will now begin for a replacement for Mr Quigley in a process expected to take several months. Mr Quigley said his replacement should cover two distinct roles: one overseeing operations and one overseeing construction. ”It needs someone with a background in a company that runs ‘stuff’ and that builds ‘stuff’.”
He likened the NBN Co’s construction role to that of a factory. ”We are running a big distributed factory. We are doing the same thing many times over: building 4000 FSANs [fibre serving access nodes] all around the country.”
But others say it will be hard to fill the vacancy and questioned Mr Quigley’s assessment of the skill set needed.
Barry Lyons, a partner with executive recruiter MFJ Partners, said the role would require an executive with experience in large infrastructure projects and he did not expect it to be filled from the ranks of current NBN Co executives. ”The major task is still to build the network and to build the organisation that can build the network. You need someone who has overseen a major infrastructure build, and there are few comparable projects in this size,” he said.
Tony Brown, senior analyst at Informa Telecoms and Media, questioned Mr Quigley’s assertion that the design and architecture of the NBN were complete, and predicted that the role of chief executive would be hard to fill.
”To say that the foundations have been laid would be a stretch, to say the least,” he said. ”The fibre network still only passes 1.7 per cent of the total homes and we still don’t know whether this is going to be a fibre-to-the-home or a fibre-to-the-node network.”
Mr Brown said the NBN Co chief executive was an incredibly tough role, which would be a turnoff for potential candidates. ”You are squeezed between two political parties and the media. You would have to be very brave to take this role before the election without knowing who your bosses would be and what sort of the network you’d be rolling out. And it is going to need someone who is willing to go down to Canberra every three months and get their feet put in front of the fire and be publicly questioned [in parliamentary committee hearings].”
He questioned whether any overseas executive with suitable experience would ”be prepared to come down there and put up with the kind of stuff that Quigley has had to put up with”.
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Shanghai Night Net.
Waiting for results: Directors have been largely absent from the market this week. Photo: Peter BraigDirectors’ trades fell substantially this week against a background of the soon-to-start company results season.
The scorecard registered $1.6 million to $1.9 million in favour of directors doing some selling, compared with $2.8 million to $13 million last week.
There were few industrial counters on the buying side, with a host of resources companies making up the numbers.
One exception was Ecosave, a tightly held outfit that went public early this year and whose mission in life is to save businesses money by reducing energy consumption.
The group floated on the basis of estimated tax-paid earnings of $3 million for the year just finished.
The $1 shares gave stags a lovely little profit when they listed at $1.40 and such was the excitement they hit $1.80 in March.
But, come July, chief Marcelo Rouco announced that earnings, rather than $3 million, would weigh in at between $1.6 million and $2 million.
Those tidings had the effect of slicing the scrip from $1.61 to $1.24, but it’s since bounced as high as $1.61.
Mr Rouco said that ”none of the major opportunities which made up our initial public offering forecast have been lost” and there had been delays in closing sales, and resources had been allocated to a high number of contracting bids in the latter part of the 2013 financial year.
”We chose to enter those bids knowing it could draw resources away from fulfilment of existing contracts and therefore push some revenues into financial year 2014,” he said, adding that the strategy had paid off with contract wins.
Three directors bought shares this week.
Elsewhere, there was multi-director buying in algae to biofuels group Algae.Tec, in mining services concern Subzero Group and Santana Minerals.
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Shanghai Night Net.
The corporate watchdog has put Credit Suisse on notice after hitting its equities arm with a $95,000 fine for failing to detect a false order placed on its automated trading system.
The trade was placed for a client on November 7, 2011 at an incorrect price – altering the stock market’s open and low prices for that day.
The Australian Securities and Investments Commission’s disciplinary panel said it was the second time the group had been fined over failures with its automated trading platform. The company has separately been sanctioned by the stock exchange’s disciplinary tribunal on six other occasions since 2003 – two of which related to automated trades.
The regulator said Credit Suisse had shown negligence over the misconduct, which had the potential to harm the reputation and integrity of the market.
”Credit Suisse did not self-report the breaches to ASIC and failed to inform both ASIC and the ASX in a timely manner,” it said.
”Any future, repeat contraventions in similar or comparable matters will not be viewed favourably.”
According to ASIC’s market integrity rules, which are enshrined in the Corporations Act, companies are required to have the technical resources in place to prevent any interference with the market. This includes making sure their automated systems, which use algorithms to generate trades, correctly pick up changes to share prices.
Credit Suisse’s false trade related to the sale of 2.9 million shares in failed global construction and engineering firm Hastie Group. Credit Suisse’s automated system failed to pick up changes to the company’s share price that occurred earlier in the day when Hastie performed a 10 to 1 share consolidation.
As a result, the false order was placed at 47¢ lower than it should have been, at 51¢.
ASIC noted that Credit Suisse had agreed not to contest the matter or dispute any material facts.
A Credit Suisse spokesman said: ”Credit Suisse responded promptly to this incident and has put in place necessary processes to help prevent a reoccurrence.”
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Shanghai Night Net.