Illustration: Andrew Dyson.

Illustration: Andrew Dyson.

It was a bad look. With Tony Abbott out of the country at Nelson Mandela's memorial service, Warren Truss was acting prime minister when Holden decided to stop making cars in Australia. He received the company's call 10 minutes before question time on Wednesday, but kept his counsel when proceedings began.

It wasn't until the fifth question - after the government had fielded two ''Dorothy Dixers'' on the carbon tax - that Labor's acting leader, Tanya Plibersek, reported Holden's decision and asked Truss what it meant for the workers and others in the car industry.

Truss is a capable politician with a subterranean profile, but his explanation for staying mum - that he felt the workers had the right to hear the news from their management first - didn't stack up.

Certainly, this concern did not deter Denis Napthine from confirming the bad news at the earliest opportunity.

The acting prime minister's performance at a media conference after question time wasn't any better. Asked whether cabinet had discussed the issue of support for the car industry or assistance for the economies that would be hit by the decision, he replied: ''Well, clearly we haven't made plans for something we hoped would never happen.''

It was a gobsmacking statement. For weeks, senior ministers had been saying that Holden had already decided it would happen. The previous week, Abbott had insisted there would be no more money for the car maker. The previous day, Truss had written to Holden demanding to know the company's intentions.

No one had been more provocative than Treasurer Joe Hockey, who goaded the multinational as if it was an opposition political party, demanding it ''come clean'' on its intentions.

''We want them to be honest about it - we want them to be fair dinkum - because if I was running a business and I was committed to that business in Australia I would not be saying that I have not made any decision about Australia. Either you are here or you are not!'' Hockey told Parliament on Tuesday. It was a bit like a chihuahua barking at an elephant.

If there was a strategy behind the attempt at intimidation, no one explained it to the public, or the Coalition backbench - or, apparently, to Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane, who had held out the hope that Holden would ''stay the distance'', and maintained he was ''shocked'' and ''floored'' when managing director Mike Devereux rang his mobile to break the news.

Just as the mixed messages and clumsy politics were symptomatic of the Abbott government's failures in its first 100 days, the debate that followed in Parliament was a metaphor for the most combative, negative and unproductive year in political memory.

In truth, two debates were compressed into one slanging match that culminated in the censure motion that was defeated on party lines on the last parliamentary sitting day of the year.

The narrow debate - and one Labor was anxious to press - was whether a deal could have been done that might have kept Holden going until 2022. A subplot was whether the cost of such a deal - reportedly an extra $80 million a year for seven years - was much less than comparable countries pay to keep their car industries, and a fraction of what will be required to find the Holden workers new jobs.

As Labor leader Bill Shorten saw it, Abbott's failure to keep Holden in Australia would be a defining moment of his government. But his cut-through line went to what happens now: ''If this has been such a foregone conclusion for so long, why don't they have plan B today? Where are all the bright ideas?''

Abbott's response was to refer to Devereux's statement that it would be wrong to attribute the decision ''to action or inaction on the part of the government'' and to point to the car makers that disappeared on Labor's watch.

The bigger-picture debate - and the safer ground for the Coalition - concerned the inevitability that higher costs, lower volumes and the fragmented nature of the Australian market would seal the fate of the domestic industry in the end, even if the high dollar had not conspired with these factors right now to create ''a perfect storm''.

''We have tried throwing money at the motor industry, but it just does not work,'' Abbott insisted. ''What we need to do, if we are going to help the motor industry and the other manufacturing industries of this country, is get the fundamentals right.

''We need to get taxes down, we need to get regulation down and we need to ensure that the great workers of Australia are unshackled and are able to be not just amongst the best paid workers in the world but amongst the most productive workers in the world.''

How much comfort these words brought to those who will lose their jobs is questionable. Clearly, the sentiments had no impact on General Motors in Detroit.

While Macfarlane, as the responsible minister, did not speak in the debate on the censure motion, Hockey accused Labor of hypocrisy, pointing to the failure of the deal last year that was supposed to secure Holden's future for the next 10 years, and by quoting Paul Keating and former ALP finance minister Lindsay Tanner.

Coincidentally, Keating had addressed Labor MPs earlier in the day to mark the 30th anniversary of the decision to float the dollar, and given an address that put the Holden debate in a broader context. Holden's decision was a ''topical issue'' that demanded a response from the political system, Keating said, while the decision to float the dollar was a ''hugely radical'' decision that was taken as a matter of choice.

In his address, a nostalgic Keating rightly described indignation as ''one of the abiding political qualities one must have''.

The problem with both sides of politics in recent times is that they have had too much of it and not enough of the other qualities that defined the Hawke-Keating and Howard governments at their best - qualities such as courage, vision and the ability to communicate their message.

In government, Labor's indignation was at times all consuming and directed within. Now Abbott is the target. In opposition, Abbott's indignation was directed at Labor - and nothing has changed. But the relentless negativity has taken a heavy toll on public regard for, and engagement with, the political process - and on the participants themselves.

The Coalition's Christopher Pyne has kept his endearing, reflective side well camouflaged in recent years, but he observed before Parliament adjourned how much he and Anthony Albanese, his Labor sparring partner since the 2010 election, have aged in these past three years.

Pyne recalled a fund-raiser during the election campaign where he admonished his staff for using a promotional picture that ''ridiculously misrepresented'' his age, only to be told it was just three years old.

''I think most people will say that this last Parliament and the year 2013 could not end soon enough,'' he concluded, and no one could disagree. The question for the politicians, particularly Abbott and Shorten, is whether 2014 will be any better.

Michael Gordon is political editor of The Age.