<i>Illustration: Rocco Fazzari.</i>

Illustration: Rocco Fazzari.

If some of the ministers in the Abbott government sounded angry at Holden even before the car company announced its closure this week, it's because they were.

Labor leader Bill Shorten this week damned Tony Abbott for failing to meet Holden boss Mike Devereux since taking the prime ministership.

But, in the end, after 82 years as General Motors' subsidiary in Australia and long years of uncertainty over its future, the announcement was such a rushed affair that there was not even a cabinet discussion about it.

The reason for all this was that the government decided Holden was gaming it.

Abbott was out of the country, at the Nelson Mandela memorial service, but when his senior ministers concluded on Tuesday morning that Holden was playing politics, they reacted furiously.

The suspicions took hold on October 25 when Holden's US-owned parent, General Motors, announced that Devereux was being promoted to a post in the company's head office in Shanghai, which oversees operations in 100 countries in the Asia-Pacific, Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

This would leave the Australian operation, General Motors-Holden without a managing director from January.

Why is this suspicious? Because Devereux was in negotiations with the federal government over a new round of taxpayer funds for the carmaker to keep it in Australia after 2015.

"I am very disappointed with the timing," Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane said at the time. It showed "bad faith", he said.

The suspicions deepened a couple of weeks later. Macfarlane read in the newspaper that the head of the GM Asia-Pacific operation in Shanghai, Stefan Jacoby, would be visiting Australia. He asked to meet him. The GM regional boss refused. It seemed inconceivable that the mendicant multinational would refuse a meeting with the minister empowered to give the firm hundreds of millions of dollars.

Jacoby visited the Holden office in Melbourne but refused to meet any politicians. A Holden spokesman said the trip was a rushed one and Jacoby had no time. The federal government has given cash assistance to Holden of $1.8 billion over the past decade.

Then, early last week, Coalition ministers learnt from their own contacts in the US that GM had already decided to shutter Holden. An announcement was scheduled for late last week, they were told, probably Friday, at 2.15pm. It was to be one of three rationalisations that GM was to announce - one in Europe, one in South Korea, and the third in Australia.

But no announcement was made. When federal government ministers checked with their sources in the US, they were told the announcement had been postponed into the new year because the timing would affect executive bonuses. "It was delayed till February so they could fatten their bonuses, apparently," a minister said.

Ministers thought that, if GM had decided to close its plants, it should announce the decision immediately. They feared the delay would allow Holden - and the Labor opposition - to put the blame on the Abbott government.

The government had asked the Productivity Commission to inquire into the sustainability of the car making industry and to make recommendations about government support.

The commission, famously hard-headed, would inevitably confront the harsh reality that the car manufacturing sector in Australia had received a total of $19 billion in handouts and tariff assistance in the past decade yet continued to lose market share.

Its interim report was due before the end of the year so it could inform Macfarlane's negotiations with the two remaining manufacturers - Holden and Toyota.

"Holden was delaying the announcement," a minister said. "It would have blamed the Productivity Commission, it would have blamed the government. That was it."

And there was one other factor. There were no negotiations with Macfarlane. The talks were moribund, as the Jacoby snub had suggested. "Holden cut Macca out," a minister said. "They didn't want to be saved. They'd already decided to go."

At that point one of the angry ministers told an ABC reporter of its intelligence on the closure decision. The ABC ran the story, citing an unnamed minister. Holden continued to claim that no decision had been made.

Then, at the weekend, The Wall Street Journal ran a story headlined "GM to shift production in Asia; Auto maker readies concerted attack on most troubled international units".

The story began: "General Motors Co. is preparing a concerted attack on its most troubled international operations that would entail big output cuts at factories in South Korea and likely an end to production in Australia, said people familiar with the auto maker's plans.

"GM intends to close its two Australian plants and separately slash production in South Korea by as much as 20 per cent by 2016, these people said. The moves come on top of a planned factory closing in Germany and last week's decision to end Chevrolet sales in Europe in two years."

So, with all these expectations and all of this speculation, all eyes were on Devereux on Tuesday morning when he appeared before a hearing of the Productivity Commission in Melbourne at 8.30am.

Deputy chairman Mike Woods put it directly to the Holden boss: "I would wish to ask at the outset for the record, has General Motors made a decision regarding the future of its Holden operations in Australia?"

Devereux: "No decision has been made."

Woods: ''Thank you. Do you know a time frame for such a decision?''

Devereux: ''I wouldn't speculate on it in this forum.''

When the senior members of the government heard these remarks, they were incensed. The leadership group met, minus the Prime Minister - the Acting Prime Minister and leader of the Nationals, Warren Truss, plus Julie Bishop, Joe Hockey, Eric Abetz and George Brandis.

"The leadership group decided that after the Devereux appearance at the Productivity Commission, this needed to be brought to a head," a minister said.

No one in the group argued otherwise. Abbott was kept abreast of events and was "rock solid", as a minister put it. The policy the Coalition had taken to the election was to offer $1 billion in public funds for the next phase of the car industry plan. It was deliberately less than the $1.5 billion promised by Labor because the Coalition believed that the car companies had played Labor for saps.

As recently as March last year, Julia Gillard announced an extra subsidy of $215 million for Holden, triumphantly declaring: "Holden will be here in Australia producing cars for at least the next 10 years."

Eight months later Holden cut 180 jobs from its Elizabeth plant in South Australia; five months further on the firm announced another 500 redundancies. "Every time any of these companies get more money they make more redundancies," an Abbott minister said. Ford had done the same before announcing its closure. "It's basically a transfer of profit from the Australian government to Detroit."

The National Party deeply resents the taxpayer funds that have streamed into the car sector, which is city-based and heavily unionised, anathema to the Nationals' political tastes. "Every time we give another half billion dollars to Holden, another hospital somewhere in Australia closes," one fumed this week.

Abbott and his ministers refused to play along. In opposition, Abbott had said that a nation needed a car industry as a sign of a modern, prosperous economy. In the months since, he has received a sobering education in the realities of the industry and its relationship with government. As he put it to Fairfax Media on Friday: "The lesson of the motor industry is that once you start subsidising businesses you get yourself onto a treadmill which is very difficult to get off''.

It was after Tuesday's leadership meeting that the Abbott frontbench let its anger show, publicly demanding in question time that Holden state its plans. Truss said he'd written to Devereux demanding immediate clarification. As a plan to force Holden to state its plans, it worked. The company announced the closure of its manufacturing plants in 2017. Shorten berated the government for failing to do everything it could to keep Holden in Australia.

But on Thursday Devereux conceded that there was nothing the government could have done; it was not about the volume of money on offer. "We were already past that point," he told the ABC. "We feel that we have all the information that we need to know that we cannot make a sustainable operation in Australia. This is an irreversible decision." He allowed that the company had been considering it for months.

One of the Productivity Commissioners, Philip Weickhardt, had crisply set out the arithmetic to Devereux on Tuesday. Holden had made an average annual profit of $50 million over the past dozen years. Average government assistance over that time was $153 million. "Which suggests without the assistance you would have shown an average loss of $100 million per annum over that time."

Devereux didn't demur. GM has now closed 21 plants around the world since 2001. There was never any special reason that the two in Australia were protected species immune from the laws of capitalism.

"Of course we want a car industry but because you're committed to it doesn't mean you agree to every demand," Hockey says. ''You love your children but you don't give them everything they want for Christmas. And when the mid-year budget update comes out on Tuesday people will see why."

After a week of bracing economic reality for Australia, next week will provide another.

Peter Hartcher is the political editor.