The production line at the Toyota plant in Altona, west of Melbourne.

The production line at the Toyota plant in Altona, west of Melbourne. Photo: Paul Jones

Bill Shorten is working a smart wedge on Tony Abbott over the end of a domestic car industry. Attempting to attach the Coalition with the blame for the closures is one thing but has limited potency in a wider electorate that appreciates its ultimate inevitability. But asking the government how it plans to deal with the consequences puts government intervention in the middle ground.

Abbott and his Treasurer Joe Hockey are attempting to sell a new paradigm in which government help for ailing industries is not on, and where the economic function of government is primarily creating the environment in which businesses can flourish on their merits. All the more, they suggest, when government would have to borrow money for any grant or investment, or where the parent companies behind the mendicants have themselves been profitable. Perhaps all the more too when there can be a running innuendo that the primary reason industries have been ailing has been because of the lack of flexibility, or the rorts, contained in industrial agreements, not least in heavily unionised manufacturing industries.

And throw in too the usual mantras about the poor record of governments (allegedly particularly Labor ones) in ''picking winners'', in throwing other people's money around, and accumulating public debt, and one can also make some virtue of abstention - even of having policies not to have policies.

In the aftermath of Holden's announcement about its intention to quit local manufacture, and threats to the last indigenous canning industry, Labor's attack was focused on the suggestion that only a little bit of government intervention, and assistance, might have persuaded the businesses to carry on. Labor then estimates overall social costs from resulting unemployment, and downstream costs, to argue that a small amount of assistance can in fact be a good investment, saving public money as well as private dignity. In much the same way, governments of either stripe justify grants and subsidies to grand prix, football, racing and festivals - sometimes even art galleries - on the basis that they generate tourism, which creates income for hotels, restaurateurs, brothels and bars.

Both arguments, in the raw, have problems. Non-policies look splendid in the abstract, though the presence of earnest economists or economistic politicians assuming airily there is perfect mobility in the workforce, and that the untrammelled working of the market is always a sight beautiful to behold are rarely persuasive in the constituencies that matter. Market failures tend to have local effects and consequences, with very local pressures on politicians to be seen to be ''doing something''. Folding one's arms and explaining theory, or exchange rates, the fact of world markets, or the greediness of organised skilled labour does not much cut it - indeed it feeds into a constant and tangible national political anxiety and insecurity about one's own job. Indeed just what made the brave new world of Work Choices more than many in the population could bear.

On the other hand, a good many Australians are awake to and cynical about the risks and costs of subsidised industries, and their special pleading and bogus claims of the rent-seeking lobbies. They have seen, over the years, some highly unnatural alliances between political groups and rent seekers, in which the public interest has seemed secondary to the private interests involved. Even among those who do not think that the key problem of the Australian economy or polity - in relation to Australia's international environment - is labour market productivity, flexibility or corruption, there is now a general bias towards free trade instead of protectionism.

The advantage of asking ''what's the plan?'' is that it does not necessarily invite a communist-style five-year plan, in which government has determined all of the inputs and outputs. It may be no more than asking if you know what you are doing. Sometimes, in the doleful recitation on Tuesday of the cruelty of the Toyota blow, Tony Abbott has seemed to suggest not.