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Analysis

Richardson: The archetypal Liberal hands down a very Labor budget

Analysis

It’s an irony that Rob Lucas, the longest-serving state Liberal whose almost 40 years in parliament has been spent railing against the ALP, will bow out having delivered today’s defining legacy – arguably the archetypal Labor state budget.

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Among the reams of pages he presented today outlining the key measures of his eighth and final state budget, there was one which contained just 11 words.

It was headlined: “Budget Priorities.”

These were dot-pointed:

Themes that have long been the cornerstone of many a Labor platform – although the Treasurer insists it’s what you don’t see that defines his budget as a Liberal one.

“The defining difference is; the Labor way is always increases in taxes,” Lucas told InDaily.

“Labor [in government] did the bank tax and car park tax – we’re actually moderating the wage costs and the expenses so you don’t have to go down the Labor way… that’s the key difference.”

Indeed, among the various budget measures he announced today, a point he emphasised with some pride was one delivered not in his capacity as Treasurer, but as the minister for Industrial Relations, who has overseen enterprise bargaining deals that mostly held to the Government’s mantra of wage restraint.

“One of the reasons we fought long and hard battles with the teachers’ union and nurses’ union is because we can’t afford to settle wage increases at 3 per cent,” he declared from his budget lock-up stage at the Convention Centre – a building for which the Government’s much-debated city arena is effectively an extra wing.

“Employee expenses in SA have been going at half the rate of the former Government – that’s how we’ve been able to rein in expenses and commit to no new taxes.”

There were, of course, plenty of references to the former Government – with Lucas highlighting that health spending, ambulance, doctors and nurse numbers were all higher now than when the Labor administration ended three years ago.

But, having last year accepted the pressing pandemic-induced need for big spending and borrowing, he was more keen to compare his budget favourably with another Labor administration – the Andrews Government in Victoria.

For every new slide that went up on the screen behind him, outlining another budget talking point, Lucas would contrast the SA approach with what was happening over the eastern border.

SA forecasts government employee expenses increasing by 1.9 per cent over the forward estimates, with Lucas emphasising Victoria’s figure was 4.7 per cent – “so, more than double”.

Similarly, SA’s debt-to-revenue ratio – a historically-unacceptable 129 per cent – was compared favourably to Victoria’s figure of more than 199 per cent, while SA’s forecast return to black was pointedly “unlike Victoria”.

“We’re continuing the payroll tax relief, committing to further reductions in land tax and maintain the massive reduction in ESL Bills,” Lucas insisted.

For all that, the public service – which he not only vowed to reduce, but seemingly relished the prospect of doing so – will continue to grow, albeit modestly, with an estimated 86,264 FTEs by 2025, up from 85,698 in 2020.

Lucas says that will include an influx of frontline workers – especially teachers – which will be offset by targeted cuts to the proverbial “admin and corporate officers”.

For all his historical zeal for budget efficiency, Lucas was always, in his defiantly low-key way, true to his anti-profligate political bent.

At one of those (in)famous Liberal love-ins last year – as the party-room gathered under the shadow of the Country Members’ Claims crisis – the parking lot outside the Hahndorf venue was packed with row after row of shiny-new four-wheel-drives, evidently the salary-sacrifice car of choice for SA’s parliamentarians.

And then the Treasurer arrived – more senior than everyone else there, save for the Premier himself – behind the wheel of his rather battered and unassuming 2003 Hyundai i20.

His approach to the state’s finances then, has long mirrored his automotive proclivities: less fast and furious, more slow and reliable.

“Now to the serious stuff, the boring stuff,” he told his “captive audience” of journos locked up in a gilded Convention Centre holding cell, as he weaved through the intricacies of his swansong budget.

But he concluded with a rare moment of indulgent introspection.

“I’m normally a pretty miserable person – pessimistic at the best,” he conceded.

“But I leave you looking forward to watching, as I sail off into the sunset next year, an exciting future for SA.”

He appeared, though, to be working hard to create a wedge with Labor, whose incessant themes of jobs, health and education are the centrepiece of the Marshall Government’s low-key pre-election pitch.

Not that Lucas would agree, of course.

“I don’t see that as Labor – I think that’s good government,” he said of the budget priorities.

“I don’t think Labor has a right to own jobs and health and education as Labor issues – they’re issues that are important to all South Australians.”

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