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Business sector deserved better from debate

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It was the Great Debate: Premier Jay Weatherill, State Liberal Leader Steven Marshall, 650 business people in the room and a full media pack.

The winner?

Nigel McBride, BusinessSA’s chief executive officer.

McBride had invited the two leaders to address the 10 issues outlined in BusinessSA’s 2014 Charter for a More Prosperous South Australia.

His opening remarks were pointed: South Australia has been skating along the bottom for far too long and it was time we stepped up.

McBride had first raised his concerns in August last year when he said SA had lost its mojo.

South Australia’s economy is facing a crisis, weighed down by state debt, poor infrastructure and the inevitable closure of the car industry, he told an industry forum.

“We know Ford is closing and we think (Holden boss) Mike Devereux is playing a game here and thinking when he will close Holden and not if,” McBride told the Australian Pipeline Industry Association (APIA) dinner at the Hilton on the night of August 22.

He was right. Spot on. Nailed it.

“We are at the crossroads and it’s not working for us,” McBride said of the state’s economy.

So, he set about developing a set of answers to the problem.

Ten, to be precise.

And then he asked Weatherill and Marshall to step up and respond to the charter.

Weatherill was first to take the stage.

You’d be forgiven for thinking he hadn’t actually read the charter.

His 18-minute speech started with the exhortation that “it’s impossible to ignore the energy and activity”, he said of the local economy.

The economy had surged from a total value of $52 billion to $94 billion in the last 12 years, he added, ignoring the much greater growth in every other mainland state.

South Australians, he said, are safer, healthier and better educated.

“Our economic transformation is underway.

“It’s a breathtaking transformation.”

This, apparently was all the government’s doing: “It’s the public investment that creates this lifestyle.”

So despite the clear message from the day’s host that the economy is stuffed, the Premier elected to attempt to convince the audience that it was all good.

Then, at the 17 minute mark, he shifted into reverse, suggesting that if the Liberals were elected and made cuts to public sector spending, “there could not be a worse time to cut; it will bring the State to a halt.”

He’d gone from describing a breathtakingly transformed economy to pleading for protection of a fragile state of affairs, undercutting his own bid.

Barely a soul in the room believed the pitch.

Weatherill picked up his typewritten, prepared and structured speech and left the stage.

Enter Steven Marshall.

No notes.

A copy of the charter in his side pocket.

He opened with a family holiday anecdote and spoke of pride in SA and wanting good job prospects for his kids.

“It’s a great place, but it’s no good if there’s no jobs.”

He went through the charter point by point: tax, trade, infrastructure, energy, industrial relations, the environment etc…

He ended with an exhortation that “it’s a great state” and that we had a choice between same old Labor and the new way.

As the ABC’s Nick Harmsen said today, Marshall had won the set piece part of the debate by a mile.

Weatherill had failed to read the invitation and wasted an opportunity.

The pair of leaders then stepped back on stage to front four journalists and McBride in a 50 minute free-for-all on the specifics of toll roads, tax laws, local government, public sector spending and our role in the nuclear energy cycle.

This was where Weatherill started to make up ground: he put it back on Marshall to be specific on what he will do and this was the Liberal Leader’s chance to do exactly that.

He didn’t.

He told the 650 people who had paid $66 a head that he would be releasing details of those policies later.

Later?

The 650 had come to hear the detailed position of the leader – and if he didn’t have the detail, he shouldn’t have turned up.

And so it came to an end.

So, we have a Premier who doesn’t accept the premise that the state’s economy is stuffed and an Opposition Leader who wants us to trust that he’s got the answers.

McBride had laid out the problem last August and six months later rolled out his proposals in detail.

It’s about time the two leaders took some notice.

A big win for Nigel.

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