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Come back Ian Hunter, all is forgiven | Uni masterclass in opacity

Notes on Adelaide

In today’s Notes on Adelaide, recent revelations show that South Australia’s favourite political punching bag of recent years may have been too harshly treated, and the universities go dark after their merger plans fall apart.

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The hunted no longer Hunter

The number of burst water mains in Adelaide has spiked significantly this year, prompting widespread public outcry and leading to press demands that new Water Minister David Speirs attend each and every incident to personally apologise to every resident and business affected by this scourge.

Actually, only the first part of the above sentence is true.

Previous Water Minister Ian Hunter was a favourite media target over the past few years, mostly due to his prickly and, sometimes, sweary, demeanour. He was under constant pressure over burst water mains, with one media outlet demanding he personally attend incidents and producing a cardboard cut-out of the minister to give visual flair to its campaign.

But the burst water main frenzy was never based in a great deal of reality. SA Water’s performance has been consistently pretty good on this measure compared to similar authorities interstate.

The most important factor in burst water main frequency in recent years has not been government investment or ministerial diligence, but the weather.

This year, Adelaide is on track to record the highest number of burst water mains for several years – and a huge jump on last year.

Funnily enough, there’s been little agitation in the media about the issue.

SA Water figures provided to InDaily show the number of burst water mains to the end of September this year already outstrips last year’s total figure for metropolitan Adelaide, with a full quarter to go (and despite a multi-million-dollar investment last year).

SA Water says the pattern matches changes in the weather – an argument with which most engineers would concur.

“In Adelaide, the most common reason for water main breaks is reactive clay soils moving during the transition from hot and dry seasons to wet and cold,” SA Water said in a statement. “Adelaide’s reactive soils combine with an arid climate to dry out and wet far deeper than any other urban area in the country.

“Milder transitions between seasons in 2017, resulting in more stable levels of moisture in our clay soils, was one of the key drivers of a 25 per cent decrease in water main breaks across the state last year, compared to 2016. Conversely, an extremely dry start to 2018 (according to the BOM, 2017/18 was Australia’s second warmest summer on record) and below average rainfall for South Australia through autumn and winter, saw soils react strongly to rain events in the first six or so months of this year. This triggered an increase in water main breaks and leaks and was a trend seen in water networks across the country. With the soils now wet, the number of water main incidents has started to decrease, as has historically been the case in spring.”

Ian’s sweary tirade justified?

As well as having a cardboard effigy dragged out to every burst water main, Ian Hunter was also publicly pilloried for his fervour about South Australia getting shafted over the implementation of the Murray Darling Basin Plan.

In late 2016, he used some very blue language in front of politicians including Barnaby Joyce at a ministerial get-together at Rigoni’s Bistro in Leigh Street. He later apologised, but not before nipping out for ice-creams.

Since those heady days, the full extent of upstream bastardry over the river has been revealed.

And, yesterday, counsel assisting South Australia’s Murray Darling Basin Royal Commission, Richard Beasley, told the inquiry’s final hearing in Adelaide that the Murray Darling Basin Plan had been mismanaged by the authority, with a “near total lack of transparency in an important sense”.

This mismanagement had damaged the environment and the economy, “but the state that will suffer the most is the state at the end of the system, South Australia”.

Beasley also said the implementation of the plan had not been based on the best science.

“Further, ecologically sustainable development has either been ignored or, in some cases, in relation to supply measures, actually inverted,” he said.

And here’s what Beasley said about the upstream states and their approach to the royal commission.

“…. in relation to the New South Wales, Victorian and Queensland submissions, they are incredibly thin, lacking in detail and, with respect, either totally unhelpful or not particularly helpful.”

So the upstream states – and the Commonwealth which refused to allow witnesses to be interviewed by the inquiry – treated the royal commission with contempt.

The bottom line seems to be that the implementation of the plan has been a scandal. A much bigger scandal, you might argue, than a minister dropping a few F- and C-bombs.

The new State Government has been very quiet on this particular disgrace. While the royal commission was clearly the previous Labor Government’s baby, the new administration has created the impression that it has been undermining its work.

Universities’ masterclass in opacity

The failure of the city’s two biggest universities to pull off a merger is a matter of public interest to everyone in South Australia.

However, a week after closed-door meetings decided against the institutions coming together, both hierarchies have shut up shop, refusing interview requests on the matter.

Adelaide vice-chancellor Peter Rathjen and chancellor Kevin Scarce have penned a brief op-ed for the Murdoch press, containing the  assertion that more than 9000 South Australians are now choosing to study at “interstate” institutions, effectively hastening the state’s brain drain.

However, they won’t be interviewed on the matter. UniSA vice-chancellor David Lloyd also refused InDaily’s request for an interview.

It looks they are hoping the whole issue will simply fade away, with key details hidden behind that old chestnut – commercial-in-confidence.

What is clear is that UniSA was the reluctant partner for reasons it hasn’t fully explained, with Adelaide willing to keep talks moving, for reasons it too hasn’t fully explained.

The local universities are established under South Australian legislation and well-supported by our taxes. They occupy a great of financial and geographical ground in a city the size of Adelaide and they owe the community a decent explanation of their decision-making processes.

Most importantly, if they believe their ongoing competitiveness in retaining our brightest students, teachers and researchers is in question, then that’s a concern for the entire community that deserves open debate.

Notes On Adelaide is a column telling the inside stories of Adelaide people, politics, institutions and issues. If you have information that you believe should be noted in this column, send us an email: editorial@solsticemedia.com.au

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