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Jay's pride in SA's unemployment rate has business leaders in "disbelief"

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Some of the state’s foremost business leaders were left “shaking their heads” by a speech in which Premier Jay Weatherill claimed South Australia’s nation-leading unemployment rate was “quite an achievement”, InDaily has been told.

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Weatherill yesterday addressed a lunchtime gathering hosted by the Australian Institute of Company Directors, with attendees telling InDaily he enthused that SA’s unemployment rate – which has remained the highest in the nation for well over a year – was “trending well”.

One said the Premier suggested if the jobless rate remained around 7 per cent by the end of next year it would be “cause for celebration”.

“There was literally a collective shaking of the head across the room in disbelief that we had a Premier celebrating the fact that we’re dwelling bottom of the ladder,” said another who was there.

“It was genuinely quite remarkable.”

A printed copy of the speech provided to InDaily by the Premier’s office contains only a passing reference to SA’s unemployment rate, which fell to 6.4 from 7 per cent in July on a seasonally-adjusted basis.

“We’re feeling the effects of change earlier and more keenly than many other places in the country and, indeed, the world,” the speech reads.

“This is throwing up all kinds of challenges… for example, our unemployment rate fell significantly in July, but is still at an unacceptably high 6.4 per cent.”

However, it appears Weatherill strayed significantly from his script, instead recalling the tenor of comments he made in July’s Budget Estimates hearing.

At the time, he said “we are consuming the single biggest change in the SA economy in recent history… essentially the reconstruction of the Playford legacy” of heavy manufacturing.

“If we are able to do that and at the same time still keep growing in terms of employment, it will be an extraordinary achievement,” he told parliament at the time.

“This budget forecasts that we will achieve that: every single job lost in the manufacturing sector replaced and, in addition, job growth. That is not to be sneezed at; that is a very significant achievement.”

But it was evidently not a message well-received by the business community at yesterday’s lunch, members of which insist Weatherill said maintaining the unemployment rate around 7 per cent would be a major coup.

“Basically he said, ‘We’ve created 9000 jobs and it’s trending well’, but it’s a fairly moot point,” said one observer, who didn’t want to be named.

“In one sense, yes, we are creating jobs – hallelujah, that’s great, the trend is up – but the trend is only based on what was there before.

“There were a few comments around my table, saying, ‘It’s nice it’s trending well, but 9000 jobs – we need 60,000!’”

The Premier also reportedly enthused that SA’s jobless rate was only 0.1 per cent above WA in July, but one attendee said drawing a positive comparison out of that was a long bow.

“It’s a bit like comparing ourselves with Tassie – we’re now comparing ourselves with WA,” they said.

“Most people at my table were going, ‘That’s a nice way of putting it, we’re trending up’, [but] the only reason we’re 0.1 per cent above WA is that WA is a cot case!”

Weatherill’s off-the-cuff comments reportedly also touched on the theme of “Let’s get the naysayers out the way” – appearing to single out economist and InDaily columnist Richard Blandy as one such offender – but he evidently failed to convince the “naysayers” in the audience with his insistence that “if we get to the end of 2017 still sitting at only about 7 per cent unemployment, we’ve done really well in the circumstances”.

“It was kind of remarkable… [essentially] if we can just keep this outrageously high unemployment figure where it is, it’s cause for celebration,” said the observer.

“The audience sat there and there was no real response… if I was him I wouldn’t have been overwhelmed by a positive response.

“Yes, we’re creating jobs and trending up [but] the reality is, we’re still leading the nation [in unemployment].”

Another attendee said he noted during the speech that “Jay says we should be proud about having an unemployment rate of almost 7 per cent”.

“He went on to say it was quite an achievement, considering that just over the horizon there would be 5000 people in the unemployment queue,” the observer said.

“That was the comment that inspired the collective shaking of the head over the room… the guy immediately to my left was genuinely in disbelief that we had a Premier celebrating the fact that our economy is trailing the rest of the country!”

Weatherill was not available for interview this morning, but his office said he “has previously stated that if we continue to create jobs and grow our economy as we consume the loss of Holden and the decline of traditional manufacturing, our state should be proud of that achievement”.

“He reiterated those remarks at yesterday’s event,” it said.

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