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Campaign Diary: Liberals take a cynical media turn


In today's Campaign Diary, the Liberals show they can mix it with Labor when it comes to cynical media strategy, we ask how many South Australians are paying attention to the election media battle, the burst water main obsession evaporates and Nick Xenophon reveals where he's happy to see high-density housing.

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Liberals seek to control the story, Labor-style

You wouldn’t know it from today’s coverage elsewhere, but Steven Marshall’s Liberals have just announced they will kill off the long-hoped-for rebuilding of Adelaide’s suburban tram network.

In a cynical example of media game-playing – straight out of the Labor playbook – Marshall and his transport spokesman David Pisoni stood on the corner of North Terrace yesterday and promised to spend millions on a tram right-hand turn, but refused to answer questions on their broader plan for public transport or the tram network.

They even got stuck into Labor for failing to release their study into the broader tram network, while promising their full plan would be revealed in the coming days.

After that press conference (which didn’t go particularly smoothly) they immediately journeyed – at least figuratively – a few blocks south to the Murdoch empire’s Waymouth Street headquarters, where they happily detailed their plans for public transport, with the words of refusal to answer other journalists’ questions still dying in their mouths.

So to summarise: a leader who has regularly got stuck into Labor’s lack of transparency and accountability and its alleged obsessions with headlines has hidden his intentions before the press pack, opting for the less hostile option of a one-on-one interview with the aim of generating his own friendly headline.

It’s a move directly out of Labor’s media playbook. Only in the media/political world is this sort of game-playing considered normal and appropriate.

And the result is exactly what Marshall would have hoped for: a front-page story about how he will investigate building a city tram loop and an extension to North Adelaide.

The underlying story – some might say, the real story – is that he plans to all but scrap long-held plans to rebuild the suburban tram network, which opens him up to accusations that his “right-hand turn” promise is not much more  than an expensive PR gambit.

Ironically, the Liberal Party’s trams policy would inflict the same problem on commuters travelling to the west end of the CBD that it wants to solve by building a right-hand turn onto North Terrace, for those heading east.

And with just a handful of trams gambolling around a few extra kilometres of city track (at best) under the Liberal plan, the need to rip up freshly-laid tracks for a new turn at King William Street/North Terrace seems an extravagance.

Best of all, for Marshall and Pisoni, they won’t have to face the cameras in an all-in media conference to explain these decisions today.

While we might expect a new broom in some areas from Marshall, clearly he likes what he’s seen in Labor’s myopic media strategy (although even Jay Weatherill’s media advisers would flinch at the idea of witholding information from a press conference only to give it to one media outlet a few hours later).

Meanwhile, Labor keeps hammering away at the going-nowhere Sally Zou donation story, hoping to pick up some fear-based votes in whitebread suburbs.

Not the greatest week for South Australian democracy.

Is anyone listening?

South Australia’s fixed electoral cycle means our recent elections have been held in the midst of Mad March, when many thousands of us are focused on anything but politics.

While insiders pore over media coverage and pull apart the strengths and weaknesses of the respective campaigns, it’s worth asking whether anyone is paying attention.

The TV ratings suggest that engagement, at least at the media level, could be relatively low.

For example, on the night that the ICAC’s scathing Oakden report was released, Adelaide’s highest rating TV news service, Seven, attracted 102,000 viewers – well below its 2017 average of 121,000. Nine had only 75,000 viewers, the ABC 67,000 and Ten 47,000.

These are low figures compared to many other times of the year, despite the networks rolling out high-profile shows.

On the equivalent Wednesday last year, leading station Seven attracted 6000 additional viewers to its news compared to this year.

Last night, Seven’s news – again the leader of the pack – dipped below the 100k mark to record only 91,000 viewers (still 20,000 ahead of nearest rival Nine).

It will take some time for the newspaper readership figures and radio ratings to be released, but it seems at least possible they could show a similar trend.

Water main media bubble bursts – again

Despite intense media focus over the past couple of years on our allegedly leaky water system, the statistics continue to show that South Australia performs relatively well on our rate of water main breaks and leaks.

You would have thought the issue would be high on the campaign agenda, given this attention, but it’s barely raised a ripple.

And the latest national performance report by the Bureau of Meteorology, released yesterday, indicates why.

The report shows that in 2016/17, SA Water customers experienced 13.5 water main breaks per 100 kilometres of pipe – well below the national average of 21.1.

Only four of 14 comparable water utilities across Australia recorded a better performance.

This is a 9.4 per cent reduction compared to the previous year. Even then, however, SA Water was a relatively good performer on water main breaks – recording the seventh lowest rate out of the 15 largest utilities in Australia.

The cardboard cut-out of Water Minister Ian Hunter might have to go to hard rubbish.

Nick Xenophon on density and population growth

SA Best leader Nick Xenophon has been unashamedly calling for an increase in South Australia’s population, but how will these people be accommodated in the state?

At the second of InDaily’s leaders’ forums this week, he said he understood concerns about the sustainability of such growth, but he wanted to “rebalance” Australia’s population. While Victoria and NSW were growing in six figures every year, SA last year grew by fewer than 10,000 people.

Xenophon said the low growth mattered because we now had fewer young people than we did in 1981, when the overall population was much smaller.

“That poses huge demographic challenges for us,” he said. “The fact that so many young people have left the state is because they can’t get the jobs they deserve, because there aren’t opportunities here, is a huge challenge. And that means there are fewer people working here and paying taxes compared to people who’ve retired.”

He says a lot of country towns have shrunk, meaning they have spare housing stock and room to grow.

In the CBD, he says the resident population of 17,000 people compared poorly to a century ago when more than 100,000 people were housed within the square mile.

“I don’t support this urban densification that we’ve seen, particularly in the seat of Hartley where I’m running, where I’m facing the fight of my life, where we’ve seen inappropriate developments go up causing all sort of issues on suburban streets,” Xenophon told the forum at Flinders University’s city campus.

“This (the CBD) is the place for high rise; this is the place where we can grow with good, appropriate developments and I find it staggering that we haven’t grown. So that’s part of the vision, to grow the state but in a responsible, sustainable way.”

Listen to a snapshot of our interview with Xenophon here.

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