In Peter Weir’s classic film The Truman Show, Jim Carrey accidentally bumps into the hard edge of the show’s enormous set while sailing a small boat.
The shocking-but-funny incident confirms Truman’s suspicions that the world in which he lives is fake (it’s a TV show) and he makes ever-more desperate attempts to break free, before eventually succeeding.
There was something of Jim Carrey’s poignant collision with reality for us South Australians in April with the release of a national snap-shot of state economies.
In a move unprecedented as far as I can recall, economic modellers CommSec predicted that South Australia would likely require economic intervention from Canberra if current trends continue.
Far from this thunderbolt shaking our collective sense of well being, CommSec’s prediction created little public comment and sank without trace.
It seems that most South Australian’s can’t handle the truth about our state’s economy.
But it doesn’t end there.
On population growth, on planning policy, on a range of Government and Opposition savings plans and on our wider economic malaise, we seem to be in denial about the sad facts facing the state.
It’s a luxury we can’t afford. But many seem determined to maintain it and are fighting increasingly bitterly to defend the status quo.
Overcoming this sense of denial, and the social and economic inertia that goes with it, is the single greatest challenge of political leadership in South Australia today.
In it’s latest “State of the States” report CommSec noted: ”For the bottom grouping of states – Tasmania and South Australia – joint action by the Federal Government and the … state governments … will probably be necessary to lift economic momentum and overall performance”.
We are now in the cellar of the Federation with Tasmania. It had been on the cards for a while – now it’s “official”.
A city long touted as the “Athens of the South” for its Mediterranean climate and cultural cache might now be earning the moniker for economic reasons.
But CommSec’s shocking conclusion hardly came out of the blue.
In the past year our already middling economic state has sunk considerably.
The state entered a technical recession at the end of 2012. Unemployment was up in May, to 5.9 per cent, second highest behind Tasmania, while the national average fell to 5.5 per cent.
Business and consumer confidence is down and falling. Civil construction in the commercial and residential sectors has stalled.
BHP Billiton’s decision last year to scrap its planned massive, economy-shaping, expansion of Olympic Dam continues to eat away confidence within and without the state.
This year more than 600 jobs have been lost in manufacturing, from hi-tech firms like Saab Systems and BAE Systems and car-maker General Motors Holden, among others.
State debt is tipped by Moody’s to reach 75 per cent of Gross State Product by 2016. The ratings agency last year dropped its AAA rating for the state. The state budget deficit sits at a record $1.3 billion.
Two weeks ago Jay Weatherill called his first state budget as Treasurer “cautious”.
Weatherill meant in economic terms but he could just as easily have meant politically, as he shored-up support among Labor constituencies ahead of next March’s election.
Unfortunately, since becoming Premier almost two years ago Weatherill has not made the big public case for an economic re-boot of the state. He has engaged a low-risk “softly-softly” political approach.
His modest plans around planning and attracting a younger population to the inner city are aimed at unlocking dormant parts of the economy.
But even these modest moves have been met with vehement opposition from entrenched communities of interest.
For example, the Government has moved to raise – for the first time in decades – allowable heights for apartment buildings to about 10 storeys in selected parts of inner-city suburbs.
It has also lifted the decades-old ban on tall buildings in much of the CBD (Adelaide last year attracted a feature film shoot to the CBD because it still looked like the 1970s).
At a vitriolic public meeting in Burnside a middle-aged woman was filmed by ABC TV news literally shaking with indignation.
She told the meeting that the increased building heights amounted to the “rape of Burnside”.
… the common thread is clear: a widespread, almost knee-jerk, desire among many to live as they’ve always lived. To live in the past.
At a later public meeting in Norwood Town Hall a brave planning bureaucrat took to the lectern and commented on the advanced age of the audience.
The audience’s stated concerns about overpopulation seemed a hang-over from the 1970s and Paul Ehrlich’s discredited “Population Bomb” scare. Was this the 1970s protest era maxim “think global – act local” applied into middle and old age and in our own Norwood?
The bureaucrat levelled with the crowd: the Government both planned for, and chased, higher population growth and the reason was simple. South Australia has the slowest population growth and highest average age of the mainland states, according to the ABS.
Many in the audience didn’t appear to know that these demographic facts would create huge social and economic challenges for future generations.
To put it more provocatively – did they even care?
Meanwhile, the city’s truly well-heeled in the sandstone enclaves of North Adelaide and East Terrace have attempted the political equivalent of “telling mum and dad”, over similar planning changes in the CBD.
Ten-story buildings would – they fear – block their views of the Adelaide Hills and the park lands. So important were these bucolic glimpses that they were protected by heritage listings, they claimed. The Adelaide City Council was convinced to write to Canberra to try to stop the planning changes.
Population and planning are just two, albeit high-profile, local debates among many that fill the public square.
But the common thread is clear: a widespread, almost knee-jerk, desire among many to live as they’ve always lived. To live in the past.
Some appear to want to live in a 19th century English village; others prefer to re-live the 1970s, when Don Dunstan was Premier and the state could afford to be the cultural vanguard and when population concerns gripped the globe; many others prefer the government-subsidised existence of the “Ten Pound Poms” of the 1950s, or of a more genteel time of public service tenure, or of the tariff-protected car-making jobs-for-life years of the 1960s and 1970s, or the social security state ushered in by Gough Whitlam in the 1970s.
But just as the first settlers reinvented themselves in the New World, so must we re-invent South Australia now, if the state is to succeed.
Re-invention may be a long-term project, but an attempt is currently underway to re-invent a genuine international sporting icon.
More to it, the Adelaide Oval redevelopment must be the biggest, most expensive Hail Mary pass in the state’s recent history.
The Government is spending $500 million and the plans suggest the new Oval will be a jewel among Australia’s capital city stadia.
For a Premier gauging the temper of a people living in the past rather than engaging the state’s future, a re-invented Oval could be a signpost to the state’s future.
Jeremy Roberts is an Adelaide-based freelance journalist.
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