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Richardson: Bridges are burning


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In one of those unguarded moments we all grew to know and love, a pre-parliament but not pre-politics Kevin Rudd once allegedly sneeringly described Adelaide as a welfare case for the rest of the country.

It’s hardly tactful, but the thing is, there’s an element of truth to it.

For example, the more prosperous states want GST distribution reformed, but it can’t happen because that would mean they stop bailing out SA and Tasmania.

Jay Weatherill is demanding a more generous outlay from Canberra for automotive transformation assistance, because the state was unable to sustain an industry. That’s not to say he’s unjustified in this demand, merely to point out that, much like the auto industry, South Australia is traditionally pretty good at asking for help when it cannot help itself.

But it should expect less help from the current Federal Government.

The prevailing philosophy within the Coalition is one of pure market economics, or at least as pure as it can get away with politically. If a company can only survive because of ongoing Government support, this prevailing philosophy will not recognise that company as legitimate.

Thus, Holden was told, effectively, it would no longer be propped up – it would have to walk, run or fall. Ditto SPC Ardmona, although that tale appears to have ended more happily. The general impression is that if businesses are unable to stand on their own two feet without Commonwealth assistance, the Commonwealth doesn’t really want them here, sullying their aspirational pure market.

Unfortunately, of course, South Australia is the governance equivalent of one of those companies loudly bemoaning the fact that the government won’t pay them enough to stay open.

… the likes of Leon Bignell have taken to their new challenge with a revitalized fervour, but others, including the Premier himself, have quickly dispensed with the notion of governing for all South Australians.

On paper, the Commonwealth Government wouldn’t recognise this state as legitimate; it seems to be the antithesis of all it stands for. A high-tax, low-yield Labor state with a pleasant air but few major successes. Like a flailing businessman, it talks a good game and always has a few bits and pieces on the go, but few that come to fruition.

Olympic Dam was supposed to make us the new Western Australia, but the old Western Australia is still doing what it does best. The largely unexplained federal pledge (from the aforementioned Rudd, among others) to build 12 next-generation submarines in SA was apparently going to ensure a lively industrial future for Adelaide’s north post-Holden, but this week, the Commonwealth again injected a dose of reality to proceedings. Defence Minister David Johnston told a Canberra conference that while whatever work done to replace the Collins fleet would be centred around SA shipyards, the commitment to a dozen locally-built subs was no longer Government policy.

“We see military shipbuilding as a strategically important industry and certainly it is desirable that the new submarine would be built in Australia but it is not a blank cheque,” he explained.

In other words, the Federal Government’s defence procurement policy is geared towards finding the best vessels at the most bearable cost, not towards job creation programs in northern Adelaide.

And lest we forgot how dire the jobless challenge is, we were reminded when the March unemployment figures landed yesterday, with the SA rate leaping by 0.4 per cent to 7.1, the highest level it’s been since before Labor took office 12 years ago.

It’s an unpropitious time for things to be so badly structurally wrong.

The Liberal Opposition’s recent zeal seems to be, understandably, lacking since the election debacle; they are, for now, very much going through the same tired old motions, no doubt daunted and demoralized by the task still ahead.

For the Government, hubris and spite seem to have set in – at last in some quarters. By no means all: the likes of Leon Bignell have taken to their new challenge with a revitalized fervour, but others, including the Premier himself, have quickly dispensed with the notion of governing for all South Australians.

Having noted on regaining the Premiership that he’d clearly failed to inspire the business community and promising to rebuild their confidence, he then poured scorn on the business sector in an interview with Brenton Ragless on Channel 9 this week.

“One thing that everyone must now accept is that the challenges in front of us are enormous,” he said.

“Business is going to have to change. It’s going to have to lift its gaze to look outwards.”

Sounds more like bridge-burning than fence-building to me.

He then jetted straight off to China to put his money (such as it is) where his mouth is. He’ll join Tony Abbott’s delegation of Australian leaders (and won’t he just be feeling the love in the room with that lot?) before taking some time off ahead of parliament’s resumption, which is of course entirely justified but never ideally timed in politics.

No doubt he’ll be pressing the PM for more post-Holden funding and seek commitments for defence procurement guarantees, and the next four years will continue along much as the four years before it and the four years before that.

Jay Weatherill has promised to be bold. He needs to be.

State administration shouldn’t just be a test if how fruitfully you can argue for more handouts. Business isn’t the only sector that has to lift its gaze and look outwards.

Tom Richardson is InDaily’s political commentator and Channel 9’s state political reporter.

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