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Richardson: Parochialism won't solve SA's problems

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Last year the Weatherill Government had seven strategic priorities for Government, a blueprint that included realising the benefits of the mining boom, premium food and wine from our clean environment and creating a vibrant city.

This week, we were given a new, entirely different vision: the 10 economic priorities. They included unlocking the potential of South Australia’s resources, premium food and wine produced in our clean environment and making Adelaide the heart of the vibrant state.

So it’s clear now we are a state on the grow. We have three more priorities than we did last week.

(Though it seems we have, quietly, officially noted the passing of the mining boom.)

When quizzed about the striking similarity between several of his priorities, old and new, the Premier was dismissive: “No, well the seven priorities are actually about many broader things, they include things like early childhood development, affordable living … things which are not actually connected with the economy. This is now a focus on the economy.”

So, it appears we need 10 priorities to deal with the narrower economic issues but only seven to articulate the much broader-focussed vision. Oh, and apparently affordable living is not actually connected with the economy. Are we all clear now?

But that aside, the real talking point of the unveiling of Weatherill’s 10 point plan was his call for “all South Australians to project a quiet confidence about their future” from now on.

“If we hear somebody bagging us, you know, stand up for South Australia, rather than sort of slip back and say ‘yeah you might be right’,” he urged.

Now, I’d imagine most voters would appreciate a self-help course from the Premier about as much as they enjoy getting advice on bedroom etiquette from their mother-in-law. Certainly the general reaction to this bon mot appeared to be: “Give us something to be confident about and we’ll see how we go, cheers!”

Interestingly, Weatherill’s 10 new priorities were announced concurrent with another 10-point plan, released by the Shaping The Future of SA program. Which, if you don’t know, is a business-driven consultation designed to collate non-partisan ideas for policy consideration.

The first, and over-arching “identified action” of this report was: “Create a vision for South Australia”. Specifically, one “which reflects the values of boldness, caring, positivity, honesty and passion”.

Sounds pretty good.

The thing is, though, what does it say about 12 years of Labor rule that the finest minds of the state still don’t think we have an identifiable vision?

Perhaps they are generously treating this as year zero of the Weatherill era, which isn’t implausible given the Premier has made at least one fundamental break with the guiding ideology of the past decade.

Significantly, he posits that there is no magic bullet that will salvage the state economy. Rather, it is about making SA a conducive environment for many and varied businesses to start, survive and flourish. This notion effectively casts aside the philosophy of the Rann era that promoted mining and defence as twin beacons, like a pair of headlights steering us toward economic salvation.

But having made this acknowledgement, Weatherill dresses it up in the showy garb of glib populism. He loves to distil big ideas into dreary dot-points; whenever you hear talk of a “10 point plan”, you can be sure the vision has been mangled to fit the sales pitch, rather than the other way round.

But more insidious is the rhetoric around state pride.

Given the fundamental challenges facing the state economy, and the vague motherhood statements posited by Labor this week to address them, it’s an inopportune time to appeal to the state’s parochial heart.

But it wouldn’t be the first time parochialism has been used as a political tool to paper over serious economic deficiencies. My former colleague Chris Kenny wrote in 1993 about the cultural cringe that cosseted the Bannon Government through the State Bank’s rise and fall:

In the ‘80s it manifested itself in the “SA Great” organisation – formed by a group of Adelaide business people to boost South Australians’ self-confidence through publicity campaigns. No-one who saw the television advertisements could forget the shots of hard-working people giving viewers the thumbs up and telling them, “It’s our state, mate”.

The doomed State Bank, writes Kenny, “was a way for SA to be great”.

“To attack it was to attack the Festival, or the Crows, or fritz… The way (John) Bannon told it we were either with him, or against the state.”

There was a similar rhetorical flourish about Weatherill this week. Annoyed by the less-than-resounding endorsement of his call for “quiet confidence”, the Premier batted away my question about the structural problems bedeviling the economy.

“At the risk of offending, I think that question arises from a cynicism and a pessimism about South Australia that I don’t think is shared by most South Australians,” he said.

“I think we had a choice between that pessimistic or cynical view about SA at the last election, or a positive and forward-looking view about SA, and I think the people of SA chose the positive and optimistic view.”

It’s an interesting nuance. There’s no doubt Labor offered a more coherent and positive message that resonated with some sections of the electorate and, more pertinently, the Liberals failed to articulate a positive platform that would elevate dissatisfaction with the ALP into genuine enthusiasm for the alternative. But that doesn’t mean we should silence any scepticism about the state we’re in with the lofty assertion that we’ve collectively chosen a glass-half-full world-view.

Moreover, the Premier’s demand that the populace be more buoyant sits awkwardly with his relentlessly negative politicking. His campaign against federal budget cuts, while understandable, is predicated on deliberately ominous and over-exaggerated warnings about their potential consequences.

When given the opportunity to reassure against the potential closure of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, for instance, Weatherill instead warned that “every hospital is up for grabs”. He explained Hockey’s health cuts equated to the closure of 600 beds, shrugging: “We don’t want to have to close any hospital but that’s the size of the task that’s necessary.”

It’s hard to foster quiet confidence when you deliberately propound such hysteria.

The Premier may be derisive about “cynicism and pessimism”, but that appears to be the legacy of successive Labor Governments; and confidence, quiet or otherwise, is ultimately fostered by results, not rhetoric.

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

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