This time next week we’ll be dissecting Tom Koutsantonis’s second budget. It’s fair to say the events of this week – a cavalcade of backflips, broken promises and inauspicious economic portents – was not the warm-up act he’d been hoping for.
Yesterday was a perfect political storm. At 10am Alinta Energy publicly confirmed the closure of its two Port Augusta power stations and – effectively – the town of Leigh Creek, having first directly or indirectly notified (in apparent decreasing order of importance) the State Government, the Opposition, News Corp and its own workers.
At 11am the monthly jobs figures were published. South Australia’s unemployment rate rocketed to 7.6 per cent. Tasmania, so often the yardstick by which we console ourselves for achieving mediocrity rather than egregiousness, fell to 7.0 per cent. Which meant we can finally ditch the qualifier that SA has the highest unemployment “on the mainland” and simply say “in the country”.
Isn’t it great to excel at something?
At 12.30pm the Premier fronted the TV cameras, pledging a $1 million fighting fund to help workers affected by the Alinta debacle, but rightly pointing out that said debacle was a symptom of a broader shift in the state, national and indeed international economy.
“We are going to have to continue to take bold and assertive steps to imagine a new future not just for this region, but other regions affected by the transformation in our economy,” he vowed.
Um … continue?
Other than the increasingly audacious overuse of the word “bold”, Labor’s fourth-term agenda that the Premier warned would knock off our proverbial socks has been less bold than beige.
Before last year’s election, Weatherill conceded that the Government had at times been guilty of “overspruiking”, which meant voters were left underwhelmed when the reality failed to match the hype, usually by some considerable distance.
He then merrily set about setting a new benchmark for overselling the drama, suggesting people would “gasp a little” at the “boldness” of his vision.
There were no audible gasps when that vision was calmly articulated by Governor Hieu Van Le at parliament’s re-opening in February, although there were important ideas articulated, and we should celebrate governments unafraid to throw big, new ideas around.
The problem for Labor, Weatherill included, is that people have lost belief in their capacity to translate the ideas into action.
Which is hardly surprising.
They talk about an economy in swift transition, but appear in no hurry to transition from thought bubbles to decision-making.
They talk about “boldness”, but policy bravery turns to squeamishness in the face of political bruising. Which suggests a lack of conviction behind the policy in the first place.
Take this week’s latest backflip, the O-Bahn Plan Mark 4.
According to Transport Minister Stephen Mullighan, it’s not much of a backflip because “we will still be delivering buses from Hackney Road through a dedicated tunnel underneath the parklands, which was the central premise we announced earlier this year”.
Yeah, not really. The central premise earlier this year was to close Rundle Road and return it to parklands in a bid to “transform the city’s East End”.
Some 150 carparks would be lost, but there would be an overall “net benefit” to the size of the parklands.
No longer. Now, there will still be a tunnel running out of Rymill Park, but Rundle Road will remain as well, effectively a car park connecting the city to the eastern suburbs. High fives all round!
Indeed, we’ll now have more carparks, rather than fewer, which is great news for anyone too lazy to walk a few extra metres from Bartels Rd, where there always appear to be spaces aplenty. Green-belt campaigners may celebrate helping to force yet another Labor backdown, but I fear the victory is as Pyrrhic as their last great ‘David Vs Goliath’ moment, when they forced Kevin Foley to abandon plans for a permanent grandstand on Victoria Park. Thus effectively turning it into a construction site for six months of every year.
As for the ever-on-message Mullighan, he managed to sell the U-turn as entirely consistent with Labor’s broader agenda by claiming “this is a good example of the Government’s ‘debate and decide’ mantra”.
Weatherill rose to prominence with his public condemnation of the Rann administration’s propensity to “ride roughshod” over public opinion, but the truth is a slavish adherence to “debating and deciding” is utterly inconsistent with a bold policy agenda.
The strange evolution of the O-Bahn plan might prompt someone, somewhere to question whether shaving a few minutes off commuter journeys from the north-eastern suburbs is really a burning public policy priority in the midst what the Premier has already described as “an economic transformation”, and what the Opposition has long called “a dangerous jobs crisis”.
Weatherill’s emphatic retort is invariably that the plan was an election promise and thus it must be honoured.
Yet that sits awkwardly alongside the week’s corresponding backflip, with the new public high school on the old Royal Adelaide Hospital site to be built off the old Royal Adelaide Hospital site instead.
As the Premier would have it, that broken promise (and it is a broken promise – the Government was adamant pre-election that a high school was the best use for the RAH site) is justifiable because it improves on the original plan.
This is arguable. Apparently, the new location – Uni SA’s Reid Building, adjacent the old RAH site on Frome Road – has “all of the benefits” of the original plan, but has “really significant additional advantages – its proximity to playing fields and the university”.
However, Adelaide University told InDaily last month it had not been approached by the Government about sharing its sporting facilities, and appeared lukewarm at best at the prospect of doing so.
The Reid Building has a historic propensity for being flooded, and evidently has contamination issues that are not easily remediated. Furthermore, it doesn’t look particularly big, as far as 1000-student high schools go.
Of course, all of this is nickel and dime stuff in the scheme of things, but it is indicative of a broader lack of conviction, consistency and leadership, all of which are so desperately needed right now.
The Government is ploughing on with its Frankenstein’s Monster of an O-Bahn plan, despite hardly articulating why it’s necessary, purely because to do otherwise would be to break an election pledge. At the same time it’s breaking an election pledge on nearby North Terrace because it came up with a better idea.
It talks of bold solutions to broad economic problems, but its actions speak more loudly of political pusillanimity. It talks of building a vibrant city, but for now its major project is a boulevard of broken promises. There is a time for consensus and there is a time for conviction; now is the time for Jay Weatherill to decide which kind of politician he really is.
Tom Richardson is a senior journalist at InDaily. His political column is published on Fridays.
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