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Richardson: Et in Arcadia ego

Opinion

A state that has long chased dreams of utopia is now confronting its reality as the nation’s worst-performed economy and, Tom Richardson argues, a Government that has long sold hope is struggling to find a new pitch.

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Belt-tightening seems to be the theme du jour, what with the Government’s proposed wage restraint and a broad aversion to a wholesale spending program (largely, one suspects, because they ran out of ideas for new taxes with which to fund it).

And as when one literally attempts to tighten one’s belt, it’s a despondent and laborious endeavour.

Yep, it’s midwinter, and maybe the long nights and intemperate weather have seen many of us locked in semi-hibernation while gorging on the contents of the pantry.

Thus, there comes a time for the inevitable crash diet.

The first week always goes ok: enthusiasm and resolve is high, fatty snacks are eschewed in favour of a kale and rocket salad mix wrapped in mountain bread; you may even muster up the fortitude to brave a brisk jog around the block.

And then the weekend comes around and it’s time to take stock – and you realise that for all your efforts, you are still pretty much the porcine slob you were seven days earlier.

And that reality can be a crushing disappointment.

I presume that is much how Tom Koutsantonis felt when confronted with yesterday’s jobs figures – which edged upwards again, to tip the scales at 7 per cent for the month of June, well above the 5.8 per cent national average.

While unrelated to Labor’s budget statement of the previous week, it was still a bruising psychological blow.

A budget whose centrepiece is jobs, jobs, jobs – and the state is still defined on the national stage as jobless, jobless, jobless.

Still, we haven’t yet revisited the generational peaks of the previous year, but the signs are ominous.

Psychologically, it feels as if the state has already been through Holden’s local manufacturing demise, but of course many of the genuine effects of the shutdown are still ahead of us.

Labor has long been adept at selling hope, but it is clear this was predicated more on good salesmanship than good product.

For a decade, we’ve been sold visions of an Arcadia built on a foundation of mineral wealth and high-end manufacturing prowess.

Of course, as they say in the classics: Et in Arcadia ego – even in Paradise, there is death.

And so it was for Labor’s grand dreams, whose requiem is a legacy of burgeoning unemployment and ad hoc policy solutions.

We’ve gone from jobs growth as a by-product of our broader state-building goals, to jobs growth as a sort of desperate, myopic policy objective in itself.

Don’t get me wrong, paying businesses to hire staff is a clever stop-gap but – like paying an entire auto industry to stay open – it’s unsustainable.

The problem for the Athens of the south is that it too eerily resembles the Athens of the north; trapped between wistful reminiscences of past glories and a creeping uncertainty about its place in the world, it is – like that U2 song once put it – stuck in a moment it can’t get out of.

To the current administration’s credit, it has adopted a rhetoric largely free of artifice, deliberately and inevitably an era removed from the grand narratives of its forebears.

“There’s no one measure that’s going to change South Australia forever – not the subs, not Olympic Dam, not the Nuclear Royal Commission,” Koutsantonis dourly observed on Budget Day, although he may want to emphasise the latter to the waste dump’s more enthusiastic proponents among his caucus colleagues (cough…Tom Kenyon…cough).

But then, if the rhetoric is dour it’s because there is much to be dour about.

The longer this Labor Government has gone, the more conscious those within it have been of their “legacy” – how this decade-plus of SA history will be defined. And to be fair, the city infrastructure achievements set in train during the Rann era will ultimately stand as a worthy tribute.

But if Labor leaves office with the structural economic problems that have now seen the state’s unemployment rate entrenched as the worst in the land still unresolved, that will stand as a legacy to eclipse all others.

Right now, the morale of the state is akin to the crash-dieter finally realising the enormity of the task before them, and the futility of their efforts thus far.

Labor’s political problem is that the necessary adjustment is, by nature, long and arduous – a lifestyle change, not a fad diet.

To sell hope in these circumstances will require two things: pitch-perfect salesmanship and a plan.

The problem is, if there is a plan, no-one’s entirely sure what it is.

And while Labor’s never been averse to salesmanship, the electorate is growing increasingly wary of their shtick.

Weatherill and Koutsantonis plainly understand that the challenge requires a broad adjustment in the state’s economic engine-room. To use the parlance of the departing auto industry, it requires a total overhaul.

The focus in the future will be on micro-businesses and innovation, not on chasing grand visions of Arcadia.

And the fruits of that won’t happen overnight, if they happen at all.

Koutsantonis spoke yesterday of seeing “green shoots”, which is debatable. But if those green shoots don’t produce a few saplings within the next two years, no amount of salesmanship is going to convince South Australians Labor’s legacy is anything but entrenched malaise.

Tom Richardson is a senior journalist with InDaily. His political column is published on Fridays.

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