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Richardson: Blaming the government, SA's favourite pastime

Opinion

Gary Burns ignited a firestorm of indignation this week when he suggested South Australians had “unrealistic expectations” of their emergency services. He’s right, of course, and it points to a culture of dependency in the state. But, writes Tom Richardson, it is a culture fostered and nurtured by the very government we now blame for our collective ills.

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This week, former police commissioner Gary Burns produced his Independent Review of the Extreme Weather Event in South Australia, or what could also have been called: “The Things We Did After The Blackout.”

Unless you’re Harold Salisbury, if you’re a retired police commissioner the chances are the State Government is going to call on you sooner or later to pen some report or other for them, and this was Gary’s time to shine.

The upshot of his actual inquiry was all fairly self-evident: emergency services did a good job in difficult circumstances, a well-thought-out plan would be better than just winging it in emergency situations, if we back up a lot more things with an uninterrupted power supply the power won’t get interrupted to as many things as often, and so on.

But what got Gary into mild controversy was when he suggested more overtly, in media appearances to spruik his bombshell findings, that people generally need to harden the f*** up.

He said it a tad more delicately than that, but that was the unmistakable message.

We have, we are told, “unrealistic expectations” about our emergency services in events such as that of September 28, 2016.

“People should accept that in events like this you’re not going to get an SES van outside your door,” Burns mused.

He’s right of course.

And his report’s right when it talks about the need for us all to learn “resilience” – a word that somehow makes us all sound like three-year-olds learning how to use a toilet by ourselves.

Which is perhaps a fair analogy.

Because Burns, either by chance or design, has touched upon one of South Australia’s most cloying social peccadilloes: the earnest and inherent belief that we pay the government to do everything for us.

It’s particularly cloying because most people tend to combine it with an incessant monologue about how the government should keep out of our way and stop meddling in our private enterprises and affairs.

But even the most ardent free-marketeers in SA appear to spend much of their (evidently plentiful) spare time counting the ways in which their government has let them down. Burst water main? Blame the government. Toxic leaks from an unidentified neighbourhood business? Blame the government. Airborne ash from a defunct privately-owned power plant? Blame the government.

It’s a wonder we hear such a constant refrain about how hard it is to attract businesses to South Australia. If I was running a company, I’d make a beeline for the place – after all, whenever anything goes wrong (which is fairly often), all the locals just blame the government!

We blamed the government when the state was threatened by drought and we blamed the government for the lingering costs of drought-proofing the state’s water supply.

We blamed the government when a publicly-listed mining giant changed its investment plans (albeit to be fair the government had been quick to accept the credit before it all went south – or didn’t, as the case may be).

And, of course, we blamed the government for presiding over the infrastructure that failed on September 28 – and a few times thereafter.

Which is not to say that there should not be accountability in all of this, merely to point out that in other times and places government accountability might not be the communal bloodsport it has become in SA of late.

Nor is it to deny that many South Australians are severely affected by power outages; in the September statewide blackout, the consequences for some ranged from distressing to gut-wrenching.

Still, for most of us, it was simply a question of temporarily shifting the goalposts of our day-to-day routine. While checking occasionally out the front window for that damn SES van.

The community response to Burns’ suggestion that this was a failure not merely of government, but of all of us to plan and persist, was righteous indignation

Yes, there were those for whom the consequences of the blackout spelled a major financial hit to their livelihood, others even for whom the toll was a personal tragedy.

But for most South Australians the biggest inconvenience was trying to work out how to re-set the digital clock on the oven once the power was back on.

And yet, the community response to Burns’ suggestion that this was a failure not merely of government, but of all of us to plan and persist, was righteous indignation.

This is, his report stated, “not the domain of government alone, but also the responsibility of the broader community, business, and individuals to participate through shared-responsibility and developing their own resilience”.

I suspect the indignation flowed from the fact that many were expecting the report to be a roll-call of ways the government let us collectively down. And instead, Burns tells us we should have been fending for ourselves instead of waiting for someone else to fix everything.

How very dare he!

But of course, if there is a propensity to reach instinctively for the government teat, even as we mock our state’s cultural dependence, that is an instinct long fostered by our current Labor administration and its forebears.

If there is a culture of blaming the government for all our ills, that is largely because the government has long promised to cure them.

Labor, for much of its lengthy tenure, has campaigned a little like Homer Simpson did when he stood for election as Springfield’s sanitation commissioner under the banner: ‘Can’t Someone Else Do It?’

And, just like in The Simpsons, SA Labor has slowly learned that big government costs big money.

From Mike Rann’s sneering disdain for the very principle of privatisation to Jay Weatherill’s evident belief that government should be responsible for everything from major projects to subsidising employment, Labor’s default response to any challenge has for so long been to hire more bureaucrats to deal with it, or indeed to blame another government.

And, if all else fails, to hire a retired police commissioner to look into things.

And if there appears to be a political dimension to every critique these days, it is perhaps because there has been for so long political mileage sought in every questionable achievement.

Perhaps if the government didn’t spruik every trifling bridge opening as a victory for local jobs, it wouldn’t wear so much of the opprobrium when said bridges started falling down on top of busy motorways.

And, not to start instinctively blaming the government, but the Weatherill administration really has no-one else to admonish for the fact its citizens apparently expect SES vans at their doorstep in any given crisis.

After all, it was the government that injected tens of millions of dollars in new taxes into general revenue and dressed it up as a boost to emergency services.

The Emergency Services Levy increase, such as it was, was never intended nor designed to improve emergency services per se. It was merely the lifting of a 50 per cent remission paid by the government out of general revenue, putting the onus instead onto households, and leaving all that cash left in the budget for things like fixing broken bridges, litigating against hospital consortia, increasing politicians’ salaries, and the like.

In the almost three years since the ESL hike was imposed, it’s returned roughly $100 million extra each year to Treasury coffers.

As of last month, Tom Koutsantonis’s surplus for the current year was expected to be around $300 million.

In other words, to borrow from George W. Bush: it’s your surplus – you paid for it!

And all the while, Labor has tried to justify its budget-balancing with recourse to that sacred cow, our emergency services.

So it’s little wonder South Australians have fallen into a vague impression that our emergency response should be gold-plated.

We’ve spent three years paying twice as much for it as we were before.

And Labor, correspondingly, should be unsurprised when it gets to the next election to find many South Australians wondering: “Can’t Someone Else Do It?”

Tom Richardson is a senior reporter at InDaily.

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