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Adelaide's thriving culture of denial


No amount of nostalgia or declarations about South Australia’s enviable lifestyle can cover the reality of our economic decline, writes Malcolm King.

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Denial is a part of life, whether it’s a life threatening illness, the effects of climate change or not getting a job. “This can’t be happening,” we think as we as cobble together an explanation. It’s a very human response.

Adelaide has been in denial about its economy for 30 years. In the past seven years, male blue-collar unemployment has soared. During the next 18 months, the whole automotive supply chain in South Australia will crumble, throwing around 12,000 people out of work.

Population growth is stagnant and migrant arrival numbers are falling, as our ambitious young achievers continue to flee to Melbourne and Sydney. Few come back. If they do, they struggle to get work because recruiters say they are ‘over qualified’, thereby creating a closed system.

The real kick in the bum is when smarmy eastern seaboard journalists call South Australia a “basket case” or a “rust bucket” state. They make jokes. What’s the definition of optimism? Finding gate 53 at Adelaide airport. One of the most familiar retorts from SA is: “Don’t tell them how good we have it here.”

But the view from the bridge is not so sanguine. In the year to January 2017, 1,300 full-time male and 4,100 female jobs were created in SA, according to the ABS. This is so miserably low in a workforce of 819,500 people, that I called the ABS. It’s correct.

Economists look hard at full-time job numbers because these fund home loans, personal loans, rental agreements and much more. To get a credit rating you need to have a full-time job. If you want to get promoted at work to enter the upper salary echelons, you need a full-time job.

The problem can be summed up with two statistics. From January 1997 to 2007 about 107,200 jobs were created in SA. From January 2007 to 2017, 62,800 jobs were created. What happened to those 45,000 jobs? They disappeared when the workers retired and they went offshore to South East Asia.

It’s hard to ignore the closed stores on the high streets such as Unley Road and Melbourne Street during the morning commute.

Denial can take many forms. One can attack the credibility of the source, find a flaw in the argument or ignore the statement altogether. A fourth option is complete ignorance. When I told a colleague that the recent increase in council rates, the hike in the ESL and other taxes and levies, was due to a failing economy, he looked aghast.

“Failing economy?” he yelled. “Now you’re making excuses for the bloody councils and rip-off state government!”

It’s hard to ignore the closed stores on the high streets such as Unley Road and Melbourne Street during the morning commute. Only 20 years ago these were Adelaide’s premier retail areas. A combination of extraordinarily tight spending, retail price deflation and commercial landlord greed, is killing them. But no one wants to talk about this.

Perception rests on attitudes, like a dog sitting on his tucker box. One of the most endearing defences of this state of affairs – and which does nothing to remedy the problem – is a cliché. The term “there’s no place like home” (NPLH) has considerable resonance in Adelaide and it’s true – unless of course you don’t have a job and can’t pay the rent or mortgage.

Home is where fresh fish simmer in a pan and Coopers ale is sunk on an ebb tide of Lutheran suspicion of artifice and ceremony. There’s an appreciation that either God or geography has provided the state with clean white beaches, great wines and fresh fruit.

This has strong propaganda appeal and has been used by governments from time immemorial, to get men to fight wars or to pacify doubts on the home front. The technique is used by Adelaide’s mainstream media at the behest of government departments and agencies, to show how fortunate we really are. NPLH stories often run with nostalgia stories.

When I was a kid, my Mum made me take medicine by crushing it into a spoon full of honey. The same thinking is used by the State Government, a few banks and economic advisement organisations.

A recent Deloitte Business Outlook report gave the SA economy a “relaxed outlook”. Last year NAB’s business confidence report showed SA businesses were more optimistic about the future than anywhere else in the country. A report by the University of Adelaide’s Centre for Economic Studies, showed “green shoots” and “considerable optimism”.

Imagine you had to report to the board on the state of a multimillion dollar company. It’s hemorrhaging cash, the plant needs updating, there’s only two weeks of money set aside for wages and the bank is calling in the overdraft. What are you going to say? Are you going to give them a gardening report on green shoots? Do that in Sydney or Melbourne and you’ll be carried out on a stretcher.

Adelaide won’t die. New sectors such as health and aged care are on the rise. I’m moderately hopeful that, over the next five years, a number of IT start-ups will hit their straps. However, the problem with a prevailing culture of sweetening bad news is that it festers, breaks out and becomes a national news story like the sexual assaults on children by Families SA carers.

“If you’re in need of a negative news fix, you’ve come to the wrong place. I’m over it,” wrote one local newspaper columnist. Three years later she wrote: “I just want to point out that every city and every state has its pros and cons.”

The reporter is right. Every city has its ups and downs. But economics is not like the weather: rainy one day, sunny the next. We need to rise above binary thinking such as good news/bad news.

Adelaide is going through a radical reconstruction of the economy and it will effect everyone. Denial is a part of life but it’s dangerous when facts command our urgent attention.

Malcolm King, an Adelaide writer, works in generational change and is a regular InDaily columnist.

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