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Richardson: Marshall's 'Crisis? What crisis?' moment

Opinion

Economic data paints a gloomy picture, but Premier Steven Marshall is doggedly turning the frown upside down, writes Tom Richardson.

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Have you heard? Everything’s fabulous!

No, don’t get put off by those seemingly-grim economic indicators that the naysayers keep spouting, that South Australia’s State Final Demand has declined 0.2 per cent for the second successive quarter – the only state to go backwards – while we’ve regained our traditional strangehold on the coveted ‘Unemployment Capital of Australia’ crown with a seasonally adjusted jobless rate of 6.9 in July, 1.7 per cent above the national average.

Ignore all that – everything’s peachy.

Well, it is according to the Marshall Government anyway.

Trade and Tourism Minister David Ridgway today used the same ABS figures that warned of looming disaster to highlight “that in the 12 months to June 2019, $12.7 billion worth of private investment was reached”, adding in a media release that “the pleasing figures represent a total investment increase of 3.2 per cent for the year to June 2019… further evidence that SA is a place where business confidence is strong”.

“The Marshall Liberal Government has worked hard to ensure that business in SA has the right environment to grow economically and create jobs,” Ridgey enthused.

Oddly though, SA business doesn’t seem to be as effusive.

For instance, the vibe I got from the 400-odd that gathered for this week’s Property Council ‘we hate land tax’ shindig at the Hilton Adelaide was distinctly anti-Marshall Government.

Like the bit where Sam Shahin, the boss of the state’s largest private sector employer Peregrine Corporation, called Treasurer Rob Lucas’s proposed aggregation measures “disastrous” and warned they’d prompt his company to shift investments interstate.

Or the bit where noted property tycoon John Culshaw got up and labelled Marshall and Lucas “dumb and dumber” as he lamented the aggregation impost on his business bottom line (although, to be honest, his jilted battler persona probably wasn’t helped by the reference to his yacht in Sydney).

It was all very civilised of course, but don’t let the absence of cordon lines and police patrols fool you: this is how the top end of town does political protests.

Development moguls and boardroom high-flyers don’t tend to take to the steps of parliament with placards and catchy chants – they prefer a two-course ‘luncheon’ followed by Networking Drinks in the downstairs bar, but the sentiment is much the same.

The line-up for the event was a rollcall of opponents to the land tax revamp: there was never a hint of anyone rolling up to defend the Liberal line. And yet 400 people paid to come and listen to the same message the property sector has delivered unfalteringly since Lucas’s June budget. It was like the Two Minutes of Hate, but spread over two hours.

Of course, another reason the Government may have been under-represented at the gathering was that its members were all tied up at their own shindig at the Barossa.

While their business detractors enjoyed their Two Hours of Hate, the Libs were locked in their ‘Love-In’.

Perhaps Steven Marshall had endured a little too much Liberal love then, when he fronted the media to comment about 140 jobs being axed in Origin Energy’s Adelaide call centre, which followed last month’s seemingly-ghastly spike in the jobless rate.

This is the same Steven Marshall whose regular refrain in Opposition (back in the days when now-Property Council boss Daniel Gannon was writing his media lines, mind you) was that SA had “a dangerous jobs crisis”.

Not just any jobs crisis, mind you – a dangerous one.

But does a nation-leading (or lagging, depending on your perspective) jobless rate of 6.9 per cent suggest a current problem with unemployment?

“None whatsoever,” the Premier chortled.

“We have been creating thousands of jobs since coming to government [and] the reason the unemployment rate went up is because more South Australians who were long term unemployed – not looking for jobs – have now said ‘I want a job’.”

Marshall’s argument is that the higher unemployment rate is indicative of an increase in the participation rate – which he implies is spurred by all the positive energy in the state at the moment.

“The trajectory is very, very positive – much better than we’ve seen for the last decade,” he told media.

It was, to say the least, a very odd gambit.

I’ve noted numerous times that Marshall’s naturally buoyant disposition is well suited-to government – better-suited, it must be said, than to Opposition.

But perhaps that needs a caveat.

He’s well-suited to government – when things are going well.

I get that political leaders need to sell hope and positively promote their agenda, but to try and paint the highest unemployment rate in the nation as not merely Not A Bad Thing but, indeed, an Actively Good Thing is patently ridiculous.

Remember of course, that the media doorstop happened during a lull in proceedings during the ironically-titled ‘love-in’, wherein despondent MPs took the Government’s leaders to task for their shoddy salesmanship of the land tax aggregation reforms.

Perhaps Marshall has some in-built condition that dictates he must be ever more effusively upbeat the worse things get?

For his buoyant celebration of the jobless stats was his own homage to former British PM Jim Callaghan, whose insistence on playing down the UK’s 1970s economic malaise prompted the immortal Sun headline: “Crisis? What Crisis?”

As the week wore on, it got even weirder, with the Premier breaking out into a broad grin as he addressed questions about a wave of redundancies across the SA Health system, seen here in Channel 9’s coverage:

It was eerily reminiscent of a quirk that used to be employed by former Adelaide Lord Mayor Michael Harbison, who I’d always suspected had once been given a single piece of media advice: ‘Whatever you do, if you’re dealing with bad news – make sure you don’t look too downcast… because that’s the shot they’ll use in the story!”

Sound advice, but deserving of the caveat: “On the other hand, don’t start beaming like a cheap car salesman when you’re talking about people losing their livelihoods.”

The Government is now bracing to unleash their Aggregation Plan 2.0 (which it appears will be much the same as their original Aggregation Plan, but with a lower top rate.)

Indeed, it’s now likely the rate could come down as low as 2.5 per cent although, given they’re following the Victorian template, that’s also set to include a 0.5 per cent surcharge on trusts.

But, as Marshall’s former media adviser Gannon says today: “If the State Government thinks a top rate of almost 3 per cent is the answer, then they’re asking the wrong question.”

“Aggregation needs to be rescinded to deliver on the Premier’s election promise of lowering land tax and avoid taking a sledgehammer to business, jobs, ’mum and dad’ and ‘nest egg’ investors, and the state’s investment attractiveness,” he said.

“While the State Government’s appetite to water down its initial Budget measure would be welcomed, there are too many demons associated with aggregation to simply let that slip through… aggregation needs to be taken off the table instead of menial tinkering to rates.”

It doesn’t sound like the words of someone about to applaud the Government’s willingness to listen and compromise.

Putting aside the arguments of property sector moguls and interest groups, the telling theme of the week is of a business sector that no longer trusts the Liberal administration for which it waited for so long, a state poised to be buffeted by a national economic downturn and ill-equipped to weather the storm and a Government doggedly sticking to a ‘Crisis? What Crisis’ mantra that is, as the kids would say, ‘so last year’.

Implementing a revenue measure that could, on all advice, dissuade investment in SA when the economic indicators tell us SA can ill-afford a hit to investment is a move that would require plenty of political capital. And the Government is fast burning through its political capital.

But if things continue on their current trajectory it will take more than upbeat soundbites to persuade stakeholders that all is well in the state, and that the whole South Australian shebang isn’t about to go… well, south.

But if it does, at least – as the Joker once famously said – it will go with a smile.

Tom Richardson is a senior reporter at InDaily.

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