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Richardson: Marshall’s GlobeLink was a virtue signal that served its purpose

Opinion

Farewell, GlobeLink – we hardly knew ye!

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Well, the Libs knew it – they’ve had it in their back pocket since before the 2014 state election, although they didn’t get round to announcing it until 2017.

And the rest of us, we knew of it conceptually – a notion, rather than a plan.

From the first day it was released – dropped, as with all overblown political concepts whose architects want to maximise free publicity while minimising scrutiny, to the Sunday paper – a few key elements would have stuck in the public mind.

A bold, long-term vision, a multi-billion dollar budget, those snazzy concept drawings of a new airport, complete with bespoke GlobeLink logo.

It’s true, of course, that from the start the Libs never officially promised to actually build it – the extent of their commitment if elected in 2018 was to spend $20 million developing a “business case”, examining how to obtain investment from the Commonwealth and private sector.

And, to be fair, in GlobeLink we have seen the true extent of the Marshall Government’s dazzling ambition…

Namely, the zenith of ludicrous spin that accompanied yesterday’s admission that the entire project – not merely the much-lambasted airport, but the whole kit and caboodle – was dead, done and dusted.

GlobeLink had ceased to be, expired and gone to meet its maker. It had kicked the bucket, shuffled off this mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the choir invisible.

This was an ex-freight airport and rail bypass.

A point that the Government announced by airily declaring that it had “fulfilled its election commitment to undertake a business case to investigate the viability of GlobeLink and release the full independent report”.

Well, that’s good.

Another election promise fulfilled – well done, team.

A few sentences later, of course, came the kicker, via a quote attributed to the Government’s resident Bad News Bear(er) Stephan Knoll: “The State Government has accepted all recommendations in the KPMG report and will not be progressing the original GlobeLink proposal.”

The backdown was dropped, as with all political embarrassments whose architects want to minimise public interest, on a public holiday Monday.

Knoll did generously concede that “the Government is clearly disappointed with the results of the business case, but it’s become clear that this particular proposal doesn’t stack up”.

Which is a bit of an understatement.

Its estimated $7 billion pricetag was set to deliver Benefit Cost Ratios as low as 0.06 for the initial road corridor proposal and 0.08 for the initial rail corridor proposal, while the state’s current air freight “is around 10 per cent of the minimum viable volumes”.

And thus, the airport inevitably joins the growing list of abandoned wacky ideas for Monarto.

Still, the ‘good news’ is that “many of the issues GlobeLink was initially designed to address have not materialised”… namely, a big increase in SA’s exports.

So that’s a relief.

And in his subsequent media rounds, Knoll has been at pains to emphasise that it wasn’t the GlobeLink plan that was at fault, but the rest of the state economy for not making it viable.

“The facts have changed and consequently we have changed our mind,” he doggedly maintained.

He also cheerily emphasised that the Government spent just $2.4 million on the business case, so it’s hardly made a dent financially. Even if this technically means they even managed to break their modest pledge to spend $20 million on the initial planning.

Now, the Government can claim that this wasn’t a broken promise (even if hailing it as a pledge fulfilled was probably a step too far), but for the vast majority of South Australians who don’t bother to pore over the fine print of Steven Marshall’s Strong Plan For Real Change, GlobeLink would have been very much part of the deal.

Take Marshall’s own promotional video, for instance, in which he declared: “I have a plan that will reshape the SA landscape – literally… a generational upgrade to SA’s road and rail network.

“It’s called GlobeLink – a new network that ensures that our sea, rail, road and air freight systems are connected giving SA business the platform they need to compete globally… at the heart of this network is a brand new 24/7 international freight-only airport.”

And, in case you thought it was just about freight transport – as the DemTel guy used to say: but wait, there’s more!

“GlobeLink will create jobs, but it will do much more than that – it’s about making your trip to work shorter and safer, it’s about reducing the bushfire risk in the Adelaide Hills (!), it’s about removing trucks from busy roads and school crossings, it’s about making our state shine.”

Of course, a GlobeLink-shining state may not be your bag, and no doubt many – or most – voters who pencilled a ‘1’ next to the Liberal candidate on their ballot paper didn’t do so over their concerns about the state’s future freight requirements.

Still, bear in mind that at the time GlobeLink was first flagged, the state Libs were terrified of losing ground in a handful of ‘heartland’ Hills seats to the then-looming threat of Nick Xenophon, whose federal running mate Rebekha Sharkie had recently snared Mayo, whose footprint covered swathes of seats such as Kavel and Davenport.

So for voters in those seats, it’s quite possible that the GlobeLink plan was a deal-breaker – particularly since it was sold as very much a done deal.

In a February 2017 ‘Tiser op-ed, then-Davenport MP Sam Duluk wrote: “If the Weatherill Labor government and South Australian Freight Council want to fight the Marshall Liberal team on our GlobeLink plan at the next state election, I say bring it on.”

“The choice is clear; a vote for the Liberal Party is a vote for an economic vision for South Australia and a cleaner, greener and safer future for residents in our hills and suburbs.

“Let’s get freight trains out of our residential areas, trucks off the freeway and Portrush Road and get our world-class farm produce straight on a plane bound for Asia.

“GlobeLink will do all this.”

So while it was qualified in the fine print, the rhetoric around GlobeLink has always been akin to Rachel Hunter’s Pantene mantra: ‘It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen.’

Even after the election was won, Marshall maintained that while the plan was subject to a cost-benefit analysis, “to my mind it will definitely stack up”.

But let’s put all that aside.

Let’s forget about whether GlobeLink was a promise broken or fulfilled, about whether voters were misled or not and whether they even care because it wasn’t that big a deal anyway.

Because GlobeLink – like that binned right-hand Tram turn on North Terrace – was never going to stack up. Not in its entirety, in any case.

It was a policy the Libs had lined up for their failed 2014 campaign, and never even bothered to announce.

And why?

Well, probably because that was an election at which they were endeavouring to present a small target.

Announcing GlobeLink in 2017 was never really about detailed policy-making.

No, it was the campaigning equivalent of what some political commentators might sneeringly call ‘virtue signalling’ – saying something to indicate that you stand for something.

There was a clue back in 2017 when Civil Contractors’ Federation CEO Phil Sutherland came out in support of “the SA Opposition’s ambitious GlobeLink freight infrastructure plan… provided it was subject to a feasibility study the Liberals have committed to undertaking”.

“The SA Opposition is often accused of not having any new policies, plans or visions, so the Federation is pleased and encouraged to see the Liberals announcing such a positive vision for Adelaide and South Australia – something for which it should not be criticised,” Sutherland said in a statement at the time.

Marshall, then Opposition Leader, agreed the policy unveiling suggested a shift from his previous small-target strategy.

“Look, we’ve always said 2017 will be the time when we switch gear and present our positive policies to the people of SA,” he said.

“The real issue is now making sure we get a majority Liberal Government at the next election, and we need positive policies to convince the people of SA that that is the solution to the problems Labor’s caused.”

And there’s the rub – the true purpose of GlobeLink.

To provide a tangible example of the Libs engaging in the battle of ideas – a break from their small-target past.

The ‘real issue’, Marshall said at the time with refreshing frankness, wasn’t freight, but ‘making sure we get a majority Liberal Government’.

As a symbol of policy engagement and state-building zeal, GlobeLink contributed to that, helping frame their policy narrative – and signalling a big-picture vision.

So while it was – quite literally – never going to fly and is now, inevitably, an ex-freight airport and rail bypass, the policy – as far as the Libs are concerned – has well and truly served its purpose.

Vale, GlobeLink.

Tom Richardson is a senior reporter at InDaily.

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