March 18, 2022

State politics

A short history of neoliberalism in South Australia

By Russell Marks
A combined image of SA Premier Steven Marshall (left) and SA Opposition Leader Peter Malinauskas during a leaders debate at the South Australia Press Club in Adelaide, March 10, 2022. Image © Matt Turner / AAP Images

SA Premier Steven Marshall (left) and SA Opposition Leader Peter Malinauskas during a leaders debate at the South Australia Press Club in Adelaide, March 10, 2022. Image © Matt Turner / AAP Images

After decades of privatisation under both Labor and Liberal governments, and on the eve of a state election, where is the reform agenda for South Australia?

As far as I can tell, none of the candidates for this Saturday’s South Australian election has promised to Make SA Great Again. It’s a missed opportunity. SA Great, launched in 1984 by “the media and a small group of businessmen” to promote local consumption during a downturn, rapidly became a South Australian institution. (Those in non-great states should bring themselves up to speed.) A state version of “Australian Made”, it soon transcended its ubiquitous yellow logo to become a statement of ironic pride. It quickly attracted government support.

But over time, SA Great morphed into “Advantage Adelaide” and most recently “Brand SA” before its annual $1.6 million public budget was pulled in 2019 by Steven Marshall’s Liberal government, apparently unpersuaded that the #ichooseSA hashtag was in fact prompting anyone to choose SA. The baton for perpetuating the state’s greatness was left in private hands – namely, those of property developer Steve Testar and his new beast, Showcase SA. The Labor Opposition has promised to take it back if it returns to government this weekend (or at least to give Testar some public funds so that he can call it a public-private partnership).

The potted history of South Australia’s promotional slogans provides something of a metaphor for the Festival State’s recent political history. Formerly iconic slogans haven’t been the only targets of the Liberals’ privatisation agenda since they formed government in 2018. Raised in the cocoon of my parents’ private health insurance during the 1980s and 1990s, I returned to Adelaide as a public hospital patient just over a year ago after living in various parts of Victoria, Queensland and the Northern Territory. I’ve never seen a public health system in worse shape. Each time I see my specialist at a public hospital I’m explicitly told – by ubiquitous signs placed in strategic locations – that the best thing I can do for SA’s ailing public health system is to go private. It may also be the best thing I can do for my bowels. Having sailed through interstate colonoscopies under general anaesthetic, I was alarmed to learn – when I was already laying on my first Adelaide operating table with no underpants on – that South Australia keeps its public patients awake for the procedure.

Marshall’s Liberals didn’t create the state’s current health crisis. Indeed, SA Great’s inexorable slide into Brand SA over the course of the 16-year Labor government that preceded it mirrored what was happening to the health system. The jewel in Labor’s much-vaunted “Transforming Health” agenda from 2015 – which one medical union officer reportedly said “came with more buzz than the release of a new Apple product” – was the construction of Australia’s most expensive hospital, the new Royal Adelaide Hospital, at the western end of North Terrace. It opened just six months before the March 2018 election to what should have been gratitude and applause.

But in almost every other way, Transforming Health made an already bad situation worse. Complete with an expensive international consultant and a reform plan that rationalised health decisions on economic instead of clinical need, it had all the ingredients of a Utopia satire – including a massive budget blowout. An Australian Institute of Health and Welfare survey found that Adelaide’s emergency departments were keeping people waiting longer than anywhere else in the country before examining and treating them. When ambulances began ramping outside the new hospital’s ED, Labor’s days were numbered.

Except that’s not really what happened. Despite Transforming Health and despite the ambulance ramping, Labor managed to engineer a 1.1 per cent two-party swing back toward it in 2018. It lost the election largely because the Electoral Commission, behaving something like Sykes and Picot in the Middle East, re-drew the boundaries in what must have seemed to Labor like the return of the Playmander (an ingenious system of gerrymanders used by Thomas Playford’s Liberal and Country League to hold onto power for 26 years despite some spectacular defeats on the popular vote). Few noticed, though, because 2018 was also the year that Nick Xenophon returned after his decade in the Senate to try to claim the balance of power in SA. Polls before the election had his SA-BEST party out-polling both Labor and the Libs, and also had him as preferred premier. As it turned out, the polls were bogus. SA-BEST won no lower-house seats, and Xenophon disappeared into his law firm.

By the time Labor’s 16-year administration ended in 2018, SA Great was no longer even SA Okay. Unemployment was higher than in most parts of the country, no thanks to Tony Abbott’s decision to allow the car manufacturing industry – which provided significant jobs in Adelaide’s northern suburbs – die an economically rational but socially and strategically lamentable death. Aged care and childcare had been neglected. Public housing had been gutted, and child protection services – as revealed in inquiries, coronial inquests and a royal commission – were failing on a breathtaking scale. When Marshall, as Opposition leader, began describing Labor’s administration as “hopeless”, it resonated.

The only reason the Liberals didn’t win in a landslide was because everyone was reasonably sure they’d make things even worse. Everyone was spot-on. Since 2018, Brand SA has become virtually synonymous with the kind of state failure you’d expect to find in an economically rationalised peripheral region. While the government promises to pour scarce millions into new sporting stadiums to attract floating multinational capital, flashy refurbs to the North Terrace and Torrens River precincts hide the creeping hopelessness evident throughout growing pockets of the northern and southern suburbs.

As the elite in the Liberal-held urban seats – in the eastern and, now, the beachside suburbs – retreat further and further into their palaces of wealth, they are rewarded with federal tax cuts worth mere thousands to them but billions to those who depend on social services for housing and healthcare in the new economy. My partner, a social worker in Adelaide, regularly comes home with stories of abject state failure. Women with multiple children being summarily evicted simply because their landlords want more rent. Housing workers refusing to help until people are actually homeless. Older people with cognitive impairments being refused housing support and being told to find private rentals, when the most they can afford to pay is $290 a week. People told to travel two hours on three buses to collect a $50 food voucher. Children with mental health issues waiting months to see counsellors. Psychologists closing their books due to unprecedented demand, even turning down potential middle-class clients who can pay. People regularly waiting two weeks just for an appointment to see their GP.

And then there’s the ramping. Five people have died just in the past fortnight while they waited for ambulances. Last month, all of Adelaide’s metropolitan hospitals declared a “code white” – as in white hot, the panic rating – as 15 ambulances were ramped at the Royal Adelaide and 88 patients were waiting for beds. The paramedics’ union has been campaigning strongly against the government this year, and ramping is a major election issue. Marshall points to figures showing a nearly 50 per cent drop in the number of hours lost to “transfer of care” – getting patients out of ambulances and seen by doctors – in the four months between October 2021 and February this year. But it’s too late. Polls are showing a landslide Labor win since the Liberals’ vote dropped off a cliff in mid 2021, at just about the same time as the federal Coalition’s did.

So Brand SA might get some public dollars back after Saturday. But nobody should expect that brand to fundamentally change its neoliberal stripes. Labor’s leader, Peter Malinauskas, rose through the party’s ranks with the backing of Don Farrell and the socially conservative Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association. “I believe in the fair go but I get frustrated with left-wing ideology that focuses more on imposing equality than providing for equality of opportunity,” he told the Sunday Mail four years before he entered parliament in 2015, parroting the tired old ideology of the Third Way. The prospect that this man will preside over a redistribution revolution is fantasy.

So regardless of who wins tomorrow, SA’s greatness will remain apparent only to homeowners and tourists drawn by the invitation – issued by the gonzo marketers behind the phenomenally successful “CU in the NT” bumper stickers – to “Go Down South With Your Mouth”. (The double entendre, complete with stylised shots of Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale wineries, had Tourism SA riled, but it hasn’t turned away any visitors the unsanctioned campaign attracted.)

Without much prospect that social services will improve no matter who wins tomorrow, perhaps it’s time to capitalise. Tourism SA might consider offering guided tours, perhaps in ambulances (as long as you’re willing to wait), showcasing Adelaide’s busy hospital ramps and public housing waiting lists. And Brand SA could adopt as its new logo a sour grape.

Russell Marks

Russell Marks is a lawyer and an adjunct research fellow at La Trobe University. He is the author of Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System (Black Inc., 2015). 

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