By Nicholas Paul Griffin
South Australians will know Jay Weatherill as the state’s 45th Premier, born and raised in Adelaide’s western suburbs, and a man with as much concern regarding the prosperity of the state as its many citizens. In a recent
interview with Australian Business Executive, Mr. Weatherill makes clear his intentions for the future of South Australia in addressing the economic challenges faced by the state: “We want to send a message that we are open for
business, we’ve got an international stance. That also flows through to the openness of our community for involving people in decisions that affect their lives. We want the whole of the South Australian community to be behind
us as we seek to transform our economy.”
After the recent closing of the Holden manufacturing plant and job losses at Arrium Mining, traditional industries in South Australia are in decline. Mr. Weatherill describes his plans for economic progression in the state, talking of the focus being upon the identification of those sectors of the economy that are growing faster than average and offer the opportunity for employment growth. From there, investment into these expanding sectors is promoted, with the aim of encouraging further growth.
In August 2014, the SA government published its ten economic priorities for the state, a list compiled with the input of thousands of people from South Australian businesses, academia and the general community, identifying the key economic areas on which most attention will be focused.
“We want South Australia to be the best place to do business in the nation,” Mr. Weatherill says, “so we’ve set ourselves that agenda. The best place to do business involves lots of different elements. Obviously we want the most cost competitive business environment, that includes taxation, but it’s also other elements of cost that create that environment.”
In order to encourage business and investment into the state, the government has recently announced a written branch review of the State Taxation System, as well as embarking upon a public sector renewal process, as Mr. Weatherill knows how important the public sector can be in terms of creating a good business environment.
In addition, the government is currently in receipt of a thoroughgoing review of the system of development control, which will be turned into legislation and promoted to the South Australian parliament. “We’re also reviewing all our regulation to make sure that it achieves its objectives to protect the public interest, but also drives innovation and is not overwhelmingly burdensome,” he says.
When asked about the forthcoming business developments in Tonsley, an area in the process of being transformed into a collaborative and high-value industry, education and residential precinct, Mr. Weatherill is proud of the decision to capitalise on the availability of the site: “This is an example of us being very proactive about seizing opportunities to grow. It’s a classic example of a declining industry being transformed into a growing sector of the economy.”
“Instead of allowing that car-manufacturing plant to be sold off,” Mr. Weatherill continues, “perhaps for retail or some other bulky goods factory, which may not generate large-scale employment opportunities, we decided to purchase the land and then partner up with Flinders University, which just moved their department of Engineering, Science and Computer Science down into the site. We’ve created an urban development there, so that we can showcase sustainable living.”
Tonsley sits on a major rail link about 10km from Adelaide CBD and within reasonable traveling distance from Adelaide Airport, making it ideally located to attract investment from a wide range of industry.
The factory at Tonsley—one of the largest in the Southern Hemisphere—has been adapted to create a new technical and further education hub for sustainable industries. Invitations have been extended to many industries to co-locate to the sector and take advantage of the access to tertiary and vocational training in the nearby residential area, with the aim of growing the sort of businesses that will help the long-term future of the economy.
“What we’re seeing down there,” Mr. Weatherill says, “is ICT industries, renewable energy industries and a centre of excellence for oil and gas resources.”
Nuclear Fuel Cycle
One of SA’s key strengths is its resources industry, and in particular uranium mining. The state has the world’s largest uranium mine and substantial reserves of uranium, possessing about 30% of the world and 80% of the nation’s deposits. Australia already has a place in the nuclear fuel cycle, as for many years it has mined, lightly processed and exported this uranium.
“In a carbon constrained environment,” says Mr. Weatherill, “where large sections of the world’s population are relying upon nuclear power to provide a source of carbon free energy production, we need to give consideration to what role we play in that nuclear fuel cycle—because of that global effort about climate change, but also to see whether there are benefits that we can secure for our state and for our nation.”
In response to these concerns over the state’s future position in the industry, a Royal Commission is soon to be set up to address the matter. “It’s a very controversial proposition,” Mr. Weatherill says. “It involves changing policies and laws and regulations at both a state and a national level, and before we get to that point we need to assist the community to come to a considered judgement about the matter.”
“A Royal Commission is the most significant and high status level of inquiry that we can undertake. It has powers of compulsion to bring evidence before it, and it’s generally headed up by an eminent person, so the findings are often used to then settle or inform public debate about important issues. So, we thought it was the right mechanism to use to deal with such a controversial issue—namely, what role South Australia can and should play in the nuclear fuel cycle.”
In the case of a Royal Commission, it can often be some time before a judgment is made, and there is not always a fixed time scale involved. But Mr. Weatherill believes it won’t be too long before a decision is reached: “It’s estimated at about twelve months, but we can’t be certain. It really depends on the nature of the material that’s assembled and how the evidence unfolds.”
The Labor party was an early supporter of nuclear power, but with the threat of nuclear accident and proliferation growing in the second half of the twentieth century, the party shifted to strongly opposing any involvement in the nuclear fuel cycle, including mining. Over time that stance has altered, due in the most part to growing social concerns, the most recent of which is climate change.
As circumstances change, so too has the party position, and Mr. Weatherill believes community sentiment has likewise shifted. “I think people are much more open minded about the debate,” he says. “They obviously still carry concerns about this industry, but I think people are open to understanding the risks and the opportunities associated with our involvement in the nuclear fuel cycle. I’m open minded about it, I have moved from a position of opposition to one of open mindedness, and that’s where I am at the moment.”
When asked about possible opposition from environmental lobbyists on the issue, Mr. Weatherill agrees that there is by no means unanimity: “Yes, there has been some concern expressed about that, although I think most people are welcoming of the opportunity for the matter to be discussed in an orderly and reasoned fashion. The same people who might have very strong views of opposition I think will also cooperate with the enquiry and seek to advance their arguments to the enquiry.”
The depleted price of resources in the state is a matter still needing to be addressed, as prices promise not to rise in the next two years. There has been a substantial drop in prices of many commodities, but certainly not all. Copper is the most significant of South Australia’s commodities, and that in the long-term still has a strong outlook.
“[Copper] will be the centerpiece of our resources strategy,” says Mr. Weatherill. “And of course we’ve got renewable assets which are very prospective, and we have the largest proportion of the nation’s wind power that’s installed here, and a very substantial proportion of our solar power. There are bright points within the resources and energy sector.”
In addition, the state still has substantial reserves of conventional gas and iron ore. “We’re continuing to advance on all fronts,” Mr. Weatherill says, “but obviously some of those resources have been affected by recent movements in price.”
The Premier goes on to speak briefly about the government’s new taskforce to further encourage and support sustainable industries, announced in February’s Governor’s speech: “Green Industry SA is about taking the opportunities that exist for our leadership role in waste, and in water and in renewables, and turning them into an economic asset, and really matches up with our ambition to be the world’s first carbon neutral city, which is to drive not only important reputation, but also economic opportunities through innovation.”
With the political landscape in Australia continuing to shift, questions have been asked recently about a possible review of the remuneration of MPs.
“I think it’s a question of reviewing [MP salaries] against comparable salaries for people within the private sector,” Mr. Weatherill responds, when asked for his opinion on the matter, “and making judgments about what the relevant comparison is there. Whatever I think about it is irrelevant, because it should be determined, and we’ve said as a matter of policy it should be determined, by an independent body, rather than politicians setting their own salaries.”
“The one thing I have made observations about is superannuation. In the most recent Governor’s speech we raised the issue of integrity in public office as being a critical issue. We’re proposing to toughen up on what MPs can do after they leave politics in terms of lobbying and other activities, and in that context I think it is worth reflecting on the superannuation arrangements for politicians, which have recently been altered in a way which means there is no long term security for members of parliament.”
Mr. Weatherill goes on to speak of the undesirable situation of MPs considering their next professional move whilst still undertaken a job in parliament, especially if they are making decisions which potentially could upset large, powerful interests and thereby reduce their marketability in a post-political career.
“We think that there should be enforceable periods of exclusion about how people advance their post-political careers,” Mr. Weatherill says. “It undermines confidence in government decision making if people turn up shortly after being a member of parliament, especially one with substantial responsibilities in certain sectors of the economy, and then you see somebody end up in that sector. I think that needs to be set off against the integrity of our political process.”
Considering the economic issues currently being experienced in SA, is there a clear economic problem with the government being the largest employer in the state?
“SA has always required a strong role for the state,” Mr. Weatherill responds. “It’s a small economy, away from large population centres, with a very large landmass, and one of the most sparsely populated communities in the nation. So, it’s an expensive place to run, and it does require an assertive role for government.”
The Premier concludes, however, that ultimately the prosperity of the state will depend upon a mixed economy driven by private sector investment. In that respect, the SA government is focused on reaching out to the nation and the rest of the world, presenting coherent investment attraction and trade based strategies, and maintaining an open and outward economic stance.
“We accept our responsibility to play a leadership role,” Mr. Weatherill says, “but ultimately we believe it will be down to the private sector to make all the key decisions about the way the economy runs.”
It is clear that the Premier believes in the power of a united community to help improve South Australia’s fortunes. The community always comes first, and this can be seen in the government’s commitment to helping with bushfire recovery.
Assistance is first offered to those who have suffered the most immediate loss, in terms of homes, farms and businesses losing economic assets. In these cases, support is given in terms of accessing insurance, government grants or any other funds that are available to assist recovery.
Equally important is the broader recovery necessary to rebuild those parts of the community damaged by the fires: “these fires are often very frightening experiences,” Mr. Weatherill says, “even for people that haven’t been directly affected, or even particularly damaged in terms of their property.”
Exposure to bushfires can create substantial psychological issues, and it is important to identify people who might be having delayed reactions to the experience and ensure the right health and wellbeing services are available. Karlene Maywald, a former minister, has recently been appointed as recovery coordinator, and is supervising the effort in the wake of recent fires.
A key area of upcoming change for communities is in education, where a new ruling will come into effect in 2020 for all teachers to hold a Masters qualification, an effort to lift standards in local education.
But with a high percentage of dropouts from higher classes in teaching across the previous decade, is this scheme not merely creating more of a burden for the nation’s youth attempting to enter the field of teaching?
“We want teaching to be high status and well rewarded, but most of all we want to attract the best and brightest into the teaching profession,” Mr. Weatherill replies.
“We think it’s unacceptable that teaching is one of the easiest subjects to get into, when we want to have the very best students teaching the rest of our community, and allowing them to grow and to be successful both in work and also in life. There couldn’t be anything more central to the health of a nation than the quality of its teaching, investing in our children. So, we do want to lift standards, and one way which we can do that is to lift educational qualifications.”
The recent Governor’s speech saw many of South Australia’s key issues addressed, and Mr. Weatherill certainly seems determined to ensure a bright future for the state. As we reach the halfway point of the decade, the introduction of key economic and sustainability initiatives has put SA well on the way to achieving its key goals by the end of the decade, and the Premier is leading the way in pushing for success.