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Trust me, most of the time we’re talking bulldust

While selling a plan so grandly named it wouldn’t be out of place in North Korea, our Premier declared that people like him couldn’t be trusted. Matthew Abraham pulls apart Peter Malinauskas’s head-scratching week.

Mar 01, 2024, updated Mar 01, 2024
The Premier told an Upper Spencer Gulf audience that politicians usually talk "bullshit" about the cost of living, later clarifying he exempted himself from this assessment. Photo: Thomas Kelsall/InDaily

The Premier told an Upper Spencer Gulf audience that politicians usually talk "bullshit" about the cost of living, later clarifying he exempted himself from this assessment. Photo: Thomas Kelsall/InDaily

Somebody, please hand the Premier a bigger shovel.

Peter Malinauskas needs it to find a way out of the deep hole he’s carelessly fallen into while tromping around oona woop-woop in South Australia’s vast far north donga in steel-capped boots, fluoro-orange overalls and hard hats this week.

Perhaps it was all that clean desert air, but speaking in Whyalla the Premier revealed what we all suspected – that when politicians promise to lower the cost of living “nine times out of 10 it’s all bullshit”.

This is the sort of hole that can so easily become a grave for any political leader who relies on their credibility to bankroll the trust of voters.

Trust, luck and rat-cunning are the currencies of success in politics. But trust is paydirt.

Just ask Prime Minister Anthony (“my word is my bond”) Albanese how the whole trust thing is panning out after breaking his Stage Three tax cuts pledge.

But let’s start digging at the start.

It’s been next to impossible to miss this week’s full-on media blitz as Premier Malinauskas and his merry band toured the outback pumping the tyres on something called – wait for it – the “State Prosperity Project”.

The what? The State Prosperity Project?

What’s the bet North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un wished he’d thought of that one first – it’d make a perfect billboard in the Supreme Leader’s glum hermit kingdom.

The project, with the catchphrase – “We have what the world wants” – is touted as a “once in a generation opportunity… to drive a new era of prosperity for decades to come”.

“With our unique combination of sun, wind and valuable minerals, the State Government is unlocking renewable hydrogen energy and preparing to lead the world with green steel and copper production,” the government blurb reads.

InDaily’s Thomas Kelsall even spotted Prosperity-branded beermats and coasters – “Cheers to new power” – at the pubs on the Premier’s roadshow route. Sobering shades of former Liberal Premier Dean Brown’s “Going All The Way” number plate slogan in the 90s.

The slogans are shorthand for the Malinauskas Government’s splurge of taxpayer dollars investing in a state-owned hydrogen power station at Whyalla, a hydrogen export hub at Port Bonython, a “green steel” transition at the Whyalla Steelworks and a $5 billion desalination plant and pipeline to feed expanded copper production at BHP’s Olympic Dam mine.

Merch for the Premier’s grandly named “State Prosperity Project” included beer mats, displayed in a pub during his trip to the Iron Triangle. Photo: Thomas Kelsall/InDaily

And the merch keeps coming. Photo: Thomas Kelsall/InDaily

The numbers are mind-boggling.

For the northern water plan alone, BHP and other private outfits will pony up with the government on a “final investment decision” that will cost roughly $200 to $230 million, although the parties will pay back the state’s $100 million share if the thing doesn’t stack up.

Even the desal price tag sounds heroically hopeful.

Adelaide’s Port Stanvac desalination plant cost taxpayers $1.83 billion when it was completed back in August 2008, and that was for a maximum capacity of 300 megalitres daily output.

The 30-kilometre north-south interconnect pipeline network from the plant cost another $403 million.

All up, taxpayers didn’t get much change from $2.5 billion for a project that effectively has been mothballed ever since, just ticking over to prevent it clogging up.

That was 16 years ago.

The proposed northern desalination project guesstimate is that $5 billion in today’s dollars will deliver a 260 megalitre a day plant and a 600 km pipeline to the remote north. Tell ‘em they’re dreamin’.

Civil engineers call desalination water “liquid electricity”, so the proposed plant will gobble electricity the state doesn’t have right now.

That’s where hydrogen power comes in, but hydrogen production also eats volts for breakfast

The State Prosperity Project is the Labor Premier’s Big Vision moment. Australian politics, especially state politics, suffers from a dismal dearth of thinking big.

If it stacks up, the Malinauskas vision of an economic powerhouse in the north will leave a legacy that would dwarf the jobs and economic prosperity generated by former Liberal Premier Tom Playford’s fostering of SA’s now dead and buried motor vehicle and light manufacturing industries.

The “once in a generation opportunity… to drive a new era of prosperity for decades to come” will take decades to bear fruit, if it happens at all.

And it’s a vision being pursued when most South Australians are struggling to see how they’ll find the money for the next mortgage payment, the weekly grocery hit or the monthly power, water and gas bills.

Households are sweating the small stuff because daily life in a cost-of-living crisis is all about the small stuff.

Olympic Dam is a world away from suburban Adelaide.

If the government has billions to throw at helping a global mining giant like BHP expand, how about a few million to give a leg up to battlers doing it tough?

Which brings us to the Premier’s credibility hole.

In what The Advertiser’s Paul Starick described as an impassioned speech at a public forum of about 420 people in Whyalla on Sunday, Premier Malinauskas linked his prosperity vision to easing cost-of-living pressures.

“We talk about a cost-of-living crisis on a frequent basis and, more often than not, you get a politician saying: ‘We’re going to try and reduce the price of petrol. We’re going to try and reduce the price of groceries’, and nine times out of 10, it’s all bullshit,” he said.

“Because I don’t control the price of petrol. The Prime Minister doesn’t control the price of petrol, any more than he controls the price of Weet-Bix. There are things that we can do at the margins. But it’s largely up to markets. We have a market-based economy.”

Do tell, Premier, what part of PM Albanese’s promise to cut household power bills by $275 by 2025 is bullshit?

What part of your promise to fix ramping is bullshit?

What part of any of your promises is bullshit?

Australia does have a market-based economy. But federal and state governments endlessly interfere in that market in myriad ways.

The Malinauskas Government meddles in Adelaide’s market-based economy by restricting shopping hours to help the Premier’s pet union, the Shoppies.

He personally intervened in the free market to restrict the right of the privately-owned Tea Tree Plaza shopping centre to charge for parking.

By Monday, the Premier began trying to dig himself out of his Whyalla hole, telling Starick that “you should commit to being honest to everybody in all your relationships” and people will look for “honesty and frankness”.

“That doesn’t mean that politicians shouldn’t be nuanced on occasion,” he said. “You’ve got to think about the words you use carefully. But yeah, of course I mean, I’ve never sought to be dishonest, that’s for sure.”

Looks like there’s a fine line between “nuanced” and “bullshit”. Keep shovelling.

And Another Thing

SA Senator Alex Antic’s middle name is Charles. But it might as well be Shameless.

In a less sparkly version of Taylor Swift, the leading Liberal conservative has been playing to packed houses at community forums in recent weeks.

Antic sure knows how to draw a crowd, and new members, by the truckload. If snoozing Liberal politicians in this state did the same, the party would be packed, or stacked, to the rafters.

But a few days ago, Antic posted a selfie on Facebook, posing in front of a full house of supporters.

“Thank you to all who attended,” he wrote. “It is an absolute honour and privilege serving you and defending our values!”

Most in the audience were cheerily holding blue and white signs simply stating ALEX ANTIC with the number “1” in a box.

Could this be linked to the Senator’s push to take the Number 1 spot on the party’s Senate ticket at the next federal election from moderate colleague Senator Anne Ruston?

One former Senator thought so.

Rex Patrick, once elected on the Nick Xenophon ticket, tweeted the pic with this message:

.@SenatorAntic doesn’t lack ambition. He’s already printed placards for when he shoves Senator @Anne_Ruston off the top of the Liberal Senate ticket in SA. And with a #MAGA #Trumpinista leading their SA ticket, will @LiberalSAHQ still be ‘liberal’? I think not. #saparli #auspol pic.twitter.com/jIH7XsQTsn

— Rex Patrick (@MrRexPatrick) February 27, 2024

Nothing nuanced about that.

Matthew Abraham is InDaily’s political columnist. Matthew can be found on Twitter as @kevcorduroy. It’s a long story.

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