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South Australia stalls as urban decay looms

By Malcolm King - posted Monday, 13 April 2015

South Australia gets about seven per cent of Australia's international tourists. The selling point isn't the Barossa or Kangaroo Island but the opportunity to witness an economy that hasn't progressed much since the Fraser years.

The state has a burgeoning public service, contracting manufacturing sector, rapidly rising unemployment, serious youth brain drain, recruitment age prejudice and nepotism and spreading urban decay in Adelaide's northern suburbs.

Instead of attacking Asian markets after the State Bank collapse in the early 1990s, and bringing new expertise in to help rebuild the economy, SA did nothing. Holden will close in 2017 and the future of the Australian Submarine Corporation is in doubt. The worst case is a loss of 15,000 jobs – mainly males in their 40s and 50s. Like the recession of 1991, about half will never work again.


SA's net debt as a percentage of the state economy is 7.3 per cent - the highest in Australia. Economic growth is a paltry 1.3 per cent. Yet the state government is focusing on everything but job creation. If SA was an aeroplane, the cockpit alarm would be screaming "stall! stall!"

With the national economy slowing and commodity prices falling, the SA government can't look to Canberra to save its bacon. Neither can it expect Queensland and WA to sacrifice their GST revenues to prop up a failing state. Crowland is on its own.

According to the ABS, an extraordinary 22.8 per cent of the adult population is welfare dependent and rising as the population ages. There's also ultra-orthodox 'nay-saying' by sections of the post war generation, forming a large risk adverse voter bloc.

Working with DIAC/ABS statistics, I deduced that from 1984-2014 about 80,477 South Australians fled the state permanently. Most were in there 20s and 30s. This needs some explanation. On average, 20-30,000 South Australians actually leave the state every year and in strong economic times, immigrants make up most of the short fall.

Now departures outweigh arrivals by around 4000 people per year and rising. Since 1984, that has totaled 80,477 people. Many were young graduates and mid level professionals in search of greener career pastures. Unfortunately the immigrants have fewer capabilities and were on lower incomes.

As Charles Landry, an authority on cities of the futures wrote in his report, Rethinking Adelaide: Capturing Imagination, of Adelaide's 1.2 million inhabitants, "perhaps 250,000 are underachieving."This has crippled the professional capabilities of many public service agencies and NGOs. Public sector staff management is appalling. New domestic university student enrolments are falling at two of the state's three universities. Demography really is destiny.


Young South Australians can't find a job, let alone enter the property market. The casualisation of the workforce, the deregulation of university fees and mounting HECS and VET debts, are all financial burdens young people carry, which their grandparents did not.

In the last 12 months, seven CEO's and program directors of large organisations such as TAFE SA, the Adelaide Market, Ambulance SA and the new RAH, quit their positions citing 'personal reasons'. They only stayed 12 months or so. I interviewed three of them. They fled the 'Punch and Judy' antics of state's parliamentarians and the reactionary mindset of their boards.

Some expatriate Boomers with national or international experience do return, usually to look after ageing parents. Yet when they apply for local positions, young recruiters knock them back because they are too experienced. Recently a mid level state government job was advertised with 28 separate selection criteria. Applying the standard word length meant submitting an 8000-word application. When merit dies, the city falls.

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About the Author

Malcolm King is a journalist and professional writer. He was an associate director at DEEWR Labour Market Strategy in Canberra and the senior communications strategist at Carnegie Mellon University in Adelaide. He runs a writing business called Republic.

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