A shifting industrial and employment landscape signals that South Australia is in a state of transformation – although embracing sweeping environmental change remains this state’s greatest challenge.
When Holden closed its Elizabeth plant, Professor John Spoehr was among many economic observers who expected the resulting job losses to have a crippling effect on South Australia. Smart policy and collective private and public investment helped alleviate an anticipated state-wide aftershock, but larger workforce challenges still lie ahead, as the looming technological revolution through digital industrialisation quickly gathers global momentum.
There are fears that a digitised workforce must imply a jobless future for many current workers. Not so, says Spoehr, Pro-Vice Chancellor in Research Impact at Flinders University, although he notes that SA business and government must take risks to realise imminent change.
“Just applying caution or only accepting incremental change is simply not good enough,” he says. “Nations around the world are aggressively embracing the digital future. We simply must keep apace of this change. Appropriate education and training of our workforce will be a foundation of this transformation. We have a lot to learn, but despite me sensing a mix of awe and fear in the community, we don’t want to be overwhelmed by the scale of this. We can shape the future workforce to be human-centric.”
These are fundamental concerns that Spoehr reflects on as editor and co-writer of South Australia – State of Transformation, a new book that issues an independent assessment of SA’s current economic, social and political landscape, while also exploring options and policy needs to lay the strongest possible path ahead.
Wakefield Press has published previous volumes in 2005, 2009 and 2013, with each bearing a different title to reflect the prevailing state of this state. Spoehr says the book, featuring specialist chapters from 20 SA academics, provides necessary independent perspective – the only ongoing critical analysis of the state from outside of government quarters – and this fourth edition provides a valuable policy touchstone, especially in a year that has seen a change of government.
“This book takes policy discussion outside of cloistered academic conversations and into the public realm,” says Spoehr, who avoids dense academic jargon in the text, reflecting his political analysis columns written for The Adelaide Review over several decades. “We need reflective analysis across many social, economic and political lenses to truly understand how South Australia is tracking, and ask the difficult questions about where we should be heading.”
Despite Spoehr’s focus on workforce transformation – his primary area of expertise as director of the Australian Industrial Transformation Institute – his greatest concern is how climate change will trigger decisive transformation across all aspects of South Australia’s economy and society.
“We have our heads in the sand over climate change,” Spoehr says. “This is the really big transformative agent at play in South Australia, and we don’t recognise the domino effect it already has – and will continue to have – on all aspects of our lives. We must understand all of the costs and implications of environmental impact in our future decisions. We must apply our ingenuity, along with private and public investment, to create industry and outcomes that impact less on our environment.
“We can either be struck by the fear of awful implications, or we can address what common goals we can work towards. This will have the greatest bearing on the quality of life in South Australia for the decades to come.”
To meet such challenges, Spoehr and his co-authors point to yawning gaps in existing policy that must be rectified – in balanced economic and trade policy that must address profound transformations of the global economy, of framing development and industry initiatives within the environmentally-aware “circular economy” paradigm that has been widely embraced across Europe but lagging in Australia, for strong financial incentives to accelerate new business, and, most crucially, to reduce the impact of industrial production on the environment.
To achieve this, strong political will is required, to steer robust long-term strategies rather than indulge in short-term political point- scoring.
South Australia’s energy debate at its most politicised in March 2017
This is not impossible, says Spoehr. Government reaction to the 2016 power blackouts resulted in a decisive energy policy announcement that not only provided energy security for the state, but also showed that smart policy can solve a seemingly intractable problem.
“Bold policy is necessary,” Spoehr says. “We need strong financial incentives for companies to accelerate, and especially to embrace digital transformation. There is a need to greatly improve a climate of innovation and collaboration. Such a focus is not on start-ups and small companies alone, but also on complex value chains and lead customer relationships linking large, medium and small firms, and transforming existing businesses.
“Most importantly, we need to reduce the impact of industrial production on the environment. And this must happen through legislation. As a small example, look at the drink container deposit legislation; a fine example of solving a problem that would not have happened if legislation had not been introduced.”
If politicians fail to take decisive action, Spoehr says it ’s the responsibility of the community to act. “This is where we all have to be politicians,” he says. “If we want change, then we have to state the obvious. If we are concerned that there is a leadership vacuum, people must exert pressure on our leadership to change. I sense that we may be at a tipping point; as environmental temperatures rise, so too is more heat being applied in politics. Nothing can be taken for granted in government any more, from the length of terms in office, to the duration of leaders. A lot of this volatility is not for the right reasons, but it just shows that our political landscape is transforming just as much as our economic and social paradigm.”
There is an urgency for such political gamesmanship to cease, says Spoehr. While he describes the early performance of the Marshall Government as being “pragmatic” rather than strictly aligned to rigid ideologies, Spoehr warns that more than political pragmatism is required to set the future course for South Australia.
“Australia is a decade behind in comprehending and applying technologies that will make us a highly advanced economy and society. We have to act now, to ensure that people are taken along with the transformations that lay ahead, rather than being left behind.”