Academic, media columnist and sometime Q&A panellist, Professor Judith Sloan, chose one of South Australia’s most important occasions to deliver the worst keynote speech I’ve ever heard.
Sloan’s speech last Friday night was the lowlight of an otherwise remarkable tribute to local enterprise as Business SA celebrated the 175th anniversary of the SA Chamber of Commerce and Industry – the oldest such chamber in Australia.
The business community was ready to celebrate – but the applause turned to jeers as Sloan’s long speech failed to acknowledge any positives about the state’s future.
In front of an audience of around 1000 at the Adelaide Entertainment Centre, business champions were honoured with the “175 Hall of Fame Awards”; meanwhile, individuals who have made lifelong contributions were recognised as “Industry Champions”.
SA Premier Jay Weatherill enthused (without notes) about the state’s business heritage, taking us back to the rooms of a London club in 1833 when the settlement of the colony was first mooted.
Weatherill looked as comfortable as he’s ever been in front of a business audience; he may have been buoyed by Business SA chief executive Nigel McBride’s opening address.
“We will engage with anyone, anywhere; any government of any colour or persuasion,” McBride said after a spectacular audio visual opening presentation by local production house Novatech Creative Event Technology.
And then came the keynote address.
Sloan came to South Australia from Victoria in 1980, she reminded the audience.
She’d taken up a position as a Research Fellow in Labour Studies at Flinders University.
By 1988 she was Professor of Labour Studies and carving out a solid career in economics.
She has been a commissioner on the Productivity Commission, deputy chair of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and Commissioner of the Australian Fair Pay Commission.
Sloan has sat on several boards, including Santos, Mayne Group, SGIO Insurance and Primelife, and writes a column for The Australian newspaper.
The audience was keen to hear her perspective on South Australia.
“My grandmother always told me that if you can’t say something nice, then don’t say anything,” Sloan said in her opening remarks.
And she then proceeded to ignore that advice.
What followed was a wandering retrospective on South Australia as an economic backwater, a place where young people leave and, like her daughters, “won’t come back”; a drag on the national economy verging on being “another Tasmania”.
The harsh assessment may have had some relevance had she backed it up with a reasoned argument, with some examples.
No. Instead, the Sloan assessment was an observation that Adelaide is a “government town”. Our public sector is so large that it dominates the economic landscape.
Except that there were no numbers to back that up.
She had, however, once met a nice taxi driver who complimented her on her “good looks” when she was on a trip to the airport (pleased, perhaps that she was getting out of town).
Late in the ramble, Sloan almost changed tack: “Let me talk for a moment about some positives for South Australia.”
The resultant jeers and ironic cheers from the audience sent her back into the negative and the prospect of some sunshine was gone.
It was a relieved audience that clapped politely when she finished.
Co-MC David Koch, sensing the mood, stepped up and took the mickey out of the speech.
As did the next guest, federal small business minister Bruce Billson.
Billson, also a Victorian, spoke from the heart, relating the pressures and risks of small business.
“Entrepreneurship is to be admired and celebrated,” he said, adding: “Your optimism and positivity will drive this state forward.”
Billson left the stage to raucous cheers, with a 175th anniversary well acknowledged and a sense that better times were ahead.
Very few people in the audience needed to be told that times were tough – they live it every day.
What they wanted was some sense that there were better times ahead.
The Premier, the federal small business minister and Business SA’s CEO did their bit.
Kevin Naughton is a business writer with Adelaide’s InDaily. This is an edited version of a story first published on the site.