Tomorrow, as the Rann circus finally packs away the tent and trundles into the political night, the newly-arrived Weatherill Show reminds me of an end-of-season football trip in 1973.
On that trip from Adelaide to Whyalla and through the towns en route, the team’s bus broke down on day four. It was only as we piled onto a clean replacement bus that we realised how smelly the old one had become.
After three months in the job, Premier Jay Weatherill presents a similar contrast. He’s already demonstrated his disdain for the political circus that thrilled an adoring media for much of the 10 years of the Rann Government. This week he gave two perfect examples of how to connect, inform and be in control of an issue without a dramatic playbook.
First; the issue of the State’s triple-A credit rating. Asked by the ABC if his trip to the US this week was an attempt to persuade ratings agencies Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s to retain the current rating, he said:
“It’s got nothing to do with that. The credit rating issue will be determined by analysts in Australia and we certainly think it’s more likely than not that there will be a downgrading, so the purpose of the trip is not related to that.
“We are interested, though, in understanding the credit ratings assessment of the situation in Europe. They’re well placed to make that assessment and that will assist to understand the effects that will occur on Australia and in particular South Australia.”
Weatherill had revealed what informed observers had always known — that the drama-charged dashes to the US to plead a ratings case were a con by the Rann administration.
Public finance ratings for those agencies are made by their on-ground analysts in Sydney and Melbourne. And as each ratings statement made clear, the assessment was based heavily on the reliability of Commonwealth GST payments.
For years there had been a game played in SA where former Treasurer Kevin Foley would grimly talk up the prospect of losing the rating and make a dash to New York. Then, within half an hour of the annual state budget being handed down, the agencies would release an affirmation of SA’s triple-A rating. The media lapped it up time and again as if it were an international message of congratulation for the treasurer’s economic acumen.
In reality, there are few reasons to change the rating of a state government. The State Bank debt was one occasion and the sale of our assets to pay off that debt returned the rating.
Now, a lowering of GST revenue estimates and prospective debt from the new Royal Adelaide Hospital could be cause for it to be trimmed back again. A return to GST revenue growth would quickly fix it.
Weatherill knows all that and he’s comfortable to view it within that perspective. No show, no drama, just the facts. Which also raises the question of what Foley was doing in New York on those supposed mercy dashes?
The second prime example of how the tone of politics has changed under Weatherill was his meeting this week with Holden executives in Detroit. Everyone else grabbed the chance to play the auto sector drama game including federal Manufacturing Minister Kym Carr, Holden executives and, for Victorian punters, some Ford people.
It generally goes like this: tell the audience that jobs are at risk; stage manage a meeting; and then announce a co-investment funding package that sends waves of relief through the families of car workers back home. However, thanks to Weatherill, it didn’t follow the usual script.
But The Age’s motoring correspondent Joshua Dowling thought everyone was still playing by the old rules when he wrote: “Moments after Ford’s briefing, it all began to unravel. The South Australian Premier, Jay Weatherill, unwittingly overplayed his role as the knight in shining armour, telling local radio he hoped to ‘save Holden’, sparking unwarranted concern.”
What Dowling missed is that Weatherill was simply being honest.
Holden is no certainty to stay in Australia. Weatherill’s memories of the threat/subsidy games played with Mitsubishi before it finally closed the doors taught him how quickly a car manufacturer can fold.
In an interview with ABC breakfast presenter Spence Denny, the Premier told listeners the possibility of Holden leaving was not only real, but a quick subsidy deal wouldn’t suddenly fix it.
“It’s a possible scenario, and of course we’re doing everything we can to resist that,” he said of Holden’s closure of its Elizabeth plant. “But the truth is that car making is a global industry, so the future for Holden in South Australia and importantly the components suppliers in South Australia will involve us making sure that we’ve got a secure place in that global industry.”
For the Premier, the Holden issue is a serious challenge to the structure of our manufacturing industry and changes will need to be made as we adjust to external factors.
One of the changes already made is his refreshing willingness to be frank and open with the voters. After 12 weeks of his premiership, this bus already smells so much better than the last one.