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SA Premier (and money man?) risks stability of his government

South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill will reshuffle his cabinet and possibly give himself the plum role of treasurer. Though it’s hard to see why he’d want it, writes InDaily editor David Washington.

South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill had always pegged this year as the time for him to go for broke, be bold, leave nothing in the tank. A victory in the March 2014 election would make him a Labor hero; a loss has been on the cards for so long that he feels he has nothing to lose.

But there’s a difference between being brave and foolish.

Yesterday, Weatherill told journalists the imminent cabinet reshuffle — sparked by the resignation of long-standing ministers John Hill and Patrick Conlon — would be decided by him, not by the factions. There are a number of problems with this analysis, not least of which is the fact that the Labor factions put Weatherill himself into his job — and keep him there.

Whatever you think about the factions, in South Australian state politics they have provided Labor with a mechanism for maintaining discipline and stability. Could Weatherill be about to upset the balance?

Labor has very clear processes for appointing cabinet ministers. The factions choose the names; the premier — with some constraints — chooses the portfolios.

There are a couple of caveats. The dominant Right, in order to stomach having a Left faction member like Weatherill as premier, maintains first dibs on the two biggest positions after premier: deputy premier and treasurer. The deputy premier also, by tradition, has a say in the allocation of his or her portfolios.

Weatherill, of course, had little option yesterday but to assert publicly that he was totally in control.

The first problem with this statement is the obvious fact that he is, himself, a factional player — in fact, he has been for years the most influential Left member of the state parliamentary party. He could only become premier with the agreement of the Right, which dominates the numbers in the Labor caucus. If he started ripping positions away from the Right, he would open up a factional divide that he could not afford.

There’s no evidence he’s going to do this, although Right minister Russell Wortley appears to be in the Premier’s sights. The Right may agree to Wortley’s dumping, but they won’t give up his spot to the Left.

The second problem with Weatherill’s claim is that all evidence points to factional deals being under way all week. In the past days, factional deals have been done, with the Premier’s involvement — at least on an implicit level. For example, Speaker Lyn Breuer has been told to stand down from the key parliamentary post. The position, she and everyone else knows — indeed, they’ve been told — will go to the Right faction.

(Former attorney-general Michael Atkinson is almost certain to become the new speaker. Already “father of the House” — an unofficial title which goes to the longest-serving MP — he will now be ruler. Parliament will be much more interesting because of it.)

Labor rules also allow Weatherill to choose his own portfolios. So while the Right lays claim to the Treasury, the Premier could credibly argue he has an equal or greater right to take the treasurer’s position from Jack Snelling, as has been speculated widely. This story, gobsmackingly, appears to have credence.

While Snelling hasn’t done a terrible job in times of budget upheaval, he hasn’t been able to craft a convincing narrative about the state’s economy — in particular how we can get out of this budget mess. But would Weatherill do a better job? It’s doubtful.

He already works like a Trojan. Without question, he would have to rely more heavily than Snelling does on advisers and bureaucrats in the day-to-day running of Treasury affairs. And that won’t be good for the state.

The atmospherics of such a move would also be terrible for Labor. The last SA premier to take on the treasurer’s role was John Bannon — and that experiment ended with the collapse of the State Bank. At a time of mounting state debt, Labor would be foolish to provide any more reminders of that dark era in South Australia’s history.

Shadow treasurer Iain Evans, a smart parliamentary performer when he’s allowed and when he’s keen, would like his chances of exposing Weatherill in Parliament with complex and technical questions about the state’s finances.

A treasurer also has to be tough — doling out the cuts and pain. Why would Weatherill want that role, and how would that make political sense?

If he goes ahead with the move it will be Weatherill’s biggest miscalculation since he became Premier. Quite apart from the implications for good governance, the people who put him in the top job will not forget it. Snelling himself was one of the Right spear-carriers who told Mike Rann to go, paving the way for Weatherill’s elevation to the top job.

John Hill and Patrick Conlon, two of Weatherill’s biggest supporters, will soon be gone. The cabinet room may be about to become that much more inhospitable for Weatherill.

*Disclosure: David Washington was media adviser to deputy premier John Rau from January 2011 to July 2012. This article was originally published at InDaily.

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