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SA election preview: Labor could hold on, but does it matter?

Neither Labor nor the Liberals are particularly inspiring in South Australia, writes InDaily commentator and Channel Nine political reporter Tom Richardson.

weatherill

There is always much accompanying hyperbole and platitudes in the interminable lead-up to any given electoral contest. We will be told the March 15 South Australian poll is the most important in a generation. It’s not, of course. In fact, on balance, it’s among the least important in a generation.

It’s certainly excited far less interest than any that have preceded it this century. There remains little clue about the Liberals’ plan for government, and the Opposition Leader himself remains a largely unknown proposition, both as a politician and an ideologue. And, while there is a vague sense that Labor has run its course after 12 years in power, the departure of much of the Rann-era cabinet coupled with the demise of the ALP federally appears to have dissipated the rabid mood for change that had government heads bowed with foreboding for much of this third term. Indeed, of Mike Rann’s initial 13-member cabinet, only Premier Jay Weatherill himself remains, and there are signs there is life yet in his leadership after a year of turmoil.

Thus far, we have seen vastly different campaigns from both sides.

The Libs in state opposition have held back on the policy front but have of late produced nickel-and-dime-type offerings suggesting a genuine belief in the importance of boosting SA immigration, which sits awkwardly alongside their federal colleagues’ policy and propaganda bent.

Labor, conversely, has gone early and gone hard (so hard, indeed, that it has taken a policy announcement hiatus in recent weeks, wary of leaving the cupboard bare before the campaign proper). But still, its substantial promises tend to be long-term propositions, as the battle has been shaped as a contest of who can present the most appealing vision within the meagre confines of a shoestring budget. The battle of ideas carries little weight given the limited extent to which largely ineffectual state administrations can influence broad economic recovery.

As the warm bath memories of Christmas revelry quickly turn cold, it’s worth noting that state elections are often little more than the political equivalent of the Yuletide season: a period of largesse, in which a grateful electorate is showered with gifts, but weeks later a struggle to recall what they were or how they have enhanced their day-to-day lives.

What is different, of course, and what is undeniably important about this contest is that in Weatherill and state Liberal leader Steven Marshall we have two political figures with utterly different conceptions of the role of government, forged by entirely different paths to power.

Weatherill, the Labor Left lawyer parachuted straight into the ministry upon his election in 2002, has firmly painted himself as a big government practitioner, a true believer of the value of intervention to prop up or stimulate an ailing economy. Marshall, conversely, is a student of the small business school of cutting red tape and bureaucracy, and stepping back to allow a business-led recovery. Both have had to temper aspects of their zeal, as neither corporate welfare nor wholesale public sector cuts are politically palatable, particularly in these fiscally challenged times.

… defeat will be much worse for the Libs, if they manage to lose what was previously regarded as an unlosable election.”

My suggestion late last year that the combination of Holden’s closure and the Adelaide Oval’s successful debut had conspired to marginalise an opposition that had in any case conspired to marginalise itself incited a few less-than-impressed messages from Liberal insiders. After all, the small target strategy had worked brilliantly for Prime Minister Tony Abbott. But there are important distinctions, primarily the fact Abbott as leader was never an unknown quantity. He has been in public life for two decades, has long been an outspoken conservative thinker and was a prominent minister in John Howard’s government. He seized the Liberal leadership in the midst of an ideological debate (the climate change sceptics v the climate change crusaders).

Marshall, on the other hand, sought the SA Liberal deputy leadership because Isobel Redmond’s leadership seemed increasingly unlikely to deliver a long-awaited victory (not, however, so long-awaited for Marshall, who only joined the party in 2006 and arrived in Parliament in 2010). He took over the leadership when Redmond gave it up, promptly announcing he was off to “roll up his sleeves and do some work”, but the fruits of that work remain a mystery. While Abbott was in campaign mode every day of opposition, setting the political agenda and taking the Rudd and Gillard governments to task, Marshall has taken the small target strategy literally. While he doesn’t shirk the media spotlight, his role is generally as the token negative addendum to whatever the government happens to be doing on any given day.

The Liberals maintain this is all part of the plan, scoffing at any suggestion they should have been an active participant in the policy debate over 2013. No one was listening, they insist. It’s brilliant strategy, they insist. Maybe it is, but it’s still pretty cynical. And moreover, they gave Labor so much clear air that a government once considered dead is still breathing, and gaining confidence with every breath.

Whichever side loses will deal with the traditional bloodletting. Labor, unaccustomed to opposition in SA after more than a decade, will open the scabs of factional sores that have been left to fester in secret. The Right, already resenting ceding authority to the Left in a final desperate gambit for re-election, will seek to redress the lost balance of power.

But still, defeat will be much worse for the Libs, if they manage to lose what was previously regarded as an unlosable election.

Marshall would be entitled to hang on in opposition, particularly in the absence of any credible successor, but I doubt his heart will be in another four-year haul. He is not accustomed to failure. While Redmond was the accidental opposition leader, Marshall’s leadership was no accident, apart from the timing, which came perhaps a little earlier than expected. His has been a brilliant rise to power; if he wins government and ends an era of Liberal impotence his leadership should be unassailable.

But one gets the sense this self-made man has allowed his leadership to be shaped by others, that having got so far on his own steam he has been seized with self-doubt about his political naivete and allowed his natural ebullience to be curbed. The next two months will be the hardest of his brief political life but, win or lose, the four years after that will be harder still.

*This article was originally published at InDaily

8
  • 1
    tonysee
    Posted Monday, 13 January 2014 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    I think your analysis is pretty spot on.

    While ‘Weatherill’ is about as bland as, he’s not making the stuff ups and building the contempt in the electorate comparable to the last days of Rudd/Gillard. A ‘small target’ strategy makes sense in that context because you just have to let the other side stuff up and walk in looking ‘not as bad’.

    And, notwithstanding your remarks about a ‘shoestring’ budget, Weatherill will be able to boast really visible ‘building for the future’ projects, many of which were actually oppose by the Opposition. I think, for example, most voters will be impressed by the way the North-Western quadrant of the city is being transformed.

  • 2
    CML
    Posted Monday, 13 January 2014 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    I too, think this analysis is right on the money. Something about ‘the devil you know…’ could have a big influence here.
    As I have said on another thread today, Christopher Pyne could well prove to be a very negative presence for the state opposition as well. The sheer incompetence and dishonesty of the federal minister for Education (from SA), in one of the most important policy areas for parents and their children, is mind-boggling!

  • 3
    docantk
    Posted Monday, 13 January 2014 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

    Shades of the 2007 NSW state election perhaps? An elderly government given another go because the other side were so uninspiring. And we know what happened to NSW Labor 2007-2011….perhaps the Victorian ALP Govt scenario is more palatable: close loss then return refreshed after one term in opposition because of an unprepared Liberal party govt. We shall see.

  • 4
    Hamis Hill
    Posted Monday, 13 January 2014 at 8:59 pm | Permalink

    Yes, we need “Wall to Wall” Liberals because……?
    No positive reasons seem to readily appear.
    How about, the sooner it gets worse the sooner it gets better?
    (Following the “it will nave to get worse before it can get better” adage).
    Now a good recession will destroy the $1.75 Trillion mortgage market presently enslaving and dispossessing the Australian population.
    Tony, and Bernardi and Christopher and company have it all in order.
    South Australians must do their part in destroying the national economy!

  • 5
    Zarathrusta
    Posted Monday, 13 January 2014 at 10:02 pm | Permalink

    If we still had the Gillard Government I’d say Weatherill was certain to fall, but since the rise of the super idealoges in Canberra who appear to be even more ideologically driven and brain dead than the Tea-Party I’d say he has a good chance of hanging on.

    We are suffering from cranenomics here, the idea that if the population see lots of cranes on the horizon the economy must be good - right?! Something Joh Bjelke-Peterson was known for, these cranes will turn out to be a bubble. I was fed up with Labor here and planning to vote Liberal but Pynski’s politicising destruction of improvements we need in education and Hockey’s sadisting reneging on promised funding to electrify Adelaide trains (which have diesel that just doesn’t work in heat like we are experiencing this week) I know I have to vote Labor because I’d rather have duds that nut-cases. Many people I know have formed the opinion that Liberals - and let’s not forget it is the SA Liberals who put Cory Bernardi at the top of our Senate ticket virtually ensuring he will be elected - are too extreme and ideologically driven to be allowed in any parliament even as opposition let alone government.

    One thing this article didn’t cover are the rumours surrounding why the Liberal leader here is unfit to lead.

  • 6
    Zarathrusta
    Posted Monday, 13 January 2014 at 10:20 pm | Permalink

    Aledgedly unfit to lead I should say.

  • 7
    John64
    Posted Monday, 13 January 2014 at 11:42 pm | Permalink

    Labor could hold on”

    Based on what? There’s no polling that shows them winning. This is like the Federal campaign. Seeing polling every day that showed the Liberals would romp it in while Crikey commentators are going on about a Rudd come-back, crying “peak Abbott” and desperately looking at their tea leaves in a bid to find anything that told them what they wanted to hear.

    There remains little clue about the Liberals’ plan for government, and the Opposition Leader himself remains a largely unknown proposition, both as a politician and an ideologue”

    As opposed to Tony Abbott who’s plan was 3 dot points he wrote on a napkin - 3 years earlier at the previous election campaign - and where everyone not only knew him, they hated him.

    After all, the small target strategy had worked brilliantly for Prime Minister Tony Abbott. But there are important distinctions”

    It looks like someone forgot the 2010 SA election. Martin-Hamilton Smith had three main ideas: Upgrade the Royal Adelaide Hospital (in its current location), build a new stadium, build a 30 GL desal plant.

    He announced them YEARS before the election. As a result, Mike Rann in his best impersonation of a bad photocopier:

    - Upgraded Adelaide Oval instead. We’re stuck with that now.

    - Built a 100 gigalitre desal plant (that’s not being used and which went against a report actually saying it was too big) as opposed to the smaller 30 gigalitre plan that was proposed. We’re stuck paying for that now.

    - Built a new, smaller RAH 30 mins down the road from the existing one. So students at Adelaide Uni no longer have a short 2 min hop to classes in the hospital. We’re stuck with that now too.

    All Marshall has to do is point to the debt cherry on top. Oh and if Holden’s we’re going to stay open, Labor had 12 years in SA and 6 years Federally to do something about that. It’s a bit late now.

    Keep in mind this is in the state where Rann threw untold millions at Mitsubishi… only to see them close anyway.

    Can we have our money back? Or are we’re stuck with that now too?

  • 8
    Hamis Hill
    Posted Wednesday, 15 January 2014 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

    Can we have our money back?” might be a rather plaintive cry from the banks when their mortgage market collapses, in the late onset GFC that Australia “has to have” in the shape of an “Inevitable Abbott Recession”.
    Labor were the idiots who tried to hold back that tide, isn’t that what Tony and company have been saying?

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