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Adelaide’s quiet powerbrokers: the people who’ll decide SA’s election

South Australia is in flux. Labor will lose power; the mining boom is ending; Holden is leaving. There’s a new coterie of power players making their mark. Here’s who you should keep an eye on.

South Australia is in flux. Labor is likely to lose power in a few days, as the state goes to the polls on March 15. The end of the mining boom and the exit of Holden have left an economic hole, and the demise of Mike Rann’s long premiership has ushered in a new era of politicians and power players, many of whom operate rather differently than their predecessors.

So who rules South Australia now? Crikey asked members of SA’s elite, as well as those who watch them. Here are our picks for the people who’ll rule South Australia, if not today, then tomorrow …

  1. James Stevens (chief of staff to Opposition Leader Steven Marshall)
  2. Don Farrell (Labor Senator)
  3. Natasha Stott Despoja (still a power player)
  4. Nick Xenophon (iconoclastic independent Senator)
  5. Bob Day (newbie Senator with cash to spare)
  6. Rob Gerard (millionaire with his fingers in many pies)
  7. Adelaide’s business dynasties
  8. Tanya Monro (gun physicist who can bring in the big bucks)
  9. Stephen Yarwood (Adelaide’s baby-faced mayor)
  10. Mel Mansell (Murdoch’s man on the ground)

We’ve left off the party leaders to focus on those behind the scenes. But the first name on our list is powerful because of his close proximity to the likely future premier. Liberal Opposition Leader Steven Marshall should be a pushover for a seasoned political operative like premier Jay Weatherill. But the polling suggests the first-termer is on track to end up as South Australia’s next premier. Marshall’s run a remarkably disciplined campaign that’s left journalists scratching their heads as to what kind of premier he’d actually make. The person viewed as pivotal in this performance is his chief of staff, James Stevens, a St Peter’s old boy who joined the Liberals at 16. Now 31, he finds himself in Marshall’s office after serving as his campaign manager. Despite Stevens’ youth, he’s left an impression. “He’s performing incredibly well and is of huge influence,” a Liberal insider told us. “He’s one to watch for the future.” Our Labor sources agreed.

Next on our list is someone who appears vanquished, for now. Federal Senator Don Farrell (pictured, left) —  along with other members of South Australia’s dominant Labor Right faction such as Peter Malinauskas of the powerful Shop Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association (the man who told long-serving former premier Mike Rann to step down) — have been content to wield power behind the scenes for many years. Farrell, who failed to reclaim his federal Senate spot after moving himself down the ticket to make way for Penny Wong, thought he could quietly parachute himself into friend Michael O’Brien’s safe state seat. Weatherill heard about this and, after seeing a piece in The Australian speculating that Farrell would challenge him for the leadership, went ballistic. Farrell withdrew his name, but there’s a great deal of animosity within the Right faction about the stoush. They’re bottling it up, for now. But if Weatherill loses to Marshall, as many expect he will, you can expect a few months of ruthless bloodletting between the two factions. Farrell will likely regain his influence, along with his whole faction.

But not all the backroom operators in Adelaide belong to the two major parties. Former Democrats leader Natasha Stott Despoja (pictured, centre) continues to wield significant influence within her home state, with deep reach in the media and Adelaide’s not-for-profit sector. In December she was appointed ambassador for women and girls by Tony Abbott. While there’s nothing unusual about a former political leader being appointed to such a position, it is unusual to appoint someone from a different party — particularly a minor one. “She’s highly regarded by almost everybody,” one of her colleagues at the University of Adelaide (where she’s a research fellow) told Crikey. “She may have been out of politics for six years, but she’s still got a great deal of currency.” She’s married to another of Adelaide’s power players, spinner Ian Smith (Smith himself owns a lobbying firm with Alexander Downer and Labor fixer Nick Bolkus — power in Adelaide is cosy).

Two more independent politicians influence the state. The first is the perennially popular Nick Xenophon, who isn’t running in the upcoming state elections (he’s yet to start another six-year term in Canberra) but has nonetheless quite literally loaned his face to two candidates. It’s not clear how much Xenophon has actually achieved — a decade after he ran on a no-pokies platform, South Australia still has plenty, though some laws have been bought in to limit their growth. But if Xenophon lacks the brute numbers to grease the wheels of policy, he certainly has the ability to connect with the public. He pulled in a staggering 24.9% of the primary vote in the last federal election — surely some of that popularity will translate to votes for the candidates running on his team in the state election.

Incoming federal Senator Bob Day isn’t as popular, pulling just 3.76% of the primary vote. But what he lacks in broad appeal, he makes up for in cash. Day is a former high-ranking Liberal who fell out with the party after losing an endorsement to replace Downer in the safe seat of Mayo. He joined Family First shortly afterwards. Day is one of the state’s most successful businessman, having made his fortune in housing construction. In the past, he’s been more than happy to financially support the causes he believes in, lending more than $1 million to Family First since 2009 and funding Adelaide’s conservative HQ, the Bert Kelly Research Centre, which he runs with friend Cory Bernardi. Day is well connected outside the state, too — he’s the chairman of right-wing union busters the HR Nichols Society, secretary of the libertarian Institute of Public Affairs, a director of the Centre for Independent Studies, and a member of the Mont Pelerin society, according to his official bio. Not on his official bio is information about his biggest support base — Adelaide’s evangelical Christian community, which is loosely led by the Influencers Church (formerly the Paradise Community Church —  Adelaide’s answer to Hillsong).

Adelaide lacks corporate clout, but it’s dotted with successful niche businesses that have been passed down for generations.”

Speaking of donations, no list of Adelaide power players would be complete without Rob Gerard, who BRW reckons is worth $235 million. The 69-year-old former Reserve Bank board member — he stepped down after a bit of bother with the Tax Office  — has his fingers in lots of pies. His family’s wealth comes largely from electrical accessories business Clipsal, founded by his father Alfred Gerard in 1920. The business has been sold on, but Gerard hasn’t been idle. He’s a patron of the Adelaide Football Club and the SA Jockey Club, and he part-owns Adelaide United. He unsuccessfully ran for leadership of the Liberal Party in 1987, and remains a huge donor. He’s also a philanthropist, donating generously to help build the state’s heath infrastructure. He was repeatedly mentioned by those Crikey spoke to as one of Adelaide’s few truly influential business people, and with a Liberal government probably on the way, his star is rising.

We have to include the leaders Adelaide’s dynastic businesses, which include Tim and Glen Cooper (of the eponymous the beer company), Alister Haigh (of Haighs Chocolates), and the Shahin clan (of convenience store chains On the Run and Smokemart). Adelaide lacks corporate clout, but it’s dotted with successful niche businesses that have been passed down for generations. The current leaders of these businesses, for the most part, don’t throw their weight around. But they are big employers and can get a hearing anytime they want it. “We can’t afford to lose them,” said one Liberal.

On employers, one can’t discount the state’s education sector, which is huge. The academics who can bring in the money are bringing in power — and on that front perhaps none is as powerful as gun physicist Tanya Monro, at The University of Adelaide since 2005. She’s young — just 41 — and in 2008 won $28 million from the federal government for a new state-of-the-art Institute for Photonics & Advanced Sensing, with which she could continue her research.

Another person to consider is Adelaide’s young mayor Stephen Yarwood (pictured, right). It’s been four years since he came out of nowhere to win a fiercely contested campaign. He ran on a policy of revitalisation of the CBD, and today, the place is a construction site. Victoria Square is being re-envisioned, Rundle Mall is getting a facelift, and the city is taking a leaf from Melbourne’s book, populating its laneways with cafes and art galleries. And Yarwood’s star is rising. In a race the political factions thought they had stitched up, he was the insurgent candidate, striking a chord and winning  largely on his own popularity. He works hard, too — the rumour is he personally door-knocked every single house in the ward to be elected. “If he sticks around in South Australia, he’ll continue to be part of the scene for a long time,” as an insider put it.

Former Advertiser editor Mel Mansell rounds out our list. He’s Rupert Murdoch’s highest-ranked man in the state, and though since 2012 he hasn’t been editor of the only daily in SA (his title now is state editorial director for SA, the Northern Territory and Western Australia), he’s still in charge. The Tiser sets the agenda, particularly for television and radio. But Mansell is a curiously little-known figure. “Mansell just doesn’t do the political schmoozing,” a former Adelaide editor told us. “He’s just not a member of the A-list. It seems his personal preference.” Others, like news head Paul Starick, are seen as far closer to Adelaide’s movers and shakers. But Mansell remains inflential. A Labor politican told us that while Mansell doesn’t rule with an iron fist, he can still make mincemeat out of those he decides to go after. And for political media managers, The Advertiser remains the only paper you can make a friendly drop to. But its influence has waned. Several savvy insiders advised Crikey to leave it off this list, saying that while individual journalists within the Tiser can be powerful, the paper as a whole doesn’t use its clout to push campaigns or causes. There was a feeling among many that The Advertiser has squandered its legacy through laziness and ineptitude, becoming more a tool of power rather than powerful in its own right. So let’s put it this way: The Advertiser isn’t as powerful as it could be, but you wouldn’t want to get on its bad side.

2
  • 1
    AR
    Posted Friday, 7 March 2014 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    Re Xenophon’s stunning vote in September - if it hadn’t been for the idiocy of the Greens directing their preferences elsewhere he would have had a colleague, in the end he was about 3% short of a second quota, a result unequalled by any other non party, ever.

  • 2
    tonyfunnywalker
    Posted Saturday, 8 March 2014 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

    The election of Marshall is a risk where the Liberals have better candidates in its ranks. Marshall is like Abbott - a policy fee campaign without any reform or plan for a State that is facing an major crisis with the demise of the car industry. The state has developed a strong renewable energy industry but is hamstrung by a regulated electricity market driven by the inefficient coal generators to offer cheap power to incubate new industries. The Liberals have never been forgiven for selling off ETSA at such generous terms by Olsen who is making his precess felt. Your article omitted to discuss the dark side of the Liberal campaign with Bernardi, Pyne and Vanstone pulling the strings of the campaign supported by a liberal biased and sycophantic Advertiser and a News Limited biased ABC; where political commentary is delivered via the Advertiser news room.
    Our own version of a shock lock Sky News every morning.

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