South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill’s cabinet shake-up — and his public statements since yesterday — have laid bare his political strategy for winning the next election.

As Treasurer, he will seek to contrast his government’s “investment” in jobs and services with the opposition’s plans to fix the budget problems of debt and deficit — plans he will paint as “slash and burn”. In contrast, Opposition Leader Isobel Redmond will talk about ending government waste and incompetence, and reducing costs to increase business activity.

The reshuffle also points to some other interesting developments, including a shake-up for Education and WorkCover. Here are our predictions for the year ahead, based on the clues contained in the reshuffle …

The budget will still be dire — Weatherill won’t be swayed

Weatherill will “craft a narrative” about the budget position — as they say in the game. He’ll be better than Jack Snelling at communicating with the public about why we’re in debt, where we’re headed and why there might be a light at the end of the tunnel — but he won’t be better at balancing the books.

In fact, the Premier’s narrative will seek to make a political virtue out of the dire budget position. He has said on many occasions — including this morning — that government shouldn’t “withdraw” from the economy in tough times because this will make things worse.

Labor strategists have looked gleefully at Queensland Premier Campbell Newman’s plummeting poll numbers as he has made deep budget cuts. Weatherill will hope Redmond keeps up her rhetoric about repairing the budget (she will). Then he’ll unleash the scare campaign. It’s a risky strategy, both politically and for the future of the state’s finances. However, it might just work.

Public servant numbers won’t be slashed

With Weatherill taking on the Public Sector and Treasury portfolios — and canning the Liberals over Redmond’s immediately disowned “policy” to cut 25,000 public servants — we can be certain that no slash and burn will occur. There will be some cuts, but they won’t be deep. Weatherill intends to make this a central election issue, so public servants should relax. Ratings agencies and economists will be less pleased.

But Education bureaucrats should be scared

New Education Minister Jennifer Rankine will unleash hell on the beleaguered Education Department. She doesn’t abide fools and likes to be in totally control. Watch out.

Workcover will also be in for a shake-up

Deputy Premier John Rau now has Industrial Relations in his list of portfolios, which means WorkCover is in his realm of responsibility. Putting a dose of salts through WorkCover will be high on his to-do list. Expect an attempt to introduce significant structural changes to the system.

Tourism will get more attention

Alexander Downer raised plenty of eyebrows a few weeks ago when his regular newspaper column, usually devoted to high-brow international affairs, focused on local tourism. Was he starting to sketch out his agenda as state Liberal leader? Or was he just saying what most people are thinking — that we aren’t making the most of tourism in South Australia.

Leon Bignell should be the most focused Tourism Minister we’ve had in years. The past three have had huge portfolio responsibilities in other areas — Bignell will only have the addition of Sport and Recreation on his plate. If he doesn’t lift Tourism’s profile — and performance — then something is seriously awry. Say what you like about Bignell, but he is a smooth media performer.

Tom Koutsantonis will gain gravitas

The government’s most aggressive minister will also become one of its highest profile ministers in the crucial transport, mining and infrastructure portfolios. Compared to Patrick Conlon – particularly in his later years in the ministry — Koutsantonis will be more available to the media and more responsive to community concerns (he’ll also be able to cut the ribbon on a number of projects started by Conlon). He will look to take strategic advantage of the now linked portfolios of mining and infrastructure. We might even get a State Transport Plan. Strap yourselves in.

Health will remain an expensive enigma

Health is an interlocking puzzle of bureaucratic and structural complexity, influential stakeholders, and very real community need. Politically, this is no-win territory for Jack Snelling and the government. Make “structural changes” (that is, cuts), and you’ll face the perfect political storm of grassroots community anger and complaints from powerful stakeholders. Fail to tame the budget and you’ll be blamed for blowing out the state’s finances.

Snelling will enjoy having more control over his own destiny than in Treasury, where he faced many financial forces that were beyond his influence. Will he make massive changes? Will he cut the budget as severely as he wanted to when he was Treasurer? Given we’re just over a year out from an election, I suspect not. He knows the Health beast must be tamed — but his approach will be incremental and careful.

*This article was originally published at InDaily

Peter Fray

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