Pat Conlon is no Gil Langley, South Australian MP and Labor Party hero from the 1960s and ’70s. Nor is he a patch on Geoff Virgo, former 1970s transport minister and Labor MP for Conlon’s electoral patch of Ascot Park, Mitchell Park, Edwardstown and Plympton.
And when it comes to working the electorate, Conlon’s decision to work three days a week at a city law firm puts him well behind current Labor MPs Frances Bedford, Mick Atkinson and Leon Bignell, all renowned door knockers.
Conlon said yesterday that since giving up his ministerial portfolio earlier this year he’s felt like his brain is “back in the closet”. Searching for such stimulation — apparently missing in day-to-day dealings with the electorate — has led him to take up a job as a three-day-a-week lawyer for Minter Ellison.
He couldn’t have placed himself any further from his party’s history — or any further from his electorate.
I remember well the efforts of Langley, MP for my grandparents’ electorate of Unley from 1962 to 1982, and Virgo, local member for Edwardstown and then Ascot Park from 1968 to 1979, the part of Adelaide where I grew up. Langley was a former sporting star, an Australian cricketer and state footballer who embraced the role of local MP. Langley walked the streets knocking on doors and talking to the voters. He always carried a couple of useful tools, such as a screwdriver or small hammer, and would fix loose and leaky bits around the house. A qualified electrician, the Sturt Football Club Hall of Famer would fix a toaster or tighten a cupboard door for his constituents.
Over in Ascot Park, now in Pat’s electorate of Elder, Virgo always found time to walk the streets and talk to all and sundry, despite the pressures of being a key minister in the Dunstan government. He was well known to all, and he agitated for the working class with brilliant speeches in the House of Assembly. New trains, stations and train lines were his ministerial legacy.
Fast forward to the next century, and Conlon’s legacy is looking very different to Labor’s heroes of the past. His time as an MP has been distinguished by a long period as transport minister. Yet his successor recently said there was no transport plan, and public transport remains a sore point for the state government.
Having yesterday landed his Premier and party in an embarrassing fix over his new part-time work at Minter Ellison, his only defence was a venomous declaration to the media that other MPs have done it for years. He didn’t name anyone.
Premier Jay Weatherill fronted radio stations this morning to defend his MP. “The electorate expects that Mr Conlon will discharge his responsibilities,” Weatherill told FiveAA. “He has responsibilities to his electorate, and he’ll discharge those responsibilities,” he reiterated on ABC Radio. “Pat’s confident he can discharge those responsibilities.”
When asked how that would be monitored, the Premier said he could only act if he became aware of any breach of the ministerial code of conduct. Asked what mechanism would assure people the code of conduct would be upheld, he said: “By the same mechanism that this matter became public.”
That, by the way, was via a leaked email from Minter Ellison.
Conlon is a conundrum: highly intelligent, well-read and affable; also combative with a penchant for the occasional flutter on the pokies in dusty old pubs. With his knowledge of the inside workings of cabinet and the bureaucracy, and connections forged over a decade in the ministry, there’s plenty he could do for his electorate.
He’s no Langley. He’s no Virgo. He’s Part-Time Pat. The people of the working-class suburbs in and around his seat of Elder deserve better.
*This article was first published at InDaily