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