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South Australia

Jan 31, 2014

Labor ‘fatally wounded’ ahead of SA election in Farrell fracas

An extraordinary morning in SA politics has crippled the Labor government ahead of the March state election. InDaily editor David Washington explains what happened.

In a few mad hours this morning, South Australian Labor’s electoral hopes have been damaged irreversibly.

Party faithful went to bed last night harbouring outside hopes of an election victory in the SA election on March 15. Today, they are in despair.

Factional discipline — essential to the ascendancy of incumbent Labor Premier Jay Weatherill from the minority Left — has collapsed in such spectacular fashion that hardened party warriors are shell-shocked and demoralised.

In short, this morning’s machinations have destroyed state Labor as surely as that tap on the shoulder to Kevin Rudd way back in 2010 destroyed federal Labor.

To recap, Weatherill today threatened to resign the premiership if Right faction boss Don Farrell — a man inextricably linked to the Rudd-Gillard in-fighting — gained preselection for the state seat of Napier, ahead of the March poll. The seat was offered to Farrell by its incumbent, cabinet minister Michael O’Brien, with a preselection process to happen next week.

Farrell lost his Senate seat at the 2013 federal election after he allowed then-Left minister Penny Wong to take the number one spot in the face of public outrage that the well-regarded Wong wasn’t in top spot. The Right faction was fuming. Payback was inevitable, but no one predicted it would be so damaging.

Today, in a few moments of extraordinary radio on ABC 891 Adelaide, Weatherill threatened to resign if Farrell were preselected, given Farrell’s connection to federal instability and the threat of uncertainty after the election. The Premier said Farrell was associated with divisions in the federal party that “destroyed” the Rudd Labor government and he did not want this in SA. When asked if he would resign if Farrell were preselected, Weatherill said: “I would have to reflect on that, of course.”

Farrell, hanging on the line and listening, seemed taken aback but vowed to keep going with his plan to seek preselection.

A few hours later Farrell — no doubt after hearing from wise heads in Labor that the party was facing electoral catastrophe — withdrew his bid for preselection.

“Politics is the art of the possible,” he said. “Jay has made it very clear that he doesn’t support me in this. I do support the Labor Party, I do support Jay. I don’t want to see what’s happening federally happen in SA. I think the best thing I can do to support stability … is for me to withdraw my candidacy.”

Farrell said his political career would end when his Senate term ends on June 30. “When my term finishes I shall play no further part in public life, either state or federal … I’ve made my decision, I’ve made my decision to withdraw, and I have no regrets about that.”

Farrell backing down was the best case scenario for Labor but, even so, Weatherill and Labor are fatally wounded. Adelaide University head of politics Clem Macintyre described the Weatherill ultimatum as “gobsmacking”.

“It’s extraordinary: a declaration of war within Labor that sounds pretty uncompromising,” he told InDaily. “It [the state election] is no longer in doubt.”

Labor was already facing an uphill battle. Airing this kind of disunity and factional game-playing six weeks from the poll is electoral poison. The Liberals will now be able to link state Labor with the most brand-damaging episode in the party’s history — the Rudd/Gillard debacle.

The blame game is happening behind closed doors. Factional hatreds, mostly dormant since the Right reluctantly handed the premiership to the Left, are now at boiling point. Farrell’s supporters are white-hot over the second humiliation of their leader in the space of six months.

On the other hand, O’Brien and Farrell are facing fury from some within their own faction. There are some that say Weatherill should have calmly accepted Farrell and moved on. Maybe. But even if he did, Farrell’s close identification with the disastrous Rudd-Gillard years would likely have been fatal to Labor’s re-election hopes. That Farrell and his supporters couldn’t see this from the start is baffling. And they’ve had plenty of time — Farrell has been mulling this over since last September’s election.

Beyond all the machinations and ifs and buts, one overarching question remains: how could Labor do this to itself after the years of pain inflicted by the federal disaster? It is impossible to comprehend.

The shredders will be starting this weekend.

* This story was originally published at InDaily

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23 thoughts on “Labor ‘fatally wounded’ ahead of SA election in Farrell fracas

  1. grubbidok

    It’s not just the infighting that puts people off, what is utterly astounding about this is that Right-faction leaders still haven’t cottoned on to just how electorally poisonous their members are electorally.

    People see the Labor party as a Centre-left one. Jokers like Farrell are the kinds of people swing to the Liberals to vote in. No wonder people won’t vote Labor as long as Labor Right remains dominant.

    Before people pick me up yes I know that Labor “right” isn’t as right-wing as the LNP is more centrist with a social conservative bent. However, the fact remains they are still far too right for Labor’s core constituency, and those whose right-wing or conservative values do align with the Faction end up voting for the ‘real thing’ and getting LNP govs anyway. Labor will always face an uphill battle while the Right are in charge.

    What is truly amazing, however, is that when you gauge popularity of policies, reactions to policies etc, Australia seems to be yearning for a centre-left government in the social democratic tradition. But no-one, even Labor, wants to give them one. Labor could actually be the ‘natural party of government’ in Australia if it wanted to, it just appears to prefer destroying itself instead.

  2. Matt

    The Right of the ALP (at least the bit of it fellas like Farrell hail from) are much akin to christian democrats in the European sense.

  3. Stuart Coyle

    I’m constantly surprised by how self destructive the Labor party at both state and federal level has become. There seems to be constant infighting and problems with corruption.

    It is time for the party as a whole to decide wether it should exist as one party or split into the parties that the factions seem to want. Also the party needs a good shakeup to remove the corruptible elements. I’m not saying that other parties do not have the same problems with corruption, it is just that Labor seems to have been well and truly infiltrated.

    If this were to happen, the appropriate factional party would possibly gain my vote. The party as it is has not had my vote for a long time.

  4. klewso

    Any wonder coulrophobia is on the increase?
    They couldn’t sell a turd sandwich in Canberra but it’s good enough to pass on to the state?
    How do these clowns think?

  5. tonysee

    Predictions of ‘fatally wounded’ might be a bit ‘courageous’, David.

    I checked the paper that is most likely to ‘make hay’ while this Labor stuff up ‘shines’, ie Murdoch’s Advertiser (at least the on-line version). The headlines read ‘Weatherill stares down Don Farrell’ and ‘I’m in charge and will repel any rivals’. People actually might sit up and take a shine to Premier Bland for showing a little steel.

    Weatherill’s rival — I mean the guy in the other party — is not exactly setting the house on fire.

    Just sayin’

  6. Matt

    On reflection I’m not sure that this is fatal to Weatherill as such. He certainly put the spear through Farrell’s nefarious designs in an emphatic way. Though I must concede this incident whiffs a bit of drama gone awry.

    If Premier Weatherill has electoral problems (and it seems reasonable to conclude that he might) they’re probably not just about the last political gasps of a soon to be ex senator.

  7. Phillip Monk

    I wonder if the Libs and News Corp will try to turn this into the election issue. Until now they hadn’t really played the ‘faceless men’ card in SA. And the Libs in SA have historically been the party with the reputation for infighting.

    Weatherill has now at least actually branded himself as the guy who stood up to the ‘faceless men’ and won. I think the ALP are still long-shots to hold on but the opposition have spent most of the last 12 years in hiding so it’s not a given that they will now inherit government.

  8. Scott

    I’m with Tonysee on this one. I’m more on the right, but we also hate this “oh I lost my seat, but I’ll get preselected somewhere else via a factional sweetheart deal” rubbish.
    The punters respect a bit of courage, especially from a leader. The premier will gain more votes from this in my opinion.
    What would have been a death blow is if Weatherill disapproved but Farrell went ahead and got the preselection.
    Impotence is not a good look; in the bedroom or in politics.

  9. MarilynJS

    Jay was right to cut down Farrell, Farrell tried it on with Gallacher to leave the senate and let him stay, that failed so he tried this on.

    He is a pig who belongs more rightly in the liberal facist party somewhere in Europe.

  10. Mark from Melbourne

    Or maybe, just maybe, people will see someone taking a moral stance that is in the interests of their state and reward him at the ballot box. Bet the media won’t let that happen though.