Martin Hamilton-Smith’s South Australian Liberal Party colleagues have had plenty of opportunities to embrace his “can-do” view of politics. On occasions they have; in recent times they haven’t.
By the eve of the 2014 election, the former SA Liberal Party leader was sorely frustrated at the reluctance of his party to take the policy agenda by the throat, opting instead for a small-target strategy they had hoped would deliver them government. It didn’t.
He will speak today of that frustration and his decision to carve off as an independent Liberal MP and join the Weatherill government, alongside independent Geoff Brock at the cabinet table — and former Liberal premier Rob Kerin as a member of the Economic Development Board. His defection removes the prospect of a hung Parliament, with Labor now holding 23 seats and the support of two independents in the 47-seat Parliament.
His decision isn’t a grab for money or power. Premier Jay Weatherill has embraced Hamilton-Smith’s high standing in the business and defence industry communities and appointed him to Industry, Trade and Defence portfolios. It gives the former state Liberal leader an opportunity to deliver economic results for his state — something he has done before, even in opposition, but unable to do in the current state Liberal line-up.
It wasn’t lost on the Weatherill government that it was Hamilton-Smith’s landmark policy platform of February 2008, “A Master Plan for Adelaide”, that sparked the debate to bring football back into the city and launch redevelopment concepts for the Riverbank and the Convention Centre. Hamilton-Smith’s Liberal colleagues backed that 2008 vision, but when the going got tough in 2009, they were prepared to walk more softly. He laid down his political life in July 2009, deciding that his party would have a better chance of winning a 2010 election without the baggage of the curious and overblown “dodgy documents” saga. He stood down as leader and remained loyal to those who had not.
The 2010 election, however, remained lost, despite the advantage given to the Liberals by Michelle Chantelois and her ex-husband’s whacking of premier Mike Rann with a rolled-up magazine in October 2009. More frustration for the “can-do” members of the Liberals.
Hamilton-Smith was elected deputy leader in the post-2010 period, but was rejected by incumbent Isobel Redmond.
When her leadership inevitably fell apart, the party again came to Hamilton-Smith, and he launched a joint leadership ticket with Steven Marshall in 2012 that fell short by one vote when Marshall decided he would provide and alternative for some of the waverers (he would offer himself as deputy to Redmond).
More frustration for Hamilton-Smith.
Marshall was expected to show the same desire for ambitious policy as Hamilton-Smith. Instead he surrounded himself with the Liberal Party’s old and cautious factions: Vickie Chapman to his left as deputy, Iain Evans to his right as Shadow Treasurer. While the state was looking for an alternative, the Liberals’ campaign was just looking for a win.
By the time the 2014 state election campaign had been run, much of Hamilton-Smith’s policy work on Industry, Trade and Defence remained on the office table. In the time since March 15th this year, Hamilton-Smith has pondered his state’s future, his party’s inability to be bold and his electorate’s tolerance for difference.
It’s a decision made in the knowledge he will cop a full frontal attack.
He can that handle that; he’s served his nation with military honour and he serves again with honour. More than ever, the state branch of the Liberal Party needs to look long and hard in the mirror — because Hamilton-Smith is not alone in his frustrations.
Kevin Naughton was a communications adviser to Martin Hamilton-Smith between 2007 and 2009.