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Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison with South Australian Premier Steven Marshall (Image: AAP/Sam Wundke)

At every point of the compass, the Australian Liberal Party seems to be eating its own.

With election defeats in Western Australia and Queensland, scandals in Tasmania, a total wipeout at the Victorian state election and the New South Wales premier telling reporters she would rather not be seen on the campaign trail with her counterparts, times are not good for the party of the centre-right.

Among it all, the sole exception has been the state of South Australia where the election of a Liberal government after 16 years in the political wilderness ranks alongside the re-election of Barnaby Joyce — in the face of all reason — as the party’s biggest political triumphs of the year.

The government of Steven Marshall was elected in March on the promise of “a new dawn” after a campaign in which the new premier spent much time talking about his “strong plan for real change”.

In reality that plan consisted of little more than a slick website and a string of wonkish proposals outlining the agenda for the first 100 days in government before concluding in a firm TBD. Over eight months in, it should not then be surprising that the new government hasn’t really been up to much. Instead it has been defined by a combination of fumbling inexperience, half-hearted execution and the dawning realisation that many of its more significant proposals may have to be abandoned for lack of support or because they were just plain bad ideas.

Backdown bonanza

The first to fall away was an issue near-and-dear to the party’s heart: the deregulation of shop trading hours. Almost immediately after the election the government moved to expand the hours shopkeepers were allowed to open, but the proposal ended up stalling thanks in part to opposition from small business owners and unions.

Running out the highlight reel to July this year, Attorney-General Vickie Chapman made national headlines when she announced her plan to jail those charged with cannabis possession as part of the Liberal Party’s promised “war on drugs”.

It was a weird move in a state like South Australia which has traditionally taken a laid back attitude to possession charges since decriminalisation in 1987 and in the face of the US and Canada going in the opposite direction. Eventually, Chapman publicly backed down on jailing people for simple cannabis possession, but quietly ended up quadrupling penalties for other drug-related offences and reducing the use of diversionary programs.

It’s been closer to the end of the parliamentary year that some of the bigger headlines have hit. Among them was the backdown on building a right-hand turn into a major city intersection as part of the expansion of the tram network. While the previous Labor government had decided against the idea due to cost, the Liberals recognised the obvious symbolism and had pledged with emphasis during the election that, if elected, the King William Street tram would turn right. In November, Transport Minister Stephen Knoll was sent to tell reporters it wouldn’t be done. Few missed the irony.

Climate clog

Meanwhile, on the issues that matter — from climate change, to electric car infrastructure and energy — the South Australian government’s stated position has consistently been to wait for federal leadership. The obvious problem is that there has been no federal leadership for some time, leaving states to go it alone.

That however, is not the government’s role, according to the Marshall government, which has in turn left the state’s lawmakers with nothing much to do. The bulk of legislation passed to date has been the usual business that bubbles up from the bureaucracy.

Instead there is a growing sense that the cadet government is often likely to alienate its base. This was made clear again in the last fortnight when two government MPs from country electorates dramatically crossed the floor to postpone changes to the states’ Mining Act. Tensions between the states’ farmers and mining companies looking to access their land have been high given recent interest by exploration companies in South Australian copper reserves. The premier, whose father passed away in early November, was not around to manage the situation which required careful handling, and so the bill was rushed to a debate without unanimous party support.

Health check

By far the busiest portfolio has been health. Around town, MPs and government advisers have been quietly — and strictly off record — describing South Australia’s health system as “a colossal fuck up”.

While blame for this may land with the previous Labor government, the Marshall government has so far handled the situation with an act of outsourcing. KordaMentha, the Victorian firm specialising in liquidation and administration, was contracted in late November to handle the finances of the Central Health Network and the Royal Adelaide Hospital. While the firm successfully managed the restructuring and sale of the Whyalla steelworks, commentators have largely read it as a new government raising the white flag.

The one saving grace of the South Australian Liberal government to date is that it has largely avoided the same culture war nihilism which has defined the politics of its counterparts elsewhere. The South Australian Liberals, as they are at pains to remind people, are a different breed: a loose marriage of mostly country aristocracy, city-based genteel old money, and small-l liberals.

That said, there comes a time in political office where “small target” becomes “do nothing”. Sometimes this can be a smart idea, but as a broader strategy, just keeping out of the media and doing the bare minimum to get re-elected in 2021 only goes so far. Should the global economy take a dive or a federal election install an unwelcoming Labor government in Canberra, the government, which has so far been held up as a calm blue ocean, may find itself truly tested.

And then we will know what they really stand for.

Peter Fray

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