Steven Marshall south australia
Premier of South Australia Steven Marshall (Image: AAP/David Mariuz)

For the Marshall government in South Australia the threatened collapse of the Whyalla steelworks couldn’t have come at a worse time. Actually, all times for the collapse of remaining industry in that rust bucket of a state are pretty bad, and not merely because they summon up the ghost of Craig Emerson singing “no Whyalla wipeout”.  

Ah, you hadn’t thought of that for a while had you? Sorry, but if it’s going to be in my head, it has to be in yours.

But with an election next year, the first-term Marshall government are behind in the polls, and looking at being chucked. The question is, why are they behind in the polls? And the wider question is, why are Liberal parties collapsing at the state level almost everywhere in the country? Especially since they’ve had a lock on federal power for a decade. How has this become so split? 

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Consider the truly dire position of state liberalism. They were shellacked in Victoria in 2018, having lost after a single term in 2014, and have not recovered. They lost after a single term in Queensland, which had seen the Labor party reduced to maxi-taxi numbers. In WA it’s the Libs who have been reduced to Uber numbers (“unter numbers”, I guess). Now they’re looking at defeat in SA.

That would make a trio of single-term governments and two lockouts (in WA and Victoria). Taken together these results constitute an event. Something decisive has happened to make the Liberal party delegitimised as a candidate for state, development-based, service-delivery government. Interestingly, this seems to be independent of the particular style of the government.

Queensland’s one-termer Campbell Newman started with all the usual combo of big build and culture war. “Can-do” got dumped nonetheless. Ted Bailleau’s 2010 effort was more “can’t do”; a meandering government that never found form, trying to conform itself to a left-shifted electorate. In WA, well, who knows? That kid, whatever his name was, couldn’t find a clear direction so he went in all of them at once. After he said the party was going to lose, he should have gone the full gonzo, strangled a hamster on live TV and named a Mr Blowie as attorney-general in pursuit of an actual zero-seats result. Missed opportunity. 

The Marshall government seems to be in the Bailleau mould. There appears to be nothing they very much want to do in terms of infrastructure delivery or new sector developments, and certainly very little that the public can see. That makes pointless shuffling with a culture war edge — such as folding the arts ministry into the premier’s department – all the more irritating.

The “sudden” possible collapse of Whyalla due to the vast over-leveraging of its owner corporation, has seen the Marshall government scrambling for federal assistance in a big government buy-in. The appearance of desperate improvisation will surely do further damage to their numbers. How has it come to this? State Liberal governments appear to have lost the ability to convince the public that they are capable of integrated, transformative leadership, of running major projects that are visible and create visible and marked improvements in their lives.

This is a great fall from the Liberal heyday, when it was Bolte in Victoria and Playford in SA and, eurrgh, Bjelke-Petersen in Queensland, pouring the concrete. Many of these are now judged as mistakes, from Melbourne’s (defeated) plan for an LA-style freeway system, to Playford’s “new town” of Elizabeth — or its subsequent use as a welfare dumping ground.

But hell, future generations will curse the Andrews government for turning Melbourne into a glass-tower forest student village, and the non-contiguous never-to-be-completed suburban rail loop (the road of excess leads to the Pallas of foolishness). What matters is a sense now that there is a direction of travel, a conception behind the plan.

Labor state governments have managed to combine that with a light authoritarianism and a progressivism on issues that have no great material cost. It’s a winning formula, though it represents Labor’s adoption of a corporatist-progressivist formula that is arguably more of the right than the left. The Andrews government is the past master at this, signing 86 Victorian “nations” treaties by day, trying to destroy the Djab Wurrung trees by night. But it works, and it draws on Labor traditions to do so.

The state Liberals have no access to a tradition to draw on. The developmentalist but socially conservative combo — yes to freeways and an arts centre; no to hundreds of banned books, from Portnoy’s Complaint to Peyton Place — is gone now, because Labor fused developmentalism with progressivism.

Judicious and cautious small government doesn’t work either. In an era of global cheap money, it just looks like indolence and missed opportunities. The Thatcherite ideal (very much not the real) of small government seems ancient now, more archaic than post-war state socialism. This lack of a philosophy or narrative, combined with opportunism, has left the state Liberals lacking a capacity for self-government — and so unlikely to be trusted with the government of others.

NSW is counter-cyclical, as it had been since federation, and in Tasmania, the opposition has fallen apart because its radical Hare-Clark-Robson system (the last eponym refers to the randomising of ballot order within tickets) makes party leadership more difficult with each passing cycle. (Matthew Denholm of the Oz thinks Tasmanian Labor are in for a WA-style collapse. Matthew, if you’re going to cover the Apple Isle, a familiarity with how Hare-Clark works would help.) 

These exceptions simply prove the rule. So, if Labor has worked it out on states, why is it still on the back foot federally? The short answer is that states merely govern, while federal governments exercise sovereignty, a different thing. From sovereignty, people expect some sort of projection of an ideal, a possibility, of a new life and a new world – even if, quiet Australians style, it looks like the old one. Labor is still trying to campaign for sovereignty with a state-style eschewing of such projection. It will lose so long as it sticks to that plan.

But hey! They get to run the trains, and award tidy town status! As government looms again in SA, that’s gotta be worth something, right? Right? 


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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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