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The thorn in Labor's side

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Frances Bedford, a small black-haired woman in striking yellow and red power pantsuit, jumps from her car in Modbury Hospital carpark, and grabs a plastic basin half her size, holding press releases on clipboards.

“I’ll take it,” I say.

“Aren’t ya doing a photo? Well how can you carry this!” It is good-natured. It is forthright. She does not suffer fools. Her team, setting up a presser, move fast, usher some not-well people gently into place.

“This is the failure of the Transforming Health right here,” she says before we’ve begun. Transforming Health, I have learnt quickly, was an SA Labor initiative packed with the usual neoliberal goodies: internal markets, sweeping “efficiencies”, consolidations.

For Modbury, in Bedford’s division of Florey, in Adelaide’s north east, this meant losing “high dependency” emergency department services, which is pretty much anything above a broken arm. Health Transition was meant to have a full-service hospital nearby take those services over.

It hasn’t, so the very ill spend a lot of time in ambulances. “Five divisions border this hospital, where are the members today?” Bedford muses aloud. “No one in Labor seems to much care. People will die from this. We’ll be burying them.”

Hard words, because Bedford was in Labor for 30 years, and has been the state member for Florey since 1997. Lifer really. Her dad, a boozer, moved the family here from Sydney after her mother’s death when she was 12. Labor man. “Had me hand out leaflets, when he was drinking.”

“Sounds… hard,” I say, inadequately.

Now she’s the last member of a small Labor Left faction now scattered. She’d come in in the early ’80s, got preselection for the unlikely win of Florey, won it and held it.

Last year, “The Machine” — the smooth Left-Right faction deal in SA, anchored by the Shoppies — decided they wanted it back, after boundary changes made it a safer proposition. Bedford was rolled, and Shoppie loyalist, neat young man and father of six, Jack Snelling was dropped in.

Jack Snelling had some sort of early midlife dummy spit shortly after, quitting politics. Labor looked around for a worse thing to do, and found it, dropping in Jay Weatherill’s spin doctor Rik (no c) Morris, a smooth-haired Gen X-er who lives in the hipster inner-city area of Unley (he attended Modbury High for a while) and he has made something of the fact that his great great grandparents are in Golden Grove cemetery nearby.

When Bedford pointed out the mildly cooked nature of this, she was told by an SDA faction supremo that they would “raze the village to save it” — lose their hold on government, rather than lose their stranglehold on state Labor.

That may have become a self-fulfilling prophecy, since Bedford quit the party, stayed on as a local MP and is running in this election as a Labor Independent. With local devotion — “she’s wonderful”, a woman with a cane says, staggering over to Bedford at the presser to touch her hand — and with the Greens and SA-Best in the mix, she may well get there.

 

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“It’s not just about local issues,” Bedford had said earlier, back at her office, seated amid desks crowded, maze-like; a shrine of sorts to Howard Florey on one side, a plastic cabinet of soft-toy ladybirds on the other. Hundreds of them. (“They’re for kids who visit; it sort of got out of hand.”)

“There’s a democracy gap, in the party, in our society,” she said. “I go to schools to talk to kids about democracy. Not because it’s vibrant, but because it’s threatened. I got into Labor through activism at my kids’ kinder in the ’80s.”

“There’s no path like that anymore. And they don’t seem to much care that there isn’t.” It’s the spirit of community Labor that first came to power here, with Don Dunstan, continued through Whitlam, expressed by the Cain/Kirner governments.

It’s the idea that ordinary people, coming to politics through the social movements could win and exercise power without having to turn themselves into gangsters and cynics to do so. The Weatherill government has done many good things, but the takeaway is obvious: if Frances Bedford is exactly the person you’d squeeze out of the party, if Rik (no c … Jesus) Morris is the person you’d put in her place, then your party’s in the emergency department, and the only enemy of its recovery, worse than The Machine, are the people who deny it for their own emotional needs.

Back to the city in an Uber, the suburbs of Adelaide are dizzying. They all seem to bleed into one another. I find them formless, hard to take. Adelaide is the city in the world that reminds me most of LA. People laugh when I say that, but it’s the endlessness — the way that it seems to unroll like a movie, endless dinky ’70s, ’80s, three- or four-shop strip malls, servos, car yards, funeral parlour forecourts, cheesecake shops, single shopfront gyms, floating in the endless sun. The place is a short history of timelessness.

“I will work with anyone, anyone, to get the best results for Florey, for the state,” the audio plays in the back. “Yes, I’d consider speaker, if offered,” she tells the presser. “But they know it wouldn’t shut me up about anything.”

It will not. After the presser, she’s a yellow-red blur. She scurries from attendee to attendee — “You’re alright, this hasn’t tired you out?” — to scribbling journos, who need a clarification.

To the outsider, the place may all blur into one. But people are loyal here, and local. Come March 18, Rik’s grandparents may not be the only members of the Morris family to be buried on the borders of Florey. Whether Labor ends up in power or opposition, Frances Bedford, left independent, would be — excuse me — a bug up their arse for a while to come.

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