Politics

RICHARDSON: A disaster of the Government’s own making


What a waste. What an opportunity lost.

If the Liberals lose power tomorrow, after only one term, it would be their most bitter and devastating loss this century – against, it must be said, some pretty damn stiff competition.

There’s a line in the old Oliver Stone classic Wall Street in which, confronted with the prospect of losing her cherished high life, one protagonist proclaims: “When you’ve had money and lost it, it can be much worse than never having had it at all.”

Likewise, for the Libs to have finally ended 16 years of Labor rule, only to piss it all away again within four years, would feel like a waking nightmare.

Sure, there is plenty to play out: no SA election since 2006 has eventuated quite as predicted from the preceding statewide poll. And Labor enters the final day of the campaign on the back foot, trading costings barbs and forced by the Electoral Commission to withdraw one of its most effective ads, which was declared misleading.

In a campaign fought on trust, these things matter.

But in truth, after just one term in office, the Liberals shouldn’t need to be relying on Opposition gaffes to ensure their own re-election.

And if they do lose – which all published polls suggest they may – they’d be arguably in a worse position than at any other time in the past two decades.

After all, Steven Marshall would move on – and the sheer dearth of party-room talent beneath him would be rudely exposed.

His deputy Dan van Holst Pellekaan would be a logical replacement – although he’s no guarantee to even retain his seat.

David Speirs would have the snarl required to rally the faithful in Opposition, while John Gardner would provide a less mercurial, albeit more genteel, alternative.

Beyond that though, the side doesn’t bat deep – and if the age-old factional woes couldn’t contain themselves in government, they would almost certainly explode spectacularly with nothing more to lose.

It’s hard now to recall the heyday of the new dawn after the 2018 election.

A slew of youthful ministers ambled into office with a general sense of their own invincibility.

Four years on – and it’s felt more like a decade – many of those ministers have endured torrid times: some may not even return. Indeed, one of the most likely to have been on the preceding list of contenders is bowing out of parliament altogether.

This is not, then, a team renewed – it’s a team in search of renewal.

And hideous as it would be for true believers to countenance, if the Liberals lose tomorrow – they could be set for another extended stint in the wilderness.

To the point that in years to come people much like me could be writing about that historical curio, the Marshall Government – a brief interregnum in the midst of an otherwise unbroken run of Labor rule.

Which makes it all the more bewildering to consider that this was almost entirely the Liberals’ own doing.

In any other time, we’d be calling all this for what it is: a chaotic, scandal-plagued, do-little, disappointment of a government

One might have thought that the first SA Liberal government in a generation would leap into office itching to remake the state for the better.

But instead, Marshall and his minions arrived much like you or I might arrive at work on a Monday morning: vague, bleary-eyed, taking a bit of time to catch up on weekend emails, read a bit of news and generally scratch your arse, metaphorically speaking.

I called out this approach after the Government’s first year in office, rather naively in hindsight noting: “I’m quite sure that at some point in Marshall’s four-year term, the era of risk-averse government will stop… because after 16 years in the wilderness, no-one in the Liberal ranks is countenancing the prospect of returning to Opposition after a mere term.”

But no.

Their second year was largely squandered, an aimless and damaging 12 months punctuated by a needless standoff with its own Liberal base.

“Politically, it’s been a write-off,” I wrote at year’s end.

“A year of treading water, half of it spent in a shit-fight with the Liberals’ own constituency over a poorly-conceived and even-more-poorly-executed land tax revenue raiser that has now had more regenerations than Doctor Who.”

“Little wonder then that the Government would want to re-set, and reclaim a narrative of sorts – a platform on which it can launch a pitch for re-election.”

I put this to one of the Libs’ leading lights at the time, who assured me that there was plenty of groundwork being done behind the scenes to leave a lasting mark on the state’s public life.

Whether this was ever true, who knows – for along came COVID in 2020, the management of which, for more than a brief period, gave the administration a renewed purpose… and looked to be its significant legacy.

But the thing is, politically, it appeared complacent in its success.

While 2021 began with a firm determination to nut out a more effective mechanism than the divisive Emergency Management Act to handle the pandemic, no alternative emerged, and the whole question eventually just fizzled out.

For in the end, it just seemed easier leaving the tough decisions to unelected bureaucrats – and reducing the Premier’s role to the state’s COVID MC-in-chief.

Easier, that is, until November – when all of a sudden, it wasn’t.

I’ve seen other pundits puzzle at the Government’s dire polling, arguing it’s not like they’ve overseen any significant scandal.

Evidently the resignations of four ministers (including the deputy premier), two MPs charged with criminal offences (one acquitted, the other’s trial pending) and three backbenchers defecting to the crossbench to destroy the government’s working majority don’t quite meet the controversy benchmark.

But in any other time, without the honeymoon glow that only a fledgling administration managing a viral outbreak after ending a 16-year-run of single-party rule can provide, we’d be calling all this for what it is: a chaotic, scandal-plagued, do-little, disappointment of a government.

A government whose successes have been largely opaque to the average South Australian: we’ve had four years of the Premier banging on about Lot Fourteen, but even I can’t really tell you what goes on there.

It’s like a real-life version of the Multi-Function Polis: everyone’s heard of it, but no-one seems to know what it does.

Sure, there have been beneficial moves: payroll tax and ESL relief pledged in 2018 and utility cost reductions have been lauded by business.

But while a beaming Premier talking up economic growth may make a good soundbite, it won’t have resonated with the many, many small operators hurtling to the wall with their hands tied by endless reams of health bureaucracy red tape.

Don’t get me wrong: government intervention was necessary and there is no perfect solution in a pandemic.

But it’s pointless – and mystifying – to bang on like SA is experiencing some economic nirvana when few actually feel that way.

And in other areas, perhaps the Government’s most ironic own-goal has been its propensity to alienate its own base, both inside the broader party and outside.

It’s true that the rapidity of the Government’s current predicament has been startling, from the comfort of its COVID-cushioned polling mid-last year.

But if it had spent its first two years in office building up a sense of purpose, intent or – heck – even mild activity, it would have had stronger foundations on which to lean once the COVID cushion so rudely popped.

When Labor came from nowhere to win the unwinnable election in 2014, Liberal frontbencher David Pisoni dourly declared that the ALP was now the natural party of government in SA – a dig, of course, at the state’s electoral boundaries rather than a commentary on the party’s poll-winning capabilities.

The methodology behind those boundaries has since changed – and the ramifications of that have never really been tested, given the previous poll was contaminated by SA Best’s fleeting zenith.

So it’s possible – although it sure doesn’t feel that way after the preceding four weeks – that the Libs can overcome a projected 12 point poll deficit to hang on in key seats and still form a government.

After all, Labor did just that in both 2010 and 2014.

But the thing is – given the alternative, the Libs should be, and should have been, doing everything humanly possible to turn around their flailing campaign… and right now, it’s probably too late to do anything much about it.

They campaigned as they governed: with no clear purpose, no apparent interest and no capacity to listen and adapt.

They campaigned with a sneering disdain for the independents they may need to call on to govern again, with the distinct possibility that the likes of Ellis, Bell and Cregan could be SA’s own Katter, Windsor and Oakeshott (in exactly that order, by the way).

And with a campaign spokesman who was bowing out on polling day regardless, and a smug refusal to anoint his successor – let alone the faith to actually appoint one.

What a waste. What an opportunity lost.

And not just if they lose – for even a victory won’t bring back the past four largely squandered years.

So yes, they’d better hope they win tomorrow.

Because if they don’t, it’s a long – long – road back.

And if they do, they should eschew triumphalism (though they won’t), and do something they should have done four years ago.

Namely, get on with it.

Tom Richardson is a senior reporter at InDaily.

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