The federal election wasn’t the upset for South Australian Labor that some had gleefully predicted, but Premier Jay Weatherill should derive no comfort from it.
Labor has held power at a state level for 35 of the past 50 years, but it doesn’t mean this is an innately Labor electorate. Labor has won as much on the back of Liberal divisions as it has on the contest of good ideas.
There are three distinct differences between Opposition Leader Steven Marshall and Jay Weatherill that are strategically important enough to matter in the next state election just six months away.
One of these Leaders knows how to seize and win a marginal seat from an incumbent MP, to observe and learn tactics from the backbench, and to be an Opposition Leader. The other doesn’t.
The flipside is that Marshall has only been in Parliament for three years and is still a bit wet behind the ears. But these differences are worth noting.
Jay Weatherill was nominated for a safe Labor seat that he duly won in 2002. At the same time he was elevated into Cabinet by his factional colleagues and was later appointed Premier by his factional colleagues. The three election campaigns that have enabled him to remain in Government were fought under the leadership and direction of Mike Rann. And while the rocky 2010 election campaign was contested under a cloud of contrived controversy, it was buttressed by the tide of Labor seats and hefty margins achieved in Mike Rann’s “Gets Results” campaign of 2006. The strategy adopted in 2006 was all about capitalising enough on the momentum to win in 2010. The big margins strategy worked to the extent that in 2010 the party suffered a net loss of only two seats.
Everything Jay has achieved to date has been delivered to him. And the irony here is that while Steven Marshall has only been in Parliament for three years, he already has more experience in fighting and winning a campaign from an adversary, if only for his seat in Parliament.
Mike Rann’s unmatched strategic intelligence centred on his ability to imagine beyond the horizon. He honed his skills for the Premiership as a staffer in both Government and Opposition, as a campaign junkie who volunteered at elections in the US, New Zealand and nationally, as a backbench MP, as a junior Minister and then as a two-term Opposition Leader.
When he inherited the leadership and a tiny team of bewildered Opposition MPs in 1994, he was left standing up to his neck in the steaming slurry of a State Bank blow out. He could have repudiated his predecessors, condemned the actions that led to the bank disaster and broken the nexus between them and him. But instead he merely averted his eyes toward the next century and began his well-paced marathon run towards ultimate success.
In March next year, Labor will fight a state election in South Australia without any input from Mike Rann for the first time in 34 years. It will be the first election not fought under his leadership in 17 years.
It’s going to be tough for Jay.
While he may be the last of Rann’s “old guard” Cabinet Ministers, he has never directed or led a campaign strategy for a state election. Everything Jay has achieved to date has been delivered to him. And the irony here is that while Steven Marshall has only been in Parliament for three years, he already has more experience in fighting and winning a campaign from an adversary, if only for his seat in Parliament.
Jay has other issues too. Whereas Cabinet’s strength once lay in its assortment of factional, non-aligned and non-Labor MPs (like Karlene Maywald and Rory McEwen), Jay now presides over a fully functioning factional beast. Cabinet is a collection of people, some good and some who are there for reasons that in years to come will be looked back on as an example of the destructive practices of old Labor. But for the moment, it is what it is, and Jay will have to tread carefully through the toes of an expectant schismatic group while developing and promulgating inspired, affordable and appropriate policy responses to individual marginal seats. He has to do all of this as a first-timer trying to win a fourth term with a hostile Federal Government in Canberra and a few local controversies to bed down in the meantime. It’s going to get tricky.
History is not on Jay’s side. In living memory, all previous Labor leaders who were ‘appointed’ Premier lost their elections. When Don Dunstan was appointed Premier in 1967 after Frank Walsh was pushed into retirement, he lost the ’68 campaign and didn’t become Premier until he won it from Opposition in 1970. Des Corcoran was appointed Premier in ’79 after Dunstan resigned and lost the election later that year. The same fate awaited Lyn Arnold after he succeeded John Bannon as Premier in 1992.
That’s not to say Labor can’t win in 2014. Jay and his team have six months to put in some hard yards, all the while hoping Steven Marshall and his team don’t have a raft of good or better policy ideas ready to promote between now and March (and at this stage there’s no evidence of that happening any time soon_.
In his two years as Premier, Weatherill is still to give clarity to who he is, beyond someone who likes to take a walk on the mild side. He has attempted to break the ties that bound him to the Rann era by distancing himself from unpopular Cabinet decisions, as if he wasn’t part of them, and overseeing the retirement of long-term Rann Cabinet Ministers John Hill and Patrick Conlon.
But defining himself by ‘not being Mike Rann’ is very limiting and gives tacit permission for Steven Marshall to define himself as ‘not being Jay Weatherill’ and ‘not Labor’ which, in absence of positive policy promotion, could be quite effective.
When Jay introduced the ban on live odds advertising during sporting events, he was bowled over in the rush for coverage from across the nation. It demonstrated how good ideas don’t necessarily have to cost anything to capture public imagination and support. He needs more of that.
To an extent, it’s the varying degrees of their experiences that levels the playing field for Jay Weatherill and Steven Marshall in the March election campaign. This will be their first State campaign as leader and for one of them, their only campaign.
For the sake of good Government and a clear direction of what’s next for South Australia, this election must leave behind recriminations and old divisions and become a contest of new and good ideas.
Jill Bottrall is a communications consultant. She was an adviser to former Premier Mike Rann. A version of this article was first published on her website.
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