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Richardson: The blood that greases the wheels of the factional machine

Opinion

Labor’s game of musical chairs with its state seats in recent days is all very well, but evidently it’s been hard for all the participants to hear the tune over the incessant hum of the factional machine.

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Frances Bedford’s refusal to step aside in Florey yesterday in the face of an insurgence by Health Minister Jack Snelling from his neighbouring fortress of Playford was one of those rare and enjoyable moments when the façade of civility falls to reveal the bloody innards of the ALP.

Snelling pushed on regardless, forcing the unusual scenario whereby two sitting MPs face off for their party’s endorsement – a scenario made all the more bizarre because it is predicated on such an odd motivation.

Snelling is in effect moving from one safe seat to another. Sure, he argues the mooted boundary redraw has shifted the bulk of his constituents into what is now nominally Florey, but Annabel Digance made much the same claim about the people she represents in Elder now casting their votes in neighbouring Badcoe – and the Premier publicly shot her down for it.

But it appears all this fuss is effectively to give former state secretary Michael Brown the seat he has been so long denied.

Brown, after all, has missed out on more parliamentary gigs through cruel twists of circumstance than Spinal Tap has lost drummers to bizarre accidents.

But here’s the really weird thing about it all: if the Labor Party gets its way, none of this will even take place.

The latest round of public bloodletting and hand-wringing has been predicated on a radical redraw by the Electoral Districts Boundaries Commission that is not even law yet – and may never be.

The changes are the subject of a Supreme Court appeal by Labor that, if successful, means all these meticulously-planned factional manoeuvres will be for naught.

Just to name a few:

Florey will return to being a vulnerable marginal seat in an area whose health services have been under heavy scrutiny – an area in which no Health Minister in his right mind would want to be held to account.

King, the little marginal that no-one wanted, will again become a northern suburbs stronghold for Labor, which means that Leesa Vlahos might have been shunted up to the Legislative Council for no good reason. The Little Marginal That No-One Wanted used to be called Napier, and was once the most hotly contested seat in SA, so hotly contested that Jay Weatherill even threatened to resign over his party’s choice of candidate. Today, it seems, no sitting MP wants to touch the seat with a bargepole.

Badcoe would again revert to its razor-thin margin, making it a far less enticing prospect for the likes of journalist-turned-aspiring-politician Jayne Stinson, and making Digance wish she had never even floated the prospect of bowing out of Elder.

And Paul Caica would be having second thoughts about calling time on his career in Colton, which would again become the last bastion between a Labor Government and a Liberal one.

In short, if Labor gets its way in the Supreme Court, it will have created an entirely new problem for itself – how to regurgitate the shit sandwich it just ate in its bid to make the best of the redrawn boundaries.

160119__Government Cabinet-45

Leesa Vlahos is destined for the Upper House. Photo: Nat Rogers / InDaily

It could be observed that the finality of its seat allocations suggests a certain lack of faith in its chances of success in the Supreme Court.

But we could also observe something else: the changes Labor has made in the past week are the actions of a party that is effectively conceding Government.

If Caica really wanted to help his party, he would have stood again in Colton, knowing he would likely lose. The end result would be the same – effective retirement – but for the sake of rolling up his sleeves for one last campaign he has effectively conceded the seat. If the new boundaries do hold sway, incumbency would have been all-but Labor’s last hope of holding seats like Colton, and perhaps even the likes of Badcoe and King.

Recent election results have fed the mythology that SA Labor campaigns with a desperation and strategic nous that the Liberals cannot match, but that desperation appears desperately lacking in the latest factional designs.

In 2002, with Labor aiming to return to Government for the first time in almost a decade, deputy leader Annette Hurley opted to stand for the marginal Liberal-held seat of Light after a boundary redraw, knowing that it could be the seat that handed her party Government.

It wasn’t, and she lost her place in parliament – but she had at least put her career on the line to help her party’s pursuit of power.

This time round, most every incumbent (with the odd notable exception) seems to be doing their utmost to scurry away from vulnerable seats and seek out higher ground, like rats escaping the rising tide.

Nonetheless – despite taking an understandable degree of schadenfreude out of the Government’s travails – the Liberals (fresh from their biannual ‘love-in’) must be looking at Labor’s preselection processes with wistful envy.

The odd spot fire aside, what they wouldn’t give to be able to effectively say: ‘This is the candidate we will put in this seat’.

Instead, they are beholden to that archaic institution known as ‘democracy’, which means star candidates long-groomed for plum positions – such as Paralympian Matt Cowdrey in Colton – stand a very real chance of being rolled in a vote of local party members.

And Steven Marshall will not know for sure which troops he will lead to battle until every last preselection vote is counted.

Labor’s way, it must be said, is somewhat more efficient.

The factional gears are always whirring, occasionally drowning out the Kumbaya chorus that the party publicly sings.

It’s a machine that has engineered three election victories since Hurley narrowly missed out on becoming the state’s first female deputy premier.

But it takes a lot of political blood to grease its cogs and levers, and every now and again we are privileged a glimpse inside its Machiavellian mechanics.

Tom Richardson is a senior reporter at InDaily.

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