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Richardson: A new game, Jay Weatherill's rules

Opinion

Jay Weatherill's public boilover with Canberra marked a line in the sand a year out from the 2018 election, writes Tom Richardson. And, once again, the Liberals - both state and federal - have been outmanoeuvred by the SA Premier's political gamesmanship.

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The game has now changed – but we knew that.

We knew that because when we cast our votes roughly three years ago, neither party was banging on about energy security – and only marginally about the cost of power.

And yet, a year to the day until we cast our vote again, it’s all anyone wants to talk about – or shout about, as the case may be.

The most astute of politicians know that when the game changes, they must change their stripes to adapt.

And even his most ardent critics would concede that Jay Weatherill is among the most astute of politicians.

Despite being variously painted as a petulant brain-snap and an outpouring of six months of pent-up bile, the Premier’s much-publicised gambit yesterday – in which he publicly berated federal energy minister Josh Frydenberg while standing right beside him at a media conference beaming out live across the nation – was nothing if not calculated.

Indeed, it was every bit as calculated as – and eerily similar to – his other great line-in-the-sand moment – when he threatened to resign, only weeks out from the 2014 election, if right-wing warlord Don Farrell was preselected for the safe seat of Napier.

That incident was painted by many throughout the subsequent campaign as a monumental own-goal, but Weatherill would privately believe that it was a pivotal turning point in his electoral fortunes.

It was a moment that painted him as something beyond the conventional politician – and if nothing else, the electorate has made its disdain for conventional politics abundantly clear.

That Weatherill is a shrewd operator is beyond doubt – the perplexing thing is that he continues to find political opponents so willing to stumble into his narrative trap.

In the normal way of things, overseeing the death of the local auto manufacturing industry or the nation’s most expensive and unreliable energy infrastructure would be the death knell for any given state government.

Weatherill, though, has managed to turn both into Trojan horses in his war with Canberra.

And the federal coalition, like those smug saps of Troy, keep falling for it.

Under Tony Abbott, they did their utmost to ensure they were seen as the architects of Holden’s demise, allowing Weatherill to completely own the narrative in the election lead-up.

Ditto debates on health funding and submarines, on which topic one particularly inept federal ministerial intervention cost the state Liberals the seat of Fisher.

And now under Malcolm Turnbull, the federal Libs have allowed Weatherill to shift the energy debate to suit his perpetual narrative that he is the only one sticking up for SA against a Commonwealth Government that has it in for us.

Steven Marshall asserted yesterday that the Premier’s display was “unhinged”, while Turnbull himself questioned his “state of mind”; one wonders what longtime Beyond Blue figurehead Jeff Kennett, a confidant of Marshall’s, would have made of such casual references to mental illness.

But to the contrary, there was a touch of political mastery about Weatherill’s rant, even if we take it at the basest level of political sabotage.

Let us count the ways.

First, it completely upstaged Turnbull’s Snowy Hydro announcement, which came off as a distant footnote in the day’s energy politicking.

Which would have been a bitter blow for the PM, given he was in full Churchillian flight with his rhetorical flourishes: “These are big dreams in these mountains,” he mused theatrically, with no apparent irony.

The only thing his monologue lacked was the strains of that Celine Dion song from Titanic slowly building to a background crescendo.

Second, it allowed Weatherill to look like a premier sticking up for his state against the federal bullies, an image that he will use again and again in the 365 days until polling day.

It also gave him an unfettered soapbox from which to extol his state energy plan and demolish Turnbull’s, pointing out (fairly enough) that if his own strategy was a $550 million admission of failure, the PM’s was a $2 billion vote of no confidence in the national energy market.

But the lingering legacy is more subtle than any of those things.

They say those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it, but there’s really no excuse for Turnbull et al to forget the folly of Abbott’s frequent intervention in the 2014 state election debate.

Turnbull, for reasons best known to him, has been only too keen in recent months to recast himself from Prime Minister to South Australian Opposition Leader. He has made Weatherill the whipping boy in his frequent attacks on renewable energy, perhaps hoping to help lower Labor’s poll standing in SA – a state which is really neither here nor there when it comes to the Coalition’s federal fortunes.

But in doing so, he has achieved two things (besides inexplicably lowering the standing of his own high office): he has elevated Weatherill into a figure of national prominence. And he has completely marginalised the Marshall Opposition.

Indeed, a consistent theme of the state Libs’ diabolical wilderness sojourn has been a distinct lack of synergy with their federal colleagues – despite the party having been in national Government for all but six of their 15 years in state Opposition.

There was that time John Howard arrived to gee up the troops in 2006 and inadvertently torpedoed their entire campaign platform, by insisting the SA economy under his leadership was fundamentally sound despite the local Libs’ claim the Rann Government was overspruiking the state of the books. (They may ruefully allow themselves the satisfaction that they were right, but it would probably be scant consolation, I’d guess.)

Then there was Marshall’s studied silence on the auto industry, wedged between Weatherill’s war on Canberra, a desire to appear pro-SA jobs and an ideological opposition to endless subsidies.

And now, yet again, Marshall has been sidelined by the course of events. He had been intending to unveil a broad energy policy once the dust from the Finkel Review and AEMO’s own audit of last year’s statewide blackout had settled.

Weatherill’s own response this week, though, has made any Liberal policy solution all-but redundant. Labor’s is not an election manifesto – in a year’s time it will be well in train, for better or worse.

And while Turnbull seems intent on fighting his battles with Weatherill on his behalf, Marshall merely fades further and further into the background – the worst possible scenario for an Opposition Leader still trying to carve out a political niche.

Meanwhile, Labor insiders are cock-a-hoop about how yesterday’s events played out, both locally and nationally.

To the true believers, Weatherill’s grandstanding probably came across a bit like Hugh Grant’s pre-Iraq-Tony-Blair-esque PM’s barnstorming middle-finger salute to the visiting US president, a scenario that awkwardly suggests the Premier spent last night bopping around the family home to the strains of the Pointer Sisters.

To those less disposed to the Labor leader, it was a PR and diplomatic meltdown to rival this:

But of course it won’t matter to him one way or another, as long as it helps him get back to this:

Cabinet-71 (2)

There has been an air of dejection in recent months among the Labor camp, a sense that the karma bus that saw them win against the odds – and the statewide vote – in 2010 and 2014 was about to back up and run them down.

But Weatherill is ever the Karma Chameleon, and as the old song puts it, he’s a man who knows how to sell a contradiction.

The question is, come this time next year, will he come or will he go?

Turnbull, rather naively, presaged to the press that yesterday’s events – underpinned by his marginalised Snowy Hydro announcement – promised to be a “game-changer”.

And true enough, the game has changed. And, once again, the Libs are obediently playing by Weatherill’s rules.

Tom Richardson is a senior reporter with InDaily.

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