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Richardson: Milestone or millstone? Jay's unlikely half-decade

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Few expected Jay Weatherill to last three years as Premier, let alone five. But, Tom Richardson argues, his political success amid a litany of economic failures stems from his ability to paint himself as the unlikeliest of advocates.

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“We’ve got five years, my brain hurts a lot;

“Five years, that’s all we’ve got.”

The late, great David Bowie once woke from an apocalyptic dream to write a song of a civilisation doomed to end within half a decade.

The resulting track, “Five Years”, opened the iconic album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.

“News had just come over,” Bowie warned.

“We had five years left to cry in.”

And indeed, there’s been much to lament in the five years since one Jay Weatherill seized the state’s reins.

When one reflects, as one is wont to do on these occasions, on the wreckage of Olympic Dam, Holden, the failed Department of Education and Child Development experiment and a healthcare savings scheme that, as of this week, has failed to deliver any tangible savings, it does feel a little like the state has been living out Bowie’s prophesy of doom.

But few can deny that Weatherill will be remembered – at least by the Labor true believers – as a winner.

When he was sworn in five years ago today as Premier, few – given Labor’s standing in the polls – expected him to last more than three years, let alone five.

Perhaps in his darkest moments of self-reflection, he even doubted it himself.

And he willingly concedes that his Government ain’t exactly flavour of the month among the broad sweep of South Australian voters these days.

But crucially, even the most damning polls (with no sign of the most telling of them all, Newspoll, of late) have Labor no worse off than they were at the 2014 state election.

And you may recall, Labor won that one.

With no radical re-draw evidently on the cards when the Boundaries Commission makes its final report, it’s entirely conceivable – albeit somewhat staggering – that they will do so again.

It is often the case that when a longtime government wins an unexpected victory, they pay for it with interest the next time round.

Keating’s “sweetest victory” in 1993 was followed by a wipeout in ’96.

John Major’s unexpected post-Thatcher win ushered in a generation of British New Labour rule by 1997.

In New South Wales, a seemingly-refreshed Labor Party won re-election under Morris Iemma, only to be decimated one tumultuous term and two leadership changes later.

Thus far, Weatherill’s administration has escaped the same fate.

His Government, akin to Uncle Charley in Death Of A Salesman, is not well-liked.

But it remains politically competitive.

This in itself is some kind of achievement for a Government approaching its 16th year in office.

True enough, the electoral map does the Liberals no favours; but then, for most of those 16 years, neither has the Liberal Party.

And, alleged gerrymander or no, if a Government can retain a reasonable prospect of victory after 16 years while overseeing the highest unemployment rate in the nation, that has got to reflect poorly on its Opposition.

It may be glaringly obvious to point out that the year ahead will be crucial to the Liberal Party’s fortunes.

But it’s not merely a question of becoming more engaged, stepping up their electioneering outlay or even entering the policy fray with more vigour.

Weatherill’s strength has been to tap into a certain zeitgeist at crucial moments. In recent months, there have been signs that his usually adept political radar has gone askew, but he has nonetheless maintained an ability to convey a leader with a sense of direction.

The Liberal Party’s platform, perhaps because it is largely built on pointing out Labor’s manifest failings, is as yet less well-honed.

Last week, for instance, Steven Marshall unveiled an interesting little policy idea to create a second metropolitan national park for Adelaide.

“This is part of my plan for SA and my commitment to caring for our environment,” he wrote in one of his cheery email missives.

“We will create a new national park that will open up over 1,500 hectares of land in the southern suburbs… Glenthorne National Park will be opened up for the enjoyment of all South Australians.”

Which is all very nice.

Though it did strike an odd rhetorical tone significantly at odds with his recent histrionics about a Bowie-esque apocalypse replete with Incredible Hulk-style cries about how angry he was.

I can only imagine the tone of his media conference when announcing his national park vision was a bit like that episode of the Goodies where a maniacally despotic Graeme Garden barks slogans about leading his subjects to a better world, only to crash back to earth with the limp refrain: “And now… a walk in the black forest.”

If there is a telling glimpse of how much has changed in the time since Weatherill took office, it is this photograph of his inaugural cabinet after its swearing in, five years ago today.

Jay Weatherill's first ministry after their swearing-in five years ago tomorrow: nine of them - Grace Portolesi, Paul Caica, Russell Wortley, Gail Gago, Michael O'Brien, Chloe Fox, Tom Kenyon, Jennifer Rankine and John Hill - are no longer in the cabinet. Photo: Tim Dornin / AAP

Photo: Tim Dornin / AAP

Of the 13 members, nine – Grace Portolesi, Paul Caica, Russell Wortley, Gail Gago, Michael O’Brien, Chloe Fox, Tom Kenyon, Jennifer Rankine and John Hill – are no longer in the cabinet. Only five of those nine are still in parliament.

That suggests something else about Labor: a sometimes ruthless ability to regenerate without relinquishing office – and usually, without descending into open warfare.

And through it all, the one constant has been Jay Weatherill, forging a political persona as a sort of self-styled ‘state advocate’.

Weatherill’s success has been sustained by Liberals, both state and federal, but he has been canny enough to read the prevailing winds and hoist his flag accordingly.

His first three years were dogged by controversy – child protection failures, Holden’s election-eve closure announcement – but he managed to neutralise the former and turn the other to his distinct advantage.

Weatherill now has adopted the rhetoric of one acknowledging a pervading sense of doom – or, as Bowie put it, “news guy wept and told us, earth was really dying” – but with a forced stoicism about finding a solution.

And, given his track record, one couldn’t discount the prospect that his gambit may yet, once again, pay off.

As long as no-one remembers who was in Government when it all started going pear-shaped, five years ago.

Tom Richardson is a senior reporter at InDaily.

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