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Crisis warms Weatherill to Abbott

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South Australia’s economic troubles have changed the dynamics in the relationship between state Labor and the Federal Government.

Premier Jay Weatherill, who annoyed some in his own party when he pushed for open discussion on the GST at the Prime Minister’s recent Sydney summit, has continued to play shrewd politics this week, embracing Tony Abbott’s visit to Adelaide.

The Prime Minister’s Adelaide foray is widely seen as the first shot in the federal election campaign.

With the Liberals on the nose in South Australia, Abbott came bearing $40 billion in gifts – with the wrapping paper torn off by his beleaguered local MPs like excited kids on Christmas morning.

Promising a 20-year continuous build of naval warships based in Adelaide was just the “first prize” for SA, Abbott said, adding that submarine jobs – come what may – would follow.

While Bill Shorten, Nick Xenophon and the Victorian Labor Government sniffed and snorted at the announcement – for varying reasons – Weatherill welcomed Abbott without a shred of cynicism, without a caveat.

He even hinted at confidences between him and Abbott, and suggested that more good news announcements for South Australia could follow.

After spending millions on a campaign to slam Abbott over the submarine uncertainty, after plastering unflattering images of Abbott over polling booths in Fisher and Davenport (and achieving an unlikely by-election win, thanks in large part to the strategy), Weatherill has deftly changed tack.

The thaw began several months ago and has continued, in largely subterranean fashion.

The worsening unemployment figures have focused Weatherill’s political mind, while Abbott’s attention has turned to his Government’s terrible poll numbers in SA.

While the Premier took every opportunity to sheet home blame for SA’s economic downturn to the Federal Government, Weatherill now wants a share of the praise for federal moves to help fix the problems.

He has slowly manoeuvred himself into a better bargaining position with the Federal Government, earning Abbott’s open praise this week.

“There was I think some bad blood early, but I’m pleased to say in recent months it’s been much better,” Abbott told FIVEaa yesterday.

“And it hasn’t just been myself and the Premier – certainly Christopher Pyne and Jay Weatherill have been having quite a few conversations together. I think it’s really important for all our leaders to have a constructive relationship regardless of party politics.”

Abbott repeated the praise today, saying the Federal Government now had a great relationship with SA.

Both governments were now united in their vision for jobs and economic growth.

“There is an absolute determination on the part of the commonwealth and the state to work together on projects which are of state and national significance,” the Prime Minister said this morning.

The political pay-off for Weatherill is that he can garner some of the political benefits of Abbott’s good news on shipbuilding, while state Opposition Leader Steven Marshall trails after looking a bit too keen to catch up.

“There is no way we made the decision regarding the 35,000 future frigates program for Australia based on Jay Weatherill’s advocacy on this issue,” Marshall insisted to ABC 891 yesterday.

“I met with the Defence Minister only last week and he made it clear that he hadn’t met with Martin Hamilton-Smith since January of this year. There’s been no advocacy – they’ve had this megaphone diplomacy and it hasn’t been useful for South Australia. By contrast Dan van Holst Pellekaan and myself have been doing the important work of advocating on behalf of South Australia to Kevin Andrews – he’s got a renewed sense of optimism, he’s confident in shipbuilding in South Australia.”*

However, it does seem more likely that the growing political threat to South Australian federal Liberal MPs – such as the influential Christopher Pyne – has been a bigger influencing factor in this decision than any behind-the-scenes work to convince the Defence Minister that SA workers aren’t duds after all.

The political “optics” for Jay Weatherill this week have been good.

He was out again today with Abbott, smiling together as the pair broke ground on the Torrens-to-Torrens upgrade of South Road.

It must be infuriating for Marshall, but perhaps there’s some comfort in the fact that Labor MPs are also uncomfortable with the increasingly chummy Jay and Tony show.

Federal Labor member for Adelaide, Kate Ellis, took to Twitter to ask: “Sense of DejaVu at PM’s South Rd sod turning today. Didn’t we do this 2yrs ago before he stopped the project?”.

* Martin Hamilton-Smith contests this claim. He says: “Steven Marshall’s statement that he ‘met with the Defence Minister (Kevin Andrews) only last week and he made it clear that he hadn’t met with Martin Hamilton-Smith since January of this year’, misrepresents the cordial relationship between myself and Minister Andrews.

I met him earlier this year, crossed paths again at a Defence conference in Canberra and met him in Adelaide on Wednesday 29 July. I have been very appreciative of Minister Andrews’ open consultation on the shipbuilding issue and look forward to ongoing consultation as we drill down into the impact on SA of yesterday’s commitments.”

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