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Is the State Govt trying to damage the Murray royal commission?

Notes on Adelaide

In today’s Notes on Adelaide column, the State Government shoots a torpedo at the “bipartisan” royal commission into the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, and state Labor leader Peter Malinauskas promises to fix his party’s neglect of an important part of the community.

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Do we no longer heart Murray?

The State Government is playing a curious political game on South Australia’s River Murray royal commission, set up by the Weatherill Government with the support of the Liberals.

In today’s Advertiser, the newspaper reports in detail about payments being made to royal commissioner Bret Walker and other details of the inquiry’s budget.

While it doesn’t say where the financial data has been sourced, the paper does quote Treasurer Rob Lucas saying that the “costs just add to the massive financial challenges the former Labor government has left … to clean up”.

The commission – established after the ABC’s Four Corners revealed allegations of water theft upstream – has already faced obstacles from the Federal Government which has sought to prevent federal public servants giving evidence.

And now, it seems the State Government is seeking to damage the inquiry and its commissioner.

The question is why? If Lucas is trying to soften up voters for a tough State Budget in September, it seems a bold political decision to use the Murray-Darling inquiry as a vehicle.

InDaily asked Walker if he believed he still had the support of the State Government – he would not comment.

Today’s revelations seem directed at Walker personally. A spokesperson for the commission confirmed the details in the report, including that Walker – an experienced SC – was being paid a daily fee of $10,000 and that he had chartered a flight to Bourke, in remote NSW, at a cost of $12,537. The whole inquiry is budgeted to cost $8.45 million. (The Law Society’s indicative guide to fees lists a range of up to $7200 a day for appeals work for an SC.)

Premier Steven Marshall insisted today that the Government still supported the royal commission – but with some caveats.

“This is going to be an extraordinarily expensive royal commission,” he said. “What we have got to make sure is that we get value for money – that we get outcomes from this royal commission which are commensurate with the very, very, high cost.”

He said there were numerous inquiries underway into the Murray-Darling Basin and the royal commission had to shine a light on areas which were not being investigated.

As for Lucas, he doubled-down on his criticism today.

“The State Government will honour the previous Labor Government’s budgeted provisions for the River Murray royal commission,” he told InDaily.

“Once again South Australian taxpayers have been left an exorbitant bill by the financially incompetent former Labor Government.”

Lucas will hand down the Marshall Government’s first budget on September 4.

No country for Labor men

The Eyre Peninsula is bleak territory for Labor, but leader Peter Malinauskas will venture there next week as part of a move to address what he admits are problems with the party’s approach to regional South Australia.

At the March state election, Liberal Peter Treloar won the seat of Flinders, based on the peninsula, with a huge 76 per cent of the two-party preferred vote.

Some of the individual booths had embarrassing numbers for Labor. In Cummins, for example, Labor picked up 5.5 per cent of the two-party preferred vote. In the tiny outpost of Karkoo, not far from Cummins, just two of the 69 electors who attended the polling place voted Labor (the Greens had a solitary supporter).

At a BankSA business lunch yesterday, Malinauskas and Premier Steven Marshall were both challenged by Port Lincoln businessman Dean Lukin (son of that Dean Lukin) who said neither of the parties were doing enough to support his home town, which punches well above its weight due to the lucrative seafood industry.

Malinauskas offered a mea culpa in response.

“There is no part of South Australia where Labor’s primary vote is lower than it is in the seat of Flinders,” he said.

“I think it would be presumptuous of me to start extolling the virtues of Labor’s policies when it comes to Port Lincoln, the Eyre Peninsula and that area generally – which is why I’m coming over on Sunday.

 “I think as a party we’ve got a lot of work to do. Our primary vote in the regions generally is low. If you look at votes cast as a measure of whether or not you’re serious in terms of policy and also commitment to the regions then we’ve got a lot of questions to ask ourselves. That’s an honest confession that we’ve got to come to grips with.”

Malinauskas is planning to visit Yorke Peninsula later this month, with trips to Kangaroo Island, Mount Gambier and other parts of the South East, the Riverland, Murray Bridge and Port Augusta also on his schedule this year.

He said the visits were about “reconnecting”, making sure Labor’s policy settings were right, “and treating the regions a bit more seriously than we have in the past”.

Labor’s poor record in connecting with regional voters rarely attracts the party’s attention.

Apart from the regional seat of Giles, which is held by Labor thanks to big support in the working class town of Whyalla, Labor’s best-performing regional member is Leon Bignell, who held the Fleurieu/Kangaroo Island-based seat against all odds in March.

Bignell, in the dying days of the Rann administration, came up with a cunning plan which succeeded, mostly, in simply annoying most of his colleagues.

In an official Parliamentary travel report – which usually detail members’ visits to New York, Tokyo or Prague – Bignell decided instead to reflect on a country road trip he took in 2010.

He came up with an idea to reconnect with regional SA, the centrepiece of which was for 14 ministers to be randomly paired with South Australian regions and country towns. He wanted ministers to undertake country “tours of duty” and report back to the Cabinet about what they had learned.

In Bignell’s plan, ministers wouldn’t be allowed to fly in, fly out: they would have to drive themselves to their designated region so they could gain “a true understand of the conditions of the road and the fatigue associated with driving long distances”.

While on country service, they’d have to spend at least three hours with a “frontline” service provider – in the local hospital, on patrol with the police, working in the national parks etc.

Needless to say, the idea went nowhere.

While Labor is unlikely to ever win a seat like Flinders, it is important for the party to improve its statewide vote. The last electoral redistribution – which arguably cost it government – was predicated on the gap between Labor’s two-party preferred vote and its performance in picking up seats.

Notes On Adelaide is a new column telling the inside stories of Adelaide people, institutions and issues. If you have information that you believe should be noted in this column, send us an email: editorial@solsticemedia.com.au

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