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‘We’ve learned from mistakes’: Labor leader’s Repat regret as parties splash cash

Politics

Peter Malinauskas has sought to distance himself from Labor’s closure of the Repatriation General Hospital – which shut its doors while he held the Health portfolio – while conceding it was the “wrong thing to do” and insisting his party has learned from past “mistakes”.

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It came as the Opposition Leader today pledged to honour Steven Marshall’s commitment to slash $100 per student from public school fees for the next two years – after the Premier declared the rebate had already passed cabinet and been budgeted for.

The Government’s election campaign has centred significantly, if not awkwardly, on attacking both the Labor leader’s lack of experience and his record in Government – with a particular focus on the fact the Repat closed under his brief watch as Health Minister in the Weatherill administration’s dying days.

The site’s ‘reactivation’ as a health precinct is a major selling point of the Liberal campaign, particularly in the battleground seat of Elder.

But addressing the frequent claim that he had ‘closed the Repat’, Malinauskas said today: “Well, it’s a misrepresentation isn’t it?”

“I wasn’t even in parliament when a decision was made by Jack Snelling and Jay Weatherill to close the Repat,” he told reporters.

“The decision was made before I was even in parliament… the Liberal Party are engaged in cute politics here and that’s their prerogative.”

He insisted that “the reason why they’re so utterly obsessed about critiquing us is because they’ve got no policy of their own”, arguing the Liberals were doing their “level best to seek to discredit the past rather than talk about the future”.

But he was similarly happy to discredit his party’s past, reiterating his 2019 declaration that “I think closing the Repat was a mistake”.

“It was the wrong thing to do,” he said today.

Which sits in stark contrast to his comments as Health Minister on the day the facility closed its doors in late 2017, when he said: “It’s something that you don’t necessarily want to do, but you know it’s the right thing to do to realise a new chapter and new opportunities.”

Asked today why people should believe him now when he concedes he was wrong at the time, the Labor leader said: “Because political parties learn from their mistakes… and I think South Australians value honesty.”

“I think the former Labor Government did a lot right, but it also did things wrong – and you can’t be proud of what you got right if you can’t be honest and what you did wrong,” he said.

“And I’d put the Repat fairly and squarely in the ‘getting things wrong’ category.”

While much of the Marshall campaign has sought to critique Labor and its leader, the Premier today embarked on a more conventional election ‘cash splash’ – knocking $100-per-student off the public schools’ Materials and Services Charge, albeit only for the next two years.

It will cost $24 million over that time, but Marshall argues “that’s going to come out of our existing education budget so [there’s] no impact on the election campaign costings”.

Steven Marshall talks schooling with the Slater family this morning. Photo: Tom Richardson / InDaily

When asked whether that meant reallocating money in the midyear budget review or increasing the published education budget, he said: “We’ve got a very large budget and a growing budget for education.”

“Prior to going into caretaker we costed this policy [and] we are going to do it from existing services – we’re not going to be out there recklessly spending money,” he said.

However, this caveat allowed Malinauskas to match the pledge, saying: “If the Government’s put this in the budget and the money’s being paid, we’re not going to support any notion that that should be taken away from parents.”

However, he pointed to the timing of the announcement – after many parents had already paid their 2022 school fees.

The Government says the discount will be applied from the beginning of the school year, meaning refunds now have to be issued to all parents who had already paid the fee, with the Department subsidising schools for the loss of external revenue through additional education grants.

“This is yet more evidence that Steven Marshall’s campaign seems to be about as organised as the Liberal Party itself,” Malinauskas said.

“They’re either making things up as they go along, or this decision was made up some time ago and there’s a degree of deceit to it by withholding the information from parents, even though they’ve been paying those fees…

“Why make them pay for it if they’re going to have to pay it back? It’s either policy on the run or there’s a degree of deception that the Government should be ashamed of.”

Labor’s campaign showcase today focussed on an $8.7 million investment in skills training courses for areas of specific trade shortages “such as bricklaying, saw-doctoring and concreting”, while also throwing in a $1 million grant to the industry lobby, Master Builders SA, for its Outreach Program creating pathways for female and indigenous trade apprentices.

Having failed to address the skills gap in its 16 years in office, Labor’s spokesman Blair Boyer said he was confident in today’s approach because “that’s the advice we’ve had from the sector and organisations like the Master Builders Association and Motor Trades Association”.

“They’ve been very clear with us about the areas in which these skills shortages exist,” he said.

“We need to be clear, this is not the policies of old, which sometimes involved money falling from the sky and new Registered Training Organisations popping up to take advantage of that – these subsidies are there for established RTOs,” he said.

Marshall spruiked his education giveaways in the Liberal-held marginal of King with the Slater family, cheerfully telling reporters children Mia and Tahlia had “lots of certificates of great achievement at school”.

But despite hosting the Premier and accompanying media, family matriarch Chanie appeared caught off-guard when asked whether the school fee rebate would swing her vote, saying: “I’d prefer not to comment.”

“I wasn’t expecting all this, to be honest, this morning,” she said.

Asked if she had any prior association with the Liberal Party, she said: “I’d like to just not comment, thank-you.”

“I wasn’t expecting all this, so I’m feeling a bit uncomfortable.”

It might have been an uncomfortable few hours for Marshall too, the early morning media call coming just hours after Scott Morrison confirmed he had caught COVID.

The PM spent Friday campaigning in Adelaide, including pressing the flesh with Marshall, but the Premier insisted his federal counterpart “tells me he certainly wasn’t contagious while he was here”.

Asked if that meant he was under no obligation to test or self-isolate, Marshall said: “None whatsoever.”

He did, however, suffer from an unfortunately-timed mid-press conference cough, which he assured those in attendance was “not COVID”.

Slater’s unguarded exchange this morning followed an awkward moment for Malinauskas yesterday, with Sofitel spokesman Dragos Golaes invited along to help spruik Labor’s tourism policy, only to also endorse the Liberals’ city arena plan – the exchange quickly seized upon by Government spin doctors.

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