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Richardson: Why I hollered at Marshall

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It was a funny old chain of events – some significant, some trifling – that led to Opposition Leader Steven Marshall being loudly yelled at early on the morning of his 46th birthday by an impertinent member of the fourth estate.

As the hack in question, I can acknowledge that not having yet had my morning coffee played a role (that’s the trifling bit). The significant bit, the bit that prompted us to be speaking (and speaking in raised voice) in the first place, was the latest in a long line of Liberal “drops” to the local daily paper, The Advertiser.

Professionally, of course, these piss me off. Yep, as a TV political reporter I’m just plain old churlish about it, as anyone would be if their direct competitor was constantly gifted a free handout.

Which is no criticism of the Tiser, whose journos are mostly talented and, like most in the industry, work exceptionally hard to maximize their output from limited resources.

And, honestly, who among us would spurn a gift-wrapped story, particularly a significant policy announcement (which the Libs’ plan to incorporate Year 7 into high school clearly is)?

As a strategy, it’s been doing the rounds for years, and has become so ubiquitous that it must be taught in some Political-PR-for-Dummies course in some underfunded tertiary institution. In SA, it was honed most infamously under the Rann administration, particularly in the early years, when the electronic media seemed more inclined to simply follow the “Drop of the Day”. But the pro forma is universal – the political party gets the headline coverage (almost wholly uncritical, and sometimes with no opposition comment even sought, presumably a stipulated condition of the drop); this is eagerly regurgitated on morning radio, desperate for fresh news to fill early bulletins; and, if the party is canny or lucky enough, it may get a third bite on the nightly TV bulletins.

These days, though, it’s a matter of policy as much as pride to leave these stories alone. It’s easier said than done, of course; the Year 7 story was a policy of significant public interest, and as such the Libs’ cynical gambit paid off, with plenty of free positive publicity.

Ironically, given Labor is likely to be turfed out after 12 years, Marshall is currently the closest thing to Mike Rann in SA politics.

I can hear the standard refrain already: “Oh, but we do plenty of drops for the TVs!” Yeah, ok. Except that an all-in press conference at 12pm isn’t a “drop for TVs”, it’s a press conference, a public unveiling available to all media at the same time.

And besides, that’s not really the point.

Is it all such a big deal? Maybe not, but it’s subtly insidious, and surreptitiously undemocratic. It’s a bid, after all, to circumvent scrutiny and dialogue while maximising exposure.

Furthermore, it risks making the media drip-fed, lazy and uninquisitive.

And it’s so dastardly simple! You merely:

1) Draft a media release

2) Put tomorrow’s date on it

3) Email it to a newspaper reporter

4) Wait about 12 hours

5) Email it to everyone else

Brilliant. If you’re lucky, you might never have to face a full-blown media conference, and one-on-one interviews are invariably more congenial. Unless you’re the Opposition Leader and you make the mistake of answering my phone call before I’ve had a morning coffee on what later turns out to be your 46th Birthday.

Not that this is purely the domain of the Opposition, of course, although it does appear to have made it the pro forma approach on any major issue, which is an ominous sign for a party seemingly on the cusp of Government.

Ironically, given Labor is likely to be turfed out after 12 years, Marshall is currently the closest thing to Mike Rann in SA politics. While it’s not of his own drafting, his party machine’s playbook is ripped straight from Rann’s Media Management 101. And despite his vastly different background, there are shades of Rann, too, in Marshall himself. At social functions he virtually floats from person to person, basking in the warm glow of camaraderie from people who would generally rather swallow nails than vote Liberal. He has an engaging persona that transcends politics (but not a lack of caffeine) in a way that I haven’t seen since Rann at the height of his power and popularity.

And he is lucky. If the Opposition’s election theme is “It’s the economy, Stupid!”, Labor’s electoral epitaph may well be “It was the Stupid Economy”.

Weatherill’s bid to make a virtue out of losing Kevin Foley’s prized AAA credit rating has been to argue that spending to create jobs is more important than economic rationalism.

The problem is, the jobs aren’t there. SA’s unemployment rate persists above the national average, while regional ABS data suggests the number of unemployed in metropolitan Adelaide is now the highest it’s been since the Libs were last in Government – that’s a long time.

Weatherill has chosen his battles with care. He’s ruled out further changes to payroll tax despite widespread calls for cuts. It may be economically debilitating in the long-term but it’s politically expedient in the short-term, providing a rare budget saving; after all, what’s the point in trying to buy off a bunch of people who would never vote for you in any case?

Marshall’s Liberals are really singing to the choir with their constant refrain on payroll tax; it’s a determined bid to win votes, but the business community will vote Liberal either way. The election, however, will be fought and won on Adelaide’s margins, and the economic outlook this week (first revealed, incidentally, by the Tiser) will swing matters overwhelmingly back into the Opposition’s favour.

The extent of the budget and economic carnage and the timing of the revelation were, like a Liberal Media Drop, virtually gift-wrapped.

Happy Birthday, Steven!

 Tom Richardson is InDaily’s political commentator and Channel Nine’s state political reporter.

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