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Richardson: Diminished faction will not forgive


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There are two likely explanations for Jay Weatherill’s response to last week’s attempted “hijack” of the safe seat of Napier by outgoing Senator and powerbroker Don Farrell.

It’s been described as a “brain-snap” by party insiders, but it wasn’t that; indeed, it was evidently a measured, calculated gambit.

Once the plan (or “plot”, if you’re Machiavellian-minded) became public, there were really only two options for Weatherill: smile and play along, or declare bloody war on the right.

Weatherill plumped for the latter. As one right-winger later sheepishly told The Australian: “This wasn’t the plan, obviously.”

It should have been.

Weatherill, despite his quiet, brooding persona, is no shrinking violet as a political operative. And ironically, given his spin on the past week, he’s a dedicated warrior of Labor’s left faction.

So there are two likely explanations for his motivation: either he figures he’s still in with a shot to win re-election, and is determined to do it on his terms, given there is nothing more to lose than defeat. Or he’s decided the March 15 election is already lost, and he’s determined to wreak as much carnage on the ALP Right as he can before he steps down. Either way, mission accomplished.

It certainly seemed an overzealous response, perhaps spurred by the strange suggestion that Farrell was to take over the leadership once the election was lost. It’s not a suggestion that holds much water; despite his Godfather-esque celebrity within the party, the Don is hardly a “white-knight”-type candidate, charging in to salvage SA Labor’s electoral hopes. No strategist, even those who worship and adore him, is going to say: “Hey, here’s an idea, why don’t we bring in a minor Federal minister with limited personal charisma and zero to negative public profile and give him the leadership?” Eureka!

What’s telling about the Right’s response, though, is the way the dominant faction in the party has (for now) simply accepted its fate, sucked it up and fallen in behind its anointed leader.

Compare the scenario to that a few years back in New South Wales, when Nathan Rees (another left-winger installed by a desperate party, despite a right-wing hegemony) decided to take on the powerbrokers who installed him. Like former British PM Edward Heath, he effectively posited the public challenge “Who Governs?” and quickly learned that the answer was “Not you”.

Having demanded the power to choose his own cabinet, Rees was quickly reminded that the ALP machine still has the power to pick its own Premier, and was unceremoniously ousted.

And thus, the ALP camp will be a nasty place to be after March 15, particularly if, as now appears virtually inevitable, it is mired in Opposition. But the more hysterical analysis calling for ground-up overhaul of ALP structures is misguided.

Weatherill is evidently a more canny operator than Rees; he called the Right’s bluff only six weeks before an election, effectively giving the faction a stark ultimatum: lose this battle or we’ll all lose the war. It’s not, however, evidence of the spin spun by Left supporters such as Ian Hunter, who claims Weatherill is now “the most powerful leader we’ve ever had”.

Rather, it’s evidence (for now) of a more mature Labor Right. A dominant faction that recognises it’s better to eat a s*** sandwich and perhaps remain in power than assert its authority and be annihilated. Nonetheless, the Right must also surely realise its days of unfettered power are over. Despite building a successful political model, the Labor machine is publicly on the nose; the word “faction” itself is now a dirty word, one that even the new candidate for Napier, auto union organiser Jon Gee, seemed afraid to utter. Tom Koutsantonis, who rose to prominence as a Labor Unity (Right faction) numbers man, now talks about being a minister rather than a member of the Right, as if the two are mutually exclusive and the latter a somewhat distasteful former lark.

But no matter how disciplined the Right can be (and, as unattributed media briefings continue to suggest, there are limits), it will not forgive Weatherill’s slight. It comes on the back of his sacking Jack Snelling as Treasurer after the conservative firebrand wielded the knife for him against Mike Rann, and in the wake of another near-outbreak of civil war after Farrell was publicly shamed into relinquishing his unassailable number one Senate spot to the Left’s Penny Wong, an act of expediency and faux-magnanimity that ultimately cost him his seat in federal parliament. And now Weatherill has finished the old enemy off; whatever else he accomplishes in Government, for many on the Left, that in itself will be a notable achievement of his Premiership.

And thus, the ALP camp will be a nasty place to be after March 15, particularly if, as now appears virtually inevitable, it is mired in Opposition. But the more hysterical analysis calling for ground-up overhaul of ALP structures is misguided.

Have we forgotten that for most of the past decade it has been the Liberals riven by internal feuding spilling out into the public arena? This is not to intimate that the Labor battles have been any less fierce, simply that the party’s internal structures have fostered far greater discipline.

But Weatherill’s kamikaze vengeance has neutered one very tangible Opposition narrative: that of the fabled “faceless men” who run the ALP.

He may not be able to shake the inevitable cry of “internal division”, but Weatherill has at least enabled himself to shrug off the charge that he is a factional puppet, dictated to by powerful backroom forces. And yes, the Liberal chutzpah is a little breathtaking, taking to the airwaves with attack ads about Labor infighting, but that’s politics, I guess. As another sometime ALP flagbearer, Peter Garrett, once sung in another context: “Must have a Short Memory!”

As one Labor insider pointed out to me shortly before this business exploded, there never has been unity in the party; what there has been is discipline. It should be no surprise that all these guys despise one another; what they’re judged on is how effectively they can work together.

If/when Labor loses, the answer to that question will be Not Very Effectively, at least as the Godfather’s final sequel reaches its bloody denouement, horse’s head and all. But we shouldn’t be surprised, and the Liberals should guard against false pride.

As Peter Garrett continued: “If you read the history books you’ll see the same things happen again and again.”

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

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