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Richardson: Labor idling against cynical Libs

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Finally, the election campaign is officially on the road and, just like in Kerouac’s magnum opus, the general sense is miserable, weary and a feeling that everything is dead.

Where there is positivity, it is almost apologetically so, as though parties are embarrassed to be spending money they don’t really have; otherwise it is just relentlessly negative.

The recently-spring-heeled Laborites have become leaden as the reality of their predicament takes hold.

When you’re four points down, you can hang onto many things. A two per cent margin of polling error, for one. The knowledge that you only need to shift things two points in your favour to be back in the game, and the corresponding zeal that every electioneering triumph, however small, could be swinging the pendulum back towards you. The vagaries of voting patterns, and the fact that sandbagging a few crucial marginals could still overcome a four point statewide deficit, as it did in 2010.

But when you are consistently 10 points down you can no longer hang onto any of those things. Unless big things go right for you and things go massively wrong for your opponent, there will be no coming back. And that knowledge alone pretty much ensures big things don’t go right for you.

Jay Weatherill is campaigning doggedly still, but he seems perpetually wrong-footed. The Liberals are running a negative, cynical campaign, but they are doing it bloody well. Doing it, indeed, with the ruthless efficiency we’ve come to expect from Labor.

Marshall joining Weatherill for a radio chat and then conspiring to drop an embarrassing cabinet leak on air was hardly sportsmanlike, but it derailed the Premier’s campaign for the best part of a day. His office releasing evidence to media of dodgy campaign leafleting in the vulnerable Labor seat of Reynell just before the Premier held a press conference on public transport fare evasion was similarly conniving, but equally effective.

And the more Weatherill’s campaign fails to run to script, the more his frustration becomes evident. His demeanor is of a man perpetually annoyed with the travails of electioneering. He debates Marshall with the air of a child forced by his parents to share his toys with the annoying kid next door; he is deliberately patient, but looks like he has a million places he’d rather be.

Labor’s campaign is by no means a disaster; it is merely struggling to slip out of first gear. The party seemed infinitely more on the nose four years ago, and yet it is unable to convincingly articulate its case for another four now. For every step forward, Weatherill is forced to take a step back, or at least hover awkwardly on the spot, by some apparently trifling sideshow.

But coming from 10 points down, Labor simply can’t afford to be meandering in the first week of the campaign. It needed everything to go right, and it clearly hasn’t.

The days when Weatherill was seen as the soft and cuddly side of the Rann Government, and the smiling face of Labor’s salvation, seem a long time ago now. He appears confused as to whether he’s meant to be sniping at Marshall or articulating a vision of hope for the future; the message tends to get lost somewhere in between.

They’ll never admit it, but Labor is missing Kevin Foley. His role in 2010 was crucial to Rann winning a third time against the odds (and against the statewide vote). He alone stuck to the relentless evisceration of the Liberals’ economic credibility, and when they finally tripped themselves up in the final week, that message finally resonated. Koutsantonis and Rau appear to be the guys rolled out to attack the Libs this time round, but they don’t throw themselves into it with the self-immolating fury Foley did, and of course not: they might well be running for the Labor leadership in a few weeks. They have to retain a little of the statesman; Foley by then had no such delusions.

But all of this has allowed Marshall to idle along, spruiking relatively minor policy outings in relatively colourful settings, or unveiling more contentious ones under cover of a major ALP setpiece. As he has done from the start, he has been content to make Labor the focus, heaping pressure and expectation on the Government in the hope it will buckle under the weight. Like a political Steven Bradbury, he is content to hang back and wait for his opponents to fall over, before coasting past to victory. First Isobel, now Jay.

Labor strategists have long reasoned Marshall was a better than even chance to spectacularly implode under the campaign microscope. He has occasionally threatened to, but the Liberal strategy is painstakingly fixated on limiting his opportunities. He marginally lost the plot on day one, trying to talk around costings (that old chestnut) that he didn’t know.

Since then he’s been limited to one media event a day, at the most, with a media adviser helpfully chiming in after a few minutes to let everyone know there’s only time for “two more questions”.

The Libs happily wheel out the evergreen Rob Lucas on all the negative stuff, leaving Marshall to float around the regions doling out development funding announcements.

But amazingly, just a day after Marshall’s near meltdown about how much his policies announced to date would cost, the Premier failed to answer exactly the same question, a lapse strangely symptomatic of the entire campaign thus far. Surely, Politics 101 tells you that if your opponent gets tripped up on a basic figure, make sure you have your equivalent figure on hand, just in case?

Apparently this just didn’t occur to Weatherill’s strategists, those so-called Faceless Men who held Australia in thrall with their clandestine influence and Machiavellian magnificence. The Labor machine is suddenly looking very rusty.

And there is a new Faceless Man in SA; his name is Steven Marshall.

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

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