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Richardson: The whiff of panic, the stench of mud

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The ALP has a whiff of panic about it as what could prove to be the final week of its 12 years in office looms. But it’s a panic that seems to be contagious.

With little cash to splash around, and the fundamental ideological gulf of public vs private sector-led recovery already thoroughly canvassed, the campaign has well and truly degenerated into a black-ops war of attrition. The Libs had their Labor leaks and allegations of dodgy campaigning; Labor responded with vague insinuations about Liberal donations. Oh, and allegations of dodgy campaigning.

The ALP’s MO seems to be to put some issue out into the ether, suggest that something might well be highly suspect about it and then add a pious disclaimer: “Oh, we’re certainly not saying that IS the case, but that’s a matter for them to clear up.” Cheers guys!

Labor’s latest foray takes the unsubtle art of baseless insinuation to a new level: a 23-page shit-sheet, collating tables, primer questions, archival interviews, company files, ASIC documents and property searches into…what? Not a dossier of evidence, to be sure. Just a bunch of papers about a Wok In A Box franchise business investment that Steven Marshall doesn’t seem overly keen to discuss. Which must mean, of course, that he has something to hide.

As Jay Weatherill himself put it: “It’s a matter for him to explain.”

But explain what, exactly? That it wasn’t one of his better ventures? That his Singapore Noodles were crap?

Frankly, I’m more concerned about the fact that the party currently in Government has people effectively spending their time doing private detective work in a bid to smear and traduce the Opposition Leader than I am about the possibility that not all his business ventures ended well.

I hope the author/s feel they’ve done their state a service.

It’s not, of course, that the Libs are beyond reproach in this race to the bottom; Marshall was forced yesterday to apologise after his party was slapped on the wrist by the Electoral Commission for blatantly-misleading radio commercials implicating the Premier in the cover-up of child sex abuse at a western suburbs school, despite the Debelle Royal Commission explicitly finding no evidence to suggest he knew of it.

The classy Libs even bankrolled the ads on behalf of an independent candidate, Mel Calone – a mother of former students at the school who is running an explicitly anti-Labor campaign.

And every new blow struck in this war of attrition hastens a stronger one, a lower one. The injured party knows it must launch a disproportional response in a bid to wrest back the media agenda. The pervading mentality is that of squabbling infants: it doesn’t really matter if their argument is persuasive, merely that they shriek it loud enough to drown their opponent out.

What, then, happened to Weatherill’s lofty delusions about some electoral campaign nirvana wherein Labor dutifully released its entire book of pledges on day one, and then spent the ensuing month debating their worth with an engaged and enlightened electorate?

Perhaps the gambit would have been less derided if the book itself wasn’t largely filler of the glossy-picture variety, bolstered by a few re-announcements and vague-to-the-point-of-meaningless new pledges (we were presumably supposed to extrapolate that “Continuing the ‘big build’ of new hospital infrastructure” really meant “we want to spend $117.5 million upgrading Flinders Medical Centre, including a new neonatal unit and single-bed wards”; silly us).

Nonetheless, Weatherill has clearly taken his manifesto to heart. It is a constant presence on the campaign trail; he wanders around clutching it to his heart, much like a childcare-bound toddler cradles a favourite comforter. He looks a little lost on the rare occasions he realises it is not within his grasp, when he will swiftly leave whatever he is doing to recover it to its rightful position in his arms, upright and front-cover-facing-out for all the world to see.

I imagine it is the first thing he reaches for once he’s turned off the morning alarm, rescuing it from the bedside table for a dreamy embrace, if indeed it has somehow left his tender-but-firm grip through his slumber.

I’m not sure if it’s the fear that he will go off-script without his political cue-cards, or simply some sort of “I’ve got a manifesto and you haven’t” bravado, or just the wealth of glossy self-portraits, but the Premier and his policy document have become inseparable (though it is, peculiarly, never opened).

And yet, we enter the last week of the contest with the tone of the campaign in freefall.

Of the minor parties, the one pushing the policy agenda most proactively seems to be Dignity for Disability, whose lone MLC Kelly Vincent isn’t even up for re-election.

Of the major parties, the Libs finally made a significant policy splash with their pledge to reform land tax from 2016-7, the Premier’s faux-horrified assertion that they were merely looking after their top-tier mates swiftly derided by the Property Council, which pointed out that deriving an income from property was by and large the purview of investors of the “Mum and Dad” hue.

But here’s the irony: this was a week the Opposition won on policy boldness, but most commentators would call it the worst of their campaign, a week spent tripping over their own feet and besmirched by little more than suggestive rumours. It’s enough to give some Laborites hope of, if not outright victory, at least a hung parliament and a negotiating chance.

But then, this campaign is evidently not fought on policies; the major parties seem uncomfortable battling in that arena. They prefer the subversive jibes of smear and innuendo to the gladiatorial joust of ideas.

If things keep tracking as they are, we are in for a bitter final week. It could get very nasty indeed, and for what?

After all, if the Libs really want to hurt Jay Weatherill, they should know all they have to do is take away his copy of “Let’s Keep Building South Australia”.

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

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