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Richardson: Murky campaign's silver lining

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Okay, so it hasn’t been the finest campaign in history.

In fact, it’s been the nastiest I can recall, the lack of policy ambition smeared over by the mud of dirt-unit refuse. So, since it is the penultimate day of the election cycle, let us find a different tack today, and focus on some of the good (which I’m sure we can if, like a dirt-unit lieutenant, we dig deep enough).

We have bathed in the campaign muck for long enough, let’s wash ourselves (somewhat) clean with some positive reflection.

While the campaign may not have carried much ideological heft, both leaders have been unequivocal about the kind of Government they want to lead, Weatherill an economic interventionist and Marshall a laissez-faire Liberal.

It’s important (and actually pretty rare) to have such clear-cut distinctions in political faith, even in a second-tier government, and particularly since Marshall, by his own admission, doesn’t have a lot of interest in “social issues”.

If we assume that, one way or another, Weatherill won’t be around in four years time, it’s quite conceivable his party will have moved on from its quasi-Keynesian bent, given there are nearly as many free-market purists in the ALP as there are in Liberal ranks. I’m sure Steven Marshall wasn’t the only one sweet-talked into wearing a red “More Than Cars” T-shirt who deep down thought there were better ways of spending public money than delaying the inevitable.

South Australia may be grappling with structural economic malaise, but in Weatherill and Marshall we at least have two leaders with genuine fervour and intelligence, and who mostly believe their own sales pitch.

We’ve seen two very different personalities showcased through the past year, and in stark focus in the past month. I actually quite like both of them, Weatherill with his dour, droll wit and refusal to disguise the tedium of incessant campaigning, and Marshall with his avuncular grin and lackadaisical whim. It disguises, incidentally, a quite voracious work ethic and a fierce determination for success. But he has, perhaps correctly, surmised that a first term MP must trust the counsel of the harder heads and hearts around him, and though it’s been sad to see him curb the natural instincts that took him from the backbench to the party leadership in just four years, it could well be vindicated by tomorrow.

(After all, no-one ever said the policy-lite approach wasn’t good strategy; it’s just that it’s morally indefensible.)

In applying for the popular vote to be Premier, both leaders are standing on their respective records, Weatherill’s as a minister, Marshall’s as a small businessman. It’s sad that both have been tarnished, but both men still have the capacity to enhance their reputation in Government.

Weatherill has demonstrated a ruthlessness in leadership at odds with the mild-mannered public image he projected to help put him there, but ruthlessness is a necessary quality when you sit atop the SA Labor machine. It’s a quality Marshall has rarely publicly exhibited, although it’s hard to imagine someone going from a filling in their party membership to leading that party within seven years without some of the requisite nous.

But interviewing some of the candidates during this campaign, I’m reminded just how green so many MPs are when they first arrive, blinking, into the state political limelight. And that makes Marshall’s achievement all the more remarkable. Most first-term MPs are happy just to get through a media doorstop in one piece, let alone serve on the frontbench and then become leader unopposed. He may not have set the world on fire, but Labor’s much-hoped-for campaign trail implosion never eventuated. It’s been a generally disciplined, polished and in the circumstances quite remarkable performance. Weatherill, meanwhile, took over a Government evidently destined for electoral disaster; after 12 years, the fact that Labor is still even in the race vindicates him as the party’s choice. There have been failures, but they are more Labor’s than Weatherill’s.

South Australia may be grappling with structural economic malaise, but in Weatherill and Marshall we at least have two leaders with genuine fervour and intelligence, and who mostly believe their own sales pitch.

Whoever wins tomorrow, whatever your politics, you could do a lot worse.

Unless no-one wins outright. That, after a lean term and a bitter contest, would be the worst possible outcome.

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

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