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Richardson: Marshall should jettison Jeff (with a J)

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Four more years.

Four more years for Labor to put its stamp on South Australia, and for Jay Weatherill to confirm himself as a formidable figure in the state’s political life. Winning the unwinnable election may be a significant political legacy, but it will be ultimately a bitter one if the party cannot engineer a similarly miraculous feat with the ailing economy.

But where there is an unwinnable election, there is also an unlosable one; and for the Liberals, there are four more years of trying to grind out small victories and seek consolation scalps while the governance of the state goes on without them.

Steven Marshall’s first consolation was to be re-elected leader unopposed, hardly a daunting task since, in truth, who else is there? But his thoughts must now turn to the long and turbulent road ahead. His political career thus far has been a sprint, approaching the finish line having hardly broken a sweat; but having been overtaken in the final straight, he must now re-set himself for the marathon ahead. As Weatherill told the ALP caucus on Wednesday, “a parliament like this requires extraordinary reserves of discipline and hard work”, and particularly so for the Opposition. Marshall must now keep some very jaded troops in step behind him, many of whom are now contemplating the fact that at least 16 of the best years of their professional life will have been spent in impotent Opposition. He’ll go into this term without the aura of invincibility that shrouded him through his extraordinarily swift rise up the Liberal ranks. And, like Julia Flyte in Brideshead Revisited, he also seems to carry another new attribute on his shoulders now; he is just a little sadder than before.

Conversely though, he has learned something that his party should have learned long ago: in politics, nothing comes easy. Fortunately, I suspect Marshall is a quicker learner than most of his colleagues.

On Friday, with the state still in limbo, Tony Abbott gave an interview with his favourite national broadsheet, in which (in one of those symphonies of poor timing that are becoming synonymous with our PM) he spoke of the importance of experience in politics:

“Politics is one of those fields of endeavour which can seem easy at first but which is very difficult when you actually get into it and consider the challenges that a senior member of parliament faces, and there is no substitute for experience,” he opined. “Experience is not the only thing that counts when it comes to a measure of political success, but it’s very hard to have political success without some serious level of experience.”

I’m not sure Bob Hawke, one of the more successful political figures of modern times, would necessarily agree, but it was certainly a pretty pointed observation in the circumstances. In fact, though, it is Marshall’s inexperience that perversely makes him the man most likely, even now. A recycled leader would never have been able to banish the factional feuding and unite the notoriously self-flagellating Liberal partyroom; someone mired in the experience of a generation of internecine bloodletting would never have been able to negotiate amicably with Bob Such, who is now sadly sidelined with ill health.

True, there are moments when Marshall’s lack of a political radar is telling. Yesterday, details emerged about taxpayers’ liability for Labor’s power-sharing deal with Geoff Brock, which involved more than $60 million in new regional spending, much of it in Brock’s Frome electorate; Marshall’s response was not outrage at the apparent ALP pork-barrelling but indignation that Labor had evidently gotten away with offering Brock far less than the Liberals had.

And yet there are just as many moments when Marshall’s unwillingness to lapse into political cynicism is refreshing. Having lost Brock to Labor’s pitch for “stability”, the Canberra Liberal mafia decided (as it invariably does) that what worked in the nation’s capital will surely apply just as successfully in Adelaide, and set about trying to destroy the former Port Pirie mayor’s credibility in the same vein as they did Oakeshott and Windsor’s. The likes of Briggs and Pyne literally lined up to brand Brock a Labor member of a Labor cabinet and huffily declared the minority Government “illegitimate” (an utterly silly argument straight out of the Abbott/Gillard era playbook; no mention, though, of the fact this illegitimate administration had more seats in parliament than the Liberals, who were manifestly incapable of forming any kind of Government).

Marshall’s response was more diplomatic and evidently more strategic. We only know that Dr Such is recovering from surgery and his focus is, quite rightly, on returning to health; we do not know his intentions when he returns to politics. And while we dearly wish him well, we do not even know if returning is still his intention. Ostracising Brock so thoroughly when the parliament is so finely balanced seems a potential own goal, and certainly an inability to recognise what so many Liberal administrations have failed to grasp across Australia in recent years: that it’s invariably better to cultivate cordial relations with independents.

Marshall’s political mentor in the lead-up to this failed campaign was former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett; it was he who convinced him that the cynical “small-target” strategy was the surest path to power, advice backed up by a range of political geniuses including the conservative warriors responsible for the party’s brilliant and successful ’06 and ’10 campaigns and a bunch of guys whose claim to fame is helping Chris Pyne hang onto his safe seat for a few years.

We’ll assume Kennett’s tutelage didn’t extend to “Wooing Independents 101”, given that his own administration came to a premature and ignominious end after a 1999 electoral backlash that left the balance of power with three regional crossbenchers that the notoriously bullish Premier had virtually gone out of his way to alienate. One of them, Russell Savage, felt so aggrieved he refused even to return Kennett’s calls.

Marshall’s refusal to demonise Brock not only demonstrates a refreshing lack of bile but also a keener appreciation of the reality he faces than many of his more “experienced” confidantes. The Liberals are, potentially, only a vote away from power, and yet many of them appear determined to ensure that vote remains firmly with Labor.

It is, I suppose, the Liberal way. When they are denied, particularly in seats they smugly believe to be spiritually theirs, they tend to lash out. It never does them any good, but – inveterate masochists that they are – they never learn the lessons; not from Lewis, nor Maywald, nor McEwen, nor Such, nor it appears from Brock.

Marshall, at least, in his inexperience, understands what his more ideologically-inflamed colleagues cannot – that pragmatism and compromise can go a long way. Let’s hope he’s now stopped heeding Kennett’s advice, or at least that the advice when it comes to dealing with rogue independents is: “Don’t do as I did.”

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

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