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Richardson: Labor's neglected communities

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When Jay Weatherill was first installed as Premier – some two and a half years ago now – he paid some initial lip service to the old notion of  ‘Governing for all South Australians’.

Specifically, he derided the idea that some in politics apparently had that “South Australia ended at Grand Junction Road”.

It was a big pitch for inclusiveness, which played into his hot-button issue du jour, wresting as many local concessions on the River Murray as he could manage. Despite his residual zeal, the political impetus for that issue had slackened somewhat since he was Environment Minister back in 2008, and he quickly forgot about the South Australia beyond Grand Junction Road, or at least past Elizabeth North.

This Labor Government has been unabashedly city-centric, and that’s no accident.

Weatherill touched on his philosophy a few times during the week after the election, when his administration hung in limbo at the whim of two crossbenchers. It was not widely reported, but it bears further scrutiny, particularly from the Opposition. Weatherill believes it’s no accident the Liberals again failed to capture a majority of seats. In fact, in metropolitan Adelaide, where most of the state’s population resides, Labor won 10 of the 15 marginals. The Premier believes this is because the conservatives fundamentally misunderstand the identity of Adelaide, which he describes as a “city-state”.

Without the city of Adelaide, he argues, South Australia could be any other regional hub. It is the city that gives us our unique identity, and by which we measure our cultural worth.

Which is all very well. It’s good to have a philosophy for Government, a plan for bringing out the best in the city in which you live.

But it does make one wonder how the hell the Premier managed to convince a country-town independent whose main beef was that the regions had been too long ignored, that Labor was the best choice to (re)form Government.

Surely his opening gambit wasn’t: “Now, Geoff, I hear what you’re saying about neglected rural communities, but the thing is, South Australia is a ‘city-state’, and we’re really all about that. Care to join us?”

But as Weatherill sees it, his city-centric philosophy is the perfect fodder for such a coalition, with Labor now boasting in Brock a genuine advocate for the provinces who can operate outside the ALP machine and its more narrow focus.

But such a coalition is destined to fail if it allows the Government to carry on with its beautification project in the confines of the square mile, while letting Brock take the fall for its broader neglect.

Labor’s election pitch was “Let’s Keep Building South Australia”. The slogan was accompanied by scenic vistas of various infrastructure outings, among them the new Royal Adelaide Hospital, the medical research centre and, of course, Adelaide Oval. The latter’s unveiling last week did a fair old job of rekindling some semblance of confidence and optimism, the scoreboard notwithstanding. But Labor’s slogan could just as easily have been “Let’s Keep Building Adelaide”. For that is where it’s all being done.

While Weatherill and his pseudo-socialist ilk decry the conservative notion of trickle-down economics, wherein unshackling business to prosper supposedly generates enough activity to increase universal wealth (or at least, less poverty), it is practising its own bastardised version with its geographical battlelines. It is more the economics of “trickle out”: centralise the prosperity and presume the benefits will flow beyond the CBD. It’s sound to a point, but people working on the land, or along the river (Murray, not Torrens), on the whole couldn’t care less how vibrant the city’s become, how many small bars are popping up or whether local restaurants are benefitting from the inebriated hordes herding across a new footbridge.

They look at this Government’s obsession with “creating a vibrant city” (the first and foremost of its seven strategic priorities) and feel ever more ostracised, more neglected. And nowhere amongst those seven objectives is regional South Australia so much as mentioned. There’s talk of our “clean environment” (which sounds like it’s pilfered from an inner-city Greens manifesto) and even “realising the benefits of the mining boom” (which has long since gone bust), but regional communities? Not a peep.

The disconnect might explain why many senior figures in both Labor and Liberal circles were increasingly confident Brock would lean towards backing Steven Marshall as Premier, at least until Bob Such sadly withdrew temporarily from political life to battle what turned out to be brain tumour.

In the week after the election, Weatherill bounced into media conferences like someone quietly assured of retaining power (and not even all that quietly). At that time, he probably believed he wouldn’t even need Brock. He felt he surely had Such, whose animosities with prominent Liberals are legendary. Labor was always far less certain it would manage to sway the former Port Pirie mayor; but at the time, it didn’t need to.

And in the end, it was a constitutional argument – pressing the need for stable Government – that twisted the Member for Frome’s arm, not the Premier’s powers of ideological persuasion.

And that’s fate, for despite the hyperbole it’s unlikely the uneasy bond will break before this Government serves the term of its natural life. But it may want to revisit those seven strategic objectives.

However grounded they may be in realpolitik and a city-state ideology, the determined zeal with which Labor is revitalising the CBD is unlikely to hold much water with Geoff Brock, or the people he represents.

And right now, Jay Weatherill needs them both.

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

Read InDaily on Monday for Tom’s new AFL column – Touch of the fumbles.

 

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