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Richardson: Libs have seen the future, and it's not great

Opinion

On the same day this week we marked two significant milestones.*

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Wednesday saw us celebrate four years since Jay Weatherill’s elevation to the top job, no doubt an occasion auspicious enough for most South Australians to put the sparkling white on ice and reminisce about the heady days of yore. Remember that ubiquitous “Let’s Keep Building SA” brochure? And that nice Ms Redmond who used to run the Opposition? Happy days.

Far more importantly though, Wednesday was Back to the Future Day. In case you’ve been living under some kind of 3D hologram rock, Wednesday October 21, 2015, is the date to which Doc and Marty McFly fly in Emmett Brown’s iconic DeLorean time machine in the second instalment of the trilogy that became a pop culture phenomenon.

Funnily enough, the fourth anniversary of Jay Weatherill’s premiership was never mentioned in the movie, even though it was surely big news around the world.

The original Back to the Future was produced and set in 1985, and this week’s milestone was a good chance to ponder just how much life has changed in the interim.

Things were very different.

Back then, for instance, we had an unemployment rate hovering around eight per cent, Labor was in power in SA with a softly-spoken but savvy premier riding high in the polls and the Liberal frontbench was peopled by the likes of Rob Lucas.

O brave new world, etc.

Of course, 2015 hasn’t turned out to be everything that was promised either. So far, the notion that we’d all be riding around on hoverboards has proven as far-fetched as the notion that there’d be 6000 new jobs at an oil and gas hub at Gillman.

Still, there are striking parallels between Robert Zemeckis’s cult hit and modern day SA.

Our car industry has gone the way of the DeLorean Motor Company.

Weatherill himself is a contemporary Emmett Brown, a greying dreamer preoccupied with nuclear power and events in the distant future, who imperils himself by running up a dangerous debt.

And in Martin Hamilton-Smith we have a minister who jets off on so many trade missions these days he could well be dubbed “Marty McFly”.

After the 2014 state election, a seasoned Labor strategist told me that “campaigning is about giving people hope and convincing them you share their values”. It’s a concept the state Liberals have never quite grasped.

But to mark the occasion, the state Libs opted to go “back to the future” too, wheeling out Rob Lucas to lament the travails of life on “Planet Jay”.

They even orchestrated a “stunt”, of sorts, ushering the media out to Port Adelaide’s main drag so Lucas could stand in front of vacant shopfronts on Weatherill’s “Broken Promise Boulevard”. Which is about as “zany” as the state Libs get, stunt-wise.

But they were shown up by their partisan colleague, NSW Premier Mike Baird, whose penchant for showmanship jumped the 3D shark when he posted a video on social media of him pulling up in HIS OWN DELOREAN, alighting with unruffled coiffure to proclaim: “I’ve just seen the future for New South Wales … it’s fantastic!”

And, to recap: his own DeLorean.

Sure, the vision was so shaky and out-of-focus it looked like he got the cinematographer from NYPD Blue to come and shoot it for him, but still … DeLorean.

And while all this is superficial stuff, it does highlight a simple principle that has rung true since the days of the Enchantment Under The Sea dance: the medium is the message.

Baird has a Midas Touch in NSW that few can emulate; he combines decisive policy with an amiable charisma. He and Weatherill are not cut from the same cloth, exactly, but it is telling to note how the SA Premier’s approval rating continues to hold up in the face of the state’s seemingly inexorable decline under his stewardship. Weatherill, like Baird, has matched a degree of candour about the challenges ahead with a positive message of hope. One could argue there is more cause for optimism in NSW than here, but few were making that argument in the dying days of the last NSW Labor Governments.

By contrast, the Liberals’ consistent negativity, while justified, fails to resonate.

And t’was ever thus. Back in 2006, Mike Rann was unassailable in any case, but the Opposition did itself no favours with its dogged determination to emphasise the underlying hopelessness of SA’s plight (not least because, having been in Government for nine of the preceding 13 years, it would probably have had some culpability). It was further not helped when then-Liberal PM John Howard turned up and enthused about the fundamental strength of the economy, nor when the hapless Libs misspelled “Labour” in the sole TV ad they could afford.

Otto von Bismark called politics “the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best”, but I fear the sentiment has not aged well.

After the 2014 state election, a seasoned Labor strategist told me that “campaigning is about giving people hope and convincing them you share their values”.

It’s a concept the state Liberals have never quite grasped.

libs

“Which way’s the future?” Iain Evans and Rob Lucas during the Liberals’ ill-fated 2006 campaign. Photo: AAP.

There’s a fine line between selling hope and proffering empty spin, and a jaded electorate can justly claim it’s a line Labor crossed long ago. But without a compelling case for change, the Liberals have long mired themselves in a rut of despair. They complain incessantly about the loss of our best and brightest, before painting the state in terms that completely validate the exodus.

They have, to be fair, been more active on the policy front in this term than they were through much of the past decade, but have yet to articulate how their plans fit into a broader vision of the state’s future, and what will change.

And nothing will change unless they can find a way to reconcile the art of the possible with a pitch that gives people hope.

The Liberals have been in power for just nine of the 30 years since we first saw Marty McFly go Back to the Future. Another election loss, and they’ll have held office for 14 years out of 57 before they get another crack.

The next two years could be the party’s most important in a generation. As the McFly family motto tells us: if you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything. But unless they can find a way to sell some hope to a state beset by economic gloom, their future will remain a dismal echo of their past.

*I am indebted to Robert Zemeckis and Nick Harmsen for the inspiration for this column.

Tom Richardson is a senior journalist at InDaily. His political column is published on Fridays.

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