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The trouble with politics is politicians

Opinion

Jay Weatherill’s Minister for Trade is in his policy element but – like successive politicians before him – his contribution will always be compromised by his political legacy, writes Tom Richardson.

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A few years back, former federal Labor frontbencher Lindsay Tanner, recently “retired” from parliament, penned a sceptical reflection on the travails of modern politics.

Specifically, a lament that the vessel through which it is filtered to the general populace, the mainstream media, is sufficiently narrow that the real meat of Government must first be sieved away before the transparent populist brine can be funnelled out.

It was an important, if obvious, contention that politics was being “dumbed down” by what Tony Abbott later dubbed the “febrile media”, tempered somewhat by the (acknowledged) hypocrisy that its author had for the best years of his working life been a willing participant in the sideshow.

As a university student 15 years ago, I spent a few months as an intern in Tanner’s office, where I was first exposed to some of the undoubted superficialities of the media process that these days we probably take as a given. A 7.30 Report current affairs crew paid him a visit for an interview on matters finance (his portfolio area at the time), and he dutifully performed the requisite nods and hand gestures while it filmed its cutaways.

I recall an earlier newspaper interview, to promote his previous, more policy-focussed book Open Australia, in which the interviewer noted that Tanner refused to be photographed with his arms outstretched along the bench on which he was sitting, as it made him look “arrogant”.

That was back in the days when he was regarded as a “Young Turk”, future Labor leadership material, when he was only too happy to learn and master the tricks of the political media circus.

So his eventual contention, that “the media are retreating into an entertainment frame that has little tolerance for complex social and economic issues”, was always going to leave him open to the charge of hypocrisy.

But it is ever thus.

The best critiques of political life must, by definition, come from those who understand it most thoroughly. And sadly, this often ensures that they are the most easily dismissed.

Mark Latham, for example. After his swift and dramatic implosion as Labor leader, his bile-drenched diaries were roundly howled down as the bitter ravings of a man with a monumental chip on his shoulder.

Which may well be true, but remove the snark and venom and his memoir is perhaps the most valuable portrait ever published of the inner workings of the Labor machine.

Indeed, the snark and venom merely make it a truer account.

You don’t rise to the top of a shit-heap without crawling through a big pile of shit…

Nonetheless, his cavalier determination to offend and subsequent forays into the limelight have ensured that time has been even less kind to his version of history.

And in any case, it’s all very well to complain about the nation’s political life – or as Latham more pointedly put it, “the shit-can I sit on as Labor leader”. But you don’t rise to the top of a shit-heap without crawling through a big pile of shit.

That’s the problem with politics. It requires politicians.

And people will always struggle to separate the policy from the personality.

And so it is with Martin Hamilton-Smith.

Whatever his achievements in Government, the one-time Liberal leader’s public persona will always be coloured by the manner in which he entered the ministry, eschewing his former colleagues to throw his lot in with Labor, albeit as an independent.

This week he outlined a policy approach to facilitating export growth, primarily for small and medium South Australian businesses, which the business community appeared to regard as eminently sensible.

It advocated a facilitating role for Government, consistent with the Weatherill administration’s general mantra: “Driverless cars good, driverless economy bad.”

The thing is, it was almost exactly the same eminently sensible approach he outlined as Shadow Minister for Trade and Economic Development when he was still languishing on the Liberal frontbench pre-election.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Indeed, if he had joined the Labor frontbench and suddenly embraced a completely different approach to trade policy, that would have been a greater cause for consternation.

“I’m just being consistent with the goals I’ve always had throughout public life,” he insists.

“My goal in public life has always been to make a difference, to create jobs and leave the state in a better place.”

Which is great. More power to his elbow.

But I suspect he’ll never quite convince the broader electorate – let alone the narrower electorate of Waite – that he chose his recent career path through nothing more or less than altruistic zeal.

And that’s probably quite right, for I suspect and have long suspected that his will to power is driven as much by his messianic fervour as his dedication to good public policy.

As with Tanner and Latham, the fact he has been a complicit player in the political game does detract from his genuine contributions. And that’s a shame, as he will undoubtedly make this a better Government, at the very least by providing an alternate ideological take on the challenges we face.

If we could but see it, Hamilton-Smith provides a unique opportunity, not least to the many critics of the Weatherill Labor Government and its forebears, and for those who think South Australia is as driverless as a Volvo XC90.

He is, quite literally, implementing the policies the Liberals took to the last election. He is doing so because he still believes in their efficacy. And in doing so, he is taking the politics out of policy.

This isn’t about Labor versus Liberal, it’s about setting out a policy agenda and following it through.

Of course, he is also refusing to criticise an administration he’s spent the past decade demonising, and few could conjure a demon better than Hamilton-Smith.

During the 2013 Budget debate, MHS reflected thus on 11 years of “this failed Labor government”.

“We look back on what can only be described as irresponsible government,” he mused.

“Gone are the grand and lofty ideals of the founding fathers of this state and this nation, who built everything that we have…Beset we are with a government…that has done nothing but squander the wealth of the state, interested in nothing more than their own survival…squandering all that has been built up over recent decades and simply throwing it away.”

He lamented the “stupid new Royal Adelaide Hospital” and Weatherill’s “cynical strategy” of “emptying the bank, spending all that is there in the way of deposits and surpluses, but further going out to borrow and build up debt to promise things for an election so that there is nothing left in the kitty should they lose”.

“You cannot go out and say that you are talking about reinventing the economy and you want to grow primary production, minerals, gas and petroleum, manufacturing, innovation and trade, and then disinvest from those sectors of the budget and pull money out,” he railed.

And yet we still do. And he defends it.

In politics, if you play the game for long enough, you understand it better than most, and Hamilton-Smith is only now getting his long-desired opportunity to put his ideas into practice.

But you can’t sit on top of the political shit-heap without crawling through a big pile of shit.

The Member for Waite is a deft hand at dusting himself off, but in politics that stench of hypocrisy can never truly be washed away.

And that’s the shame of it.

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

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