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A time for conviction

Opinion

As Jay Weatherill thumbs his nose at his Labor opponents, Steven Marshall is building consensus within his partyroom. It’s a distinction that could explain their respective fortunes, writes Tom Richardson.

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Jay Weatherill, it seems, has always enjoyed tweaking the proverbial nose of his factional opponents.

If he had lost last year’s state election, his record in party brinkmanship alone would have been enough to see him long hailed as a luminary of the Left.

In the space of four years, he had undermined Kevin Foley’s authority as Deputy Leader, before managing to convince the Right to support himself as leader despite two of their own coveting the position.

He had driven Mike Rann and Foley out of parliament altogether, dumped Russell Wortley from his cabinet and screwed up a cosy Labor Unity deal to split the Treasury portfolio from the Deputy Leadership in a bid to defuse simmering tensions between John Rau and Jack Snelling.

And then, his masterstroke: his faction having managed to bump its old foe Don Farrell out of the Senate, the Premier successfully ended his public life altogether by denying him a safe state seat.

He then had the gall to actually win the election, and in between governing the state he has continued much as he left off.

This week, he thwarted the aspirations of Tom Koutsantonis advisor Michael Brown by essentially tearing up a factional agreement to install him as Bernie Finnigan’s replacement in the Upper House. In his place, Labor will have another Right-winger, Peter Malinauskas, and Weatherill will have another cabinet heavy-hitter.

For the Premier can do much as he likes by his party, and he knows it.

So if the Premier is serious about showcasing the best possible cabinet, he should turn his factional wrecking campaign on his own faction, and demote one of his Upper House colleagues.

When he was given the chance to save the Labor Government (or more realistically to limit the size of the expected 2014 defeat), he exceeded the expectations of even the most wide-eyed optimists on the party’s Right, who aren’t known for their wide-eyed optimism.

He led as someone with nothing to lose. He publicly threatened to quit on the eve of an election if he did not get his way on Farrell. What were they going to do? Sack him?

And now he is unassailable as Premier. He almost literally can’t lose. Bizarrely given the state’s economic performance, he remains a mile ahead in the polls. Barring something exceptional, he will certainly contest the next election as leader; if he were to lose, he’d step down anyway. If he wins, he’ll write his own cheque.

It’s rare to see a party leader so seemingly insulated from enemies within; to see one so thoroughly insulated when their nominal enemies are all around them is exceptional indeed.

But Weatherill does face a test.

And it is a test as to whether all these internal machinations have been done with a genuinely altruistic purpose – namely, to offer a Government boasting the best talent at its disposal.

Or has it all been nothing but a factional wrecking campaign?

If the latter, when Malinauskas is sooner or later elevated to the ministry, he will replace another right-winger, to keep the numbers even (in the 14-strong cabinet there are two independents and 12 Labor MPs – six from the Right and six from the Left, counting Weatherill).

That right-winger could realistically only be one of Tony Piccolo and Zoe Bettison, but the party is already sensitive about its inability to meet its quota of women in senior positions.

But putting the shoppies union leader into the cabinet would mean there are four frontbenchers in the Upper House – a vast over-representation. And the existing three are all on Labor’s left.

Two of them, Gail Gago and Ian Hunter, can hardly be touted as standouts in the Weatherill Government.

So if the Premier is serious about showcasing the best possible cabinet, he should turn his factional wrecking campaign on his own faction, and demote one of his Upper House colleagues.

It will be an interesting test of his intent.

Nonetheless, Labor’s internal machinations this week have showcased another glaring contrast, yet again highlighting the vast difference in style between Weatherill and Liberal leader Steven Marshall.

Through his three years at the Opposition helm, Marshall has enthused that his traditionally strife-riven party has never been more united. This alleged unity has been largely fostered by the leader’s earnest reliance on the sanctity of the party room: the idea of pissing off his colleagues for sport, as Weatherill seems to enjoy, is anathema to Marshall’s mantra.

As such, though, the party’s output tends to be a mess of compromise and indecision.

This week’s about-face on Return To Work, taking the politically-expedient side of the police union against Labor’s reforms, is a case in point.

If there was one policy on which Marshall agreed with the Government, it was reform to WorkCover. He has repeatedly reflected on the fact that John Rau personally thanked him for his co-operation in ensuring the bill’s swift passage through parliament.

“Certainly with any sensible bill the Government puts forward I’ve tried to work extraordinarily cooperatively with them,” he told me in February, arguing that the WorkCover changes were “long overdue (and) needed expeditious passage through the House”.

And now?

A media release was flicked out this week on the Opposition Leader’s letterhead, declaring “the State Liberals have thrown their support behind SA police’s campaign to receive a fair deal on workers compensation” and would support a Family First bill to amend the Police Act accordingly.

“Our police put their lives on line to protect the community … the Weatherill Labor Government’s decision to oppose this legislation demonstrates their lack of understanding and compassion for our police officers,” Marshall’s statement thundered.

Curiously, it didn’t enthuse about the time Rau thanked him personally for his help getting the Return to Work legislation passed.

Marshall has long been regarded as safe in the Liberal leadership, because there is no obvious replacement.

But perhaps that fact alone has been detrimental to his leadership.

The entire Liberal philosophy – and certainly the part that Marshall holds dear – is predicated on the assumption that competition is essential to bring out the most efficient performance.

We have not seen the best of the Liberal leader of late.

The internal management styles of the respective leaders tells us much about the kind of Government they offer. Weatherill, despite his ‘consult and decide’ conceit, has emerged as a conviction politician, while Marshall is one of consensus.

Both approaches have a time and place. Recent opinion polls probably tell us which approach resonates best in times of crisis.

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

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