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Richardson: How will history judge Jay?

Opinion

As state politicians prepare to recommence hostilities in parliament, Tom Richardson argues that the coming months loom as a defining period in the respective legacies of both Premier and Opposition Leader.

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Jay Weatherill is a clever politician.

That much we know. It is well established and broadly acknowledged, even – especially, perhaps – by those who oppose him.

What we don’t know, and still can’t say, is whether he is a successful Premier. If nothing else, because that is an appraisal that must wait until after he has left office; probably well after.

The recent (unwarranted and unjustified) bile that greeted Mike Rann’s Australia Day honour suggests that even Weatherill’s predecessor’s tenure in office cannot be adequately measured for some time yet.

In purely political terms, it was a success – three election victories, one a sweeping landslide, and removed not by the people of South Australia but by the whim of factional administrators.

But history’s verdict on the Rann decade is still not fully formed.

Perhaps it never truly will be: the recent generous tributes that met the passing of John Bannon, whose tenure has for so long been assessed only through the prism of its denouement, suggest the ebb and flow of sentiment and ideological whim.

Rann left the state, as ever, facing some significant structural challenges, but he hardly drove it into the ground. The worst that can be said for his economic legacy is he failed to solve SA’s perpetual employment challenges and that the AAA credit rating – in any case regained under his and Kevin Foley’s stewardship – was subsequently relinquished again.

And yet his name elicits a degree of snark and derision at odds with the fact that voters have – arguably – endorsed him and his party consistently since his Premiership began.

Perhaps Rann, like Bannon before him, has helped insulate his successors from opprobrium by allowing himself to be crucified in this manner.

Because Weatherill enjoys a level of authority and support completely at odds with his achievements to date.

The next 24 months should be the most significant in the life of this Government – and its Opposition.

If he is right to pursue tax reform through his seemingly-quixotic championing of the GST – and I believe he is – it is nonetheless undeniable that, as his own colleagues have pointed out, it is a pursuit completely at odds with his pre-election rhetoric.

As I noted last year, the turnaround is not a million miles removed from the “never ever” backflip that saw the GST implemented in the first place. Arguably, the entire introduction of the consumption tax was necessarily an operation by stealth: first rejected by voters in 1993, then repudiated by its former advocates in 1996 in a manner that gave them a solid electoral buffer to risk a GST reconnaissance, for which they subsequently received a dubious mandate having lost the two-party vote.

In policy terms, Weatherill appears to be on a hiding to nothing; within his own state party, few privately expect the Turnbull Government to risk everything on such a contentious exercise.

But the Premier, as we know, is a clever politician.

His success will be the reframe the economic debate, to establish the notion that the states have a revenue shortfall that the Federal Government must rectify.

His approach, far more subtle and nuanced than his previous publicly-funded attacks on Commonwealth budget cuts, is crucially aided by the like-minded Liberal Mike Baird.

Baird and Weatherill are arguably two of the three most successful politicians in Australia at the moment, and certainly two of the most adroit.

Weatherill’s anti-GST stance in 2014 helped delineate a crucial battleground ahead of the state poll, with state Labor on one side and the locally-unpopular Tony Abbott on the other. Now that Turnbull is helping refresh the Liberal brand, Weatherill has cannily repositioned himself as a politician of national stature, a co-operative player in the tax reform debate.

He will never have to account for the GST at the ballot box – whatever happens, it will be done and dusted before the 2018 SA election.

But he has perfectly positioned himself to reap the political and economic fruits of Commonwealth tax reform – whatever form that takes.

In this context, the resumption of state parliament next week will be almost a sideshow for Weatherill, despite his Government’s most significant bill to date – legislation to reform the state’s planning regime – taking pride of place on the agenda.

But from next week, the battlelines for the next election will be drawn. The next 24 months should be the most significant in the life of this Government – and its Opposition.

One would expect Steven Marshall to emerge breathing fire and espousing alternative policy proposals.

And all the while, his Liberal colleagues will be quietly arguing the case for substantial electoral reform. His former Treasury spokesman, Iain Evans, yesterday pondered why they weren’t shouting this cause from the rooftops. There is, one supposes, a temptation for the Liberals to run an electoral case predicated purely on the same platform Whitlam took to the 1975 election, that a monumental constitutional wrong has been wrought, and must be righted.

But that didn’t work too well for Whitlam.

And it didn’t work, because his Government hadn’t made a cogent case for office.

Many Liberals still labour under the blissful belief that most South Australians want them in Government, and are merely denied by the entrenched unfairness in the electoral system.

But that is a dangerous assumption, which will not hold true if the Liberals do not use the next two years to establish themselves as a Government in waiting. Recent polls suggest they have not done enough.

It will be some years yet before the respective legacies of either Weatherill or Marshall can truly be judged.

But when they are, the next two years will be the period that determines how history will remember them.

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

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