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Richardson: Forward to 2036 or backwards to 2006? The Liberals' future starts now

Opinion

The future is now. And it’s 2036.

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The past, as British novelist L.P. Hartley once noted, is a foreign country. They do things differently there.

Which is just as well, given today marks one of the state Liberals’ many inauspicious anniversaries. Many of which, it should be noted, fall in March, the ides of which Shakespeare’s soothsayer once warned Caesar to beware, a warning the Liberals would have done well to take on board themselves.

But this particular inauspicious anniversary, as gleefully noted by former Premier Mike Rann on social media this morning, marks “SA Labor’s biggest post war election victory – 10 years ago today”.

Where does the time go? It seems like only yesterday that Rob Kerin’s cash-strapped Liberals were washed away by the Rannslide. I watched the tsunami pour in that night, March 18, 2006, from my vantage point in the Libs’ Unley headquarters, a gathering that began as a wake and degenerated from there.

For the Libs, the entire tone of the campaign’s denouement was funereal. A recall a tearful Joe Scalzi, whose earnestly dogged campaigning was credited with retaining Hartley in 2002, arriving at the Greenhill Rd casualty ward, lamenting: “I can hold back a tide, but not a tidal wave.” Or words to that effect.

I remember then-Liberal frontbencher Rob Brokenshire’s final policy announcement for his party, at a press conference in the campaign’s dying days. When it ended he hung around briefly to chat informally to the gathered media before returning to the hustings in his southern seat of Mawson. He had the resigned air of an Anzac preparing for a futile assault on a heavily fortified Turkish beach, and when he shook my hand in farewell, the look in his eye betrayed that he knew he wouldn’t make it back. (He did eventually, but only after quitting the Libs for Family First.)

If 2006 was SA Labor’s high electoral watermark, it was correspondingly the Liberals’ lowest ebb. It was appalling. Strife-riven and cash-strapped, they could afford only one television commercial, which ran (briefly) in the final week of the campaign, and even then managed to misspell “Labour”.

So it’s little wonder the Libs aren’t looking backwards.

No, their focus is on the future.

Twenty years into the future, to be precise.

They have harnessed the vibe of what they rather hopefully describe as a manifesto to ensure “we will have more than just a bicentenary to celebrate” within one succinct social media hashtag: #Marshall2036.

Which, as a rebranding exercise, is only a few rungs below the ultimate PR disaster that was Susan Boyle’s 2012 album launch: #susanalbumparty.

For starters, the obvious implication is that, so futile are their electoral aspirations, the Libs have already completely given up on 2018 and set their sights further afield. To a year in which there isn’t actually a state election.

Although, 2036 will mark the 30th anniversary of the Rannslide state election, but they didn’t mention that bit, obviously.

Furthermore, as some Libs have already privately noted, the manifesto is more a collection of motherhood statements than policy goals, so broad that hardly anybody – least of all Labor (or Labour, for that matter)– would take issue with most of them.

“The future of South Australia rests in the hands of our children and young people,” it helpful notes, inadvertently recalling the late Whitney Houston’s heartfelt incantation: “I believe the children are our future…”

And: “We believe you are entitled to world-class, accessible and effective health care which supports your health and wellbeing.”

Quel bombshell.

And while the whole enterprise is very much focused anywhere but the past – “2036. It starts now,” insists an accompanying promotional media release – it does bring to mind that 2006 campaign ad, in which so much was invested only for so much to go awry.

The 80-page opus kicks off with a slightly weird précis by Steven Marshall himself, which begins: “Obviously, we have much to be proud and grateful for, but I think most South Australians feel things could be a lot better.”

Which, as an opening gambit, is on a par with: “Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking…”

He then descends into some meaningless shtick that veers somewhere between an inept salesman and the leader of a doomsday cult.

“We need to reclaim our greatness.” Reclaim?

“2036 is more than just a date, it’s a destination.” What does that even mean?

“I’m not waiting until the election in 2018,” Marshall argues. “Planning and delivering on the vision of 2036 must start now.”

Which is great, although the election in 2018 is still pretty important in the scheme of things.

He concludes, in a homely, phlegmatic fashion, that “this is the first step in our plan for a better South Australia”.

“Please read it, talk about it with your friends and family. Or, talk to me,” he gently invites.

Before violently shifting tone into that of a dogmatic overlord, like some second rate Doctor Who villain: “I am Steven Marshall – Leader of the State Liberals. 2036 STARTS NOW.”

Sure, it’s easy to criticise the Libs’ efforts to engage in public policy (perversely amusing, too) but it’s fair to say the brochure – starkly emblazoned with no party slogan, just the date “2036” on a metallic blue background – has not engendered great confidence among those we could ironically call “the Liberal faithful”.

But it’s something.

It’s a sign, at least, that the Libs have given some thought about what they stand for (“We believe the public service is one of our state’s greatest assets,” was one creed of note), if not what they stand against. And if they manage to use this inoffensive manifesto as the bedrock of policy direction – as opposed to a gimmicky PR exercise to briefly seize the media agenda – it can still be of some value.

Marshall 2036 1200x720

Marshall talks to media, clutching his manifesto…

Tom Koutsantonis and Jay Weatherill-1850

…in a style reminiscent of Jay Weatherill before the 2014 election.

Unfortunately though, Marshall fronting up to one engagement after another with his glossy manifesto clasped desperately to his chest merely looked like an Opposition Leader trying to adopt a strategy that Jay Weatherill had already used to good political effect – if not policy heft – two years earlier, and at the Liberals’ expense.

The Libs have, for various reasons – some of them beyond even their own control – delivered 14 years of largely uninspiring and uninspired Opposition. To quote Marshall’s strange introduction: “Most South Australians feel things could be a lot better.”

The time to show they can be is between now and the ides of March, 2018.

Because the next state election is not just a date – it’s a destination.

And the campaign leading to that destination is a lot like SA’s bicentenary in 2036.

It starts now.

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

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