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Richardson: Sco-Mo's "no-no" redolent of Hockey's Holden-bashing

Opinion

There is a certain art to the artlessness federal Coalition Treasurers appear to have when pontificating on the looming loss of jobs in South Australia.

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It is almost, indeed, to be admired, such is its kamikaze commitment to the Liberals’ free market ethos over anything so petty as winning votes, safeguarding seats or appeasing a state they evidently consider the wearisome problem child of the federation family.

Before Holden pulled the pin, Joe Hockey chided the Detroit-owned carmaker, challenging it to “come clean with the Australian people about their intentions here”.

Having withdrawn half a billion dollars in funding, Hockey then revelled in his intransigence, effectively daring Holden to pull up stumps.

“There’s a hell of a lot of industries that would love to get the assistance the motor industry is getting,” he thundered in parliament.

“Either you’re here or you’re not.”

It was the latter, as it pretty quickly turned out.

This turn of events came just three months out from the last state election, an election the state Liberals seemed predestined to win.

I said then, and so it proved, that Holden – and the Feds’ divisive rhetoric on its closure – could become a definitive factor in the campaign.

Hockey’s successor as Treasurer made it clear today he intended to continue the tradition of intemperate posturing in the face of the looming loss of thousands of SA jobs.

State Governments are wont to wear the credit for jobs successes on their watch, so it’s only right and proper that they should wear the opprobrium, at least politically, for lingering unemployment.

However, for the Weatherill Government, the Federal Coalition Government is the gift that keeps on giving.

Even without Abbott and Hockey, whose collective disdain for corporate welfare manifested itself more brutally in Adelaide than anywhere else, the current Treasurer has managed to find a way to turn the looming crisis at Arrium into a political liability for the Liberals.

And why? To make a point about the sanctity of international trade, at a flashpoint moment wherein the Buy Australia mantra had become the only hope dangling over Whyalla’s red-hued horizon.

While the notion was championed by Shorten’s Labor, even SA-based Industry Minister Christopher Pyne appeared to have taken up the charge, telling FIVEaa that “we need to use the government dollar to promote industry”.

It was qualified, however, with his more detailed comments on Radio National, warning that “we still need to have competition in the market”.

“There is only one steel construction business in Australia that makes construction steel, and that’s Whyalla, and there’s one that makes flat steel, that’s Port Kembla – if you say that 100 per cent of all construction must be from those two businesses then you have effectively created a monopoly [it would be a duopoly, technically] and the tax payer can be charged any price by those businesses for that steel, so that would obviously be quite irresponsible,” he said.

Nonetheless, potentially weeks out from a federal election in which Pyne finds himself in the unusual position of fearing for his seat, and the Coalition finds itself in the familiar position of being behind in the polls, the rhetoric had been enough to promote a rare bipartisan front between state and federal governments.

“Chris Pyne has been an outstanding advocate for South Australia on this,” State Treasurer Tom Koutsantonis enthused on ABC891.

“We asked them to invest in Arrium, with a pre-purchase of rail line from Tarcoola to Adelaide, one of the largest orders they’ve ever had – and they did that for us.

“Chris Pyne has done everything we’ve asked, so I’m not going to be criticising the Commonwealth Government here, just not at all… they’ve been excellent so far.”

Enter Scott Morrison.

Hockey’s successor as Treasurer made it clear today he intended to continue the tradition of intemperate posturing in the face of the looming loss of thousands of SA jobs.

Describing the notion of mandating a “buy local” policy as a “kneejerk reaction”, ScoMo told the ABC it represented “the sort of thing that says: ‘let’s tear up our trade agreements; let’s tear up the jobs in the new economy to go and play politics with an issue in South Australia’”.

A canny politician, with a finger on the pulse of the SA political vein, might have followed that with a Homer Simpson-style internal monologue: “Uh-oh… did I say that or just think it?”

The consistent error in the Liberals’ politicking appears to be an inability to distinguish between bashing Labor and bashing Labor’s heartland.

It’s little wonder Koutsantonis can afford to be so magnanimous (beyond his genuine and impassioned concern for the Whyalla workers). The Federal Liberals are the best friends this Labor Government ever had.

With Arrium hanging on a knife’s edge as the administrators move in, and confusion still reigning over the future of ship and sub-building contracts, the Coalition Treasurer has once again signalled that SA’s rust-bucket travails are little more than a pothole on the path to its free market utopia.

Don’t get me wrong: I admire people who are prepared to stick up for their principles, even in the face of death. Joan of Arc, for instance.

And it appears Scott Morrison is similarly willing to martyr the Coalition for the cause.

I’m just not too sure Christopher Pyne, as the political flames rise, will be as understanding.

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

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