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Off the Bench: Good governments needs good opposition


In our opinion series Off the Bench, two of South Australia’s brightest backbench MPs – one Labor, one Liberal – trade arguments on key issues. Today, Labor MP Chris Picton argues good government in SA needs the Liberal Opposition to present more positive ideas for the state. Liberal Stephan Knoll will respond tomorrow.

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Since 2002, SA Labor has faced five Leaders of the Opposition. One of those leaders stood out to me as the strongest; the one that put our Government under the most pressure.

And funnily enough that leader now serves in the State’s Cabinet as a Liberal independent: Martin Hamilton-Smith.

While some ‘dodgy documents’ ultimately proved to be his undoing, Hamilton-Smith up until that point was running a very strong campaign for his party. The reason he was so effective was that he led ideas to promote our state and hence he led the political agenda.

From Opposition Hamilton-Smith was first out of the gate promoting the idea that has become the Tonsley industrial precinct, and the idea of a new stadium that became the Adelaide Oval redevelopment. He stood for things and came up with ideas.

Those ideas are now benefiting the state from inside our Labor Cabinet room – working with a government that is leading innovation and reform across almost every area of public policy.

Fourteen years into a Government’s term some people might have expected a lack of ideas and zeal for reform. However the wheels in motion from the state government are some of the biggest changes yet.

Just a few examples include:

In comparison – the Liberal leader last month released a document called “2036”.

On first glance it sounds like it might be a plan with some policy propositions – a vision of where we should be and how to meet the challenges we face.

Unfortunately it is none of that. It is a document that will go down in history as one of the greatest laughing stocks of South Australian politics.

You can’t turn on talkback radio, open a news article – or dare I say it read the online comments – without reading about problems. What’s much more difficult is developing policy ideas to solve problems.

No-one expected the Liberals to come out with all of their policies now. But when you hype the release of a “policy manifesto”, you would expect one or two actual policy ideas.

In reality this document has all the complexity of a kids’ TV song. We love hospitals, we love schools, we love the environment and we love Dorothy the Dinosaur.

No specifics, no new ideas. And definitely no costings. Nothing on how we fund and run the health system in a future where our population is dramatically older. Nothing on the nuclear question, or our submarine industry, or the future energy needs for South Australia.

Malcolm Turnbull has run taxpayer-funded advertisements calling for an ‘ideas boom’. But instead of our local Liberals releasing new policy ideas here, David Pisoni wades through burst water mains for TV cameras. And now they’ve jumped on board a ‘hotel on a jetty’ idea from a local council that screamed of desperation.

The easy bit is identifying problems. You can’t turn on talkback radio, open a news article – or dare I say it read the online comments – without reading about problems. What’s much more difficult is developing policy ideas to solve problems.

Of course not every political party searches for ideas and solutions. There’s a long history of single issue or pressure groups seeking to raise attention to problems without any feasible solutions – the Green Party on the left, or Palmer United on the right, are examples. By comparison, historically the Labor and Liberal parties have sought to be parties of government, understanding that ultimately we need to find solutions to difficult problems.

But that seems to be changing. So long out of government – 16 years at the next election – Steven Marshall’s Liberals are not preparing for government. They are settling in for the job as the opposition, the complainers-in-chief.

I hope that there are up-and-coming people in the Liberal Party like Stephan Knoll who want to use their energies to promote ideas and solutions – rather than just complain.

Perhaps Stephan can work on the inside of his party room to restore some of the idea-generation spirit of Hamilton-Smith. The state would be better for it because good governments need good oppositions.

Chris Picton is the Labor member for Kaurna and Assistant Minister to the Treasurer.

Tomorrow, Liberal MP for Schubert, Stephan Knoll, will respond.

For more of out “Off the Bench” debates, go here.

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