Confidence motions are a tad dime-a-dozen in politics these days, so while it’s never a sign that things are going swimmingly when parliament debates your ineptitude, neither is it necessarily a mortal wound.
But there was a more subtle, yet ultimately more telling, sign this week that Jay Weatherill’s premiership is flailing.
On the TV news channels on Wednesday night, the Premier appeared in sit-down, one-on-one interviews.
It’s a strategy his predecessor Mike Rann used to employ in the dying days of his leadership, when – battered and bruised by relentlessly adversarial media conferences – he increasingly opted for the more convivial confines of his State Administration office.
It made sense: the situation allows for airy pleasantries pre-interview, which inevitably curbs the impending confrontation, if only slightly.
It minimises the chance of an unconvincing response or slip of the tongue being seized upon and exploited with a barrage of follow-up questions.
It ensures the protagonist – seated in his office chair rather than holed up by a battery of cameras in a corridor – comes across more assured, calm, authoritative.
But for Rann – to me, at least – his latter-era propensity to eschew all-in media conferences in favour of a series of one-on-ones became a symbol of a Premier isolated and afraid.
And that is what Jay Weatherill became this week.
It has been rightfully noted that, as the primary architect and advocate of the Education and Child Development Department’s contentious model, Weatherill bears a singular responsibility for the ignominy of that model’s demise.
More so as a former minister for Education, Families and Communities, Early Childhood Development and public-sector reform – and as the only member of his Government to have served in cabinet since Labor took office in 2002.
So the Premier ends this week diminished in his role – that is a given.
And, perhaps more crucially, his unflappable self-confidence and intrinsic belief that he knows best have surely been tested. That resolve was what carried him to the Premier’s office, and what carried his party to an unlikely election victory. If it is dented, so too are Labor’s chances of securing another one.
But there has been another significant political consequence this week.
If Weatherill’s standing has dwindled, Steven Marshall’s has been enhanced.
After all, Royal Commissioner Margaret Nyland’s insistence that Weatherill remove child protection from Education and establish a stand-alone agency is exactly what he has been long and fruitlessly demanding.
His performance in Wednesday’s confidence motion was impassioned, reasoned and damning. And, despite concluding with a rather over-optimistic suggestion that Weatherill should resign forthwith, it was not strident.
“Nobody has ever said that child protection is an easy portfolio,” Marshall began.
“It is not an easy portfolio in South Australia. It is not an easy portfolio in any other jurisdiction around Australia or anywhere else in the world.
“But let’s be quite clear: when Margaret Nyland brought down her interim report… her recommendations did not say that this is a difficult portfolio being managed well. She said that the system in SA was in crisis.”
He then placed Weatherill’s premiership at the centre of that crisis, arguing that “there is one person above all others in this parliament, and quite possibly above all others in this entire state, who has been inextricably linked to our child protection system and failures”.
It was telling that after Marshall delivered his assessment, the first Government respondent – Health Minister Jack Snelling – devoted his allotted time in response not to debunking any of these arguments, but to a political character assassination of the Opposition Leader predicated on a historical and unrelated Liberal own-goal.
Yesterday, in his media rounds, Weatherill did the same, attacking Marshall for “playing politics with child protection”, before – quite breathtakingly – concluding that he was “not going to waste [his] time on the Leader of the Opposition”, because he has “more important things to be doing”.
Of course, Weatherill has been here before.
Lest we forget, the lead-up to his re-election was blighted by almost daily child protection failures and scandals, culminating in the damning Debelle Royal Commission.
Spearheaded by a dogged David Pisoni, the Opposition hammered the Government, regularly landing telling blows.
It made not a lick of difference at the ballot box.
And, for all the sound and fury this week, neither will this week’s events resonate among the broad sweep of self-interest that will guide the voters’ hand come 2018.
Sadly, it seems that while child protection is an issue that regularly incites alarm, controversy and despair, it is not a vote-shifter.
We are still mid-cycle in a fixed four-year term, so while there’s never a good time for a Government to hit a political crisis, the timing for Weatherill is about as good as it gets.
As ever, the biggest losers – beyond the children poorly served by this Government’s systemic failures – are bureaucrats. Tony Harrison has been shunted to Communities and Social Inclusion. It was inevitable. He was controversially brought in to run the sprawling Education Department because the failures of Families SA demanded someone who could “whip that department into shape from an administrative point of view”, as Deputy Premier John Rau said at the time.
The Opposition was quick to point out that he had no pedigree in education, to which the Government countered that he knew all about schools, having been to one as a child.
But without child protection to “whip into shape”, the rationale for keeping Harrison in Education had disappeared. Neither could he be seconded over to head the prospective new Department of Child Protection – not after Nyland’s public demand for a “committed, serious and profound shift in leadership and culture”, with the new department to be “headed by a chief executive with established credibility in child protection work”.
So he was left in no-man’s land, perhaps forgivably pondering his decision to quit a successful SAPOL career and throw his lot in with Weatherill’s child protection experiment.
Three years ago, I wrote of the ongoing crisis in Families SA: “The recent trail of the Education Department is littered with professional corpses. The only one still standing is Jay Weatherill.”
That remains eerily true today.
But the political dynamics have shifted. The Premier today has lost that sheen of invincibility, while Marshall has shucked his air of vulnerability.
Both of these outcomes will colour the electorate’s perceptions of every facet of political debate from now until election day, and that in itself could make this week a significant turning point.
Tom Richardson is a senior reporter at InDaily.
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