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Richardson: The new battlelines are drawn

Opinion

Jay Weatherill has very deliberately put the question of leadership on the political agenda, as he gears up to seek re-election in 2018. But, Tom Richardson argues, it is a question to which Steven Marshall might have found an answer.

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On the surface, Jay Weatherill’s strange about-face on the rules of political diplomacy last week seemed to come from the basket titled: “Did I say that or just think it?”

The Premier raised eyebrows – and a few hackles – when he spoke to me, ostensibly with the intent of bemoaning the Liberals’ “small-target” approach to Opposition.

But he went further, essentially arguing that his federal leader had not been much of one for the best part of his three years in the job – before digressing into a whimsical (and self-flattering) riff on the meaning of political leadership.

In short, according to Jay Weatherill, the ideal political leader is someone much like… well, Jay Weatherill.

The man who (according to the man himself) has “courageously” implemented policy measures such as Transforming Health, the nuclear fuel cycle royal commission, the state tax review. Sure, the policies may have been divisive, but Generous Jay can take the slings and arrows, “because they’re in the interest of the state”.

“And I think ultimately people will give credit to people that are taking on the big decisions… in their heart of hearts they understand somebody’s got to tackle these big questions,” says Gallant Jay.

Maybe he never saw the famous episode of Yes Minister in which Sir Humphrey Appleby explained the difference between a “controversial” decision and a “courageous” one:

So it was an interesting gambit. On one level, I agree with Weatherill about the nature of political leadership. I believe voters will reward governments who make potentially contentious calls, but do so decisively and with purpose.

There’s no doubting that Weatherill’s approach represented a significant departure from the previous two-and-a-half years. It’s also patently incorrect.

I also believe the foundation of Turnbull’s downturn came when he pointlessly instigated – and then squibbed – the debate over GST. Riding a wave of optimism and goodwill, Turnbull had the opportunity to make a bold reform move, backed by two state premiers of both political hue. Instead, he walked away at the first whiff of controversy, when the spectre of losing a few votes or rankling a few marginal seat backbenchers reared its head. But, as his Treasurer Scott Morrison noted at the time, the benefits of increasing the GST were there to be sold. It just needed someone willing to advocate and lead.

To do what Turnbull himself spoke of when he first challenged Abbott, when he mused indulgently about the most exciting time to be Australian.

“The big economic changes that we’re living through here and around the world offer enormous challenges and enormous opportunities and we need a different style of leadership,” he said at the time.

“We need a style of leadership that explains those challenges and opportunities, explains the challenges and how to seize the opportunities. A style of leadership that respects the people’s intelligence, that explains these complex issues and then sets out the course of action we believe we should take and makes a case for it.

“We need advocacy, not slogans. We need to respect the intelligence of the Australian people.”

Sadly, Turnbull, like so many well-intentioned leaders before him, quickly found that sloganeering, not advocacy, became his preferred method of communication – and his electoral standing soon diminished, as the hopes for this “different style of leadership” quickly evaporated.

So I do get where Weatherill is coming from.

Unfortunately, though, he came across rather more like this:

But there’s no doubting that Weatherill’s approach last week represents a significant departure from the previous two-and-a-half years, time in which he has painted himself as something of a benevolent despot, preferring to marginalise the Liberals to the brink of relevance.

So a pitch in which he not merely acknowledges their existence, but raises the intensity of his critique with rhetoric labelling them as “craven, lazy and indolent” is noteworthy.

It’s also patently incorrect.

Labor has been effective over the years at painting the Liberals as variously inept, policy-lite, divided and poor campaigners.

That’s largely because no moniker ever stuck unless there was at least a kernel of truth behind it.

With the federal poll out the way and Steven Marshall preparing to elevate his leadership credentials over 2017 – ahead of the March 2018 election – Weatherill appears to be firing a peremptory shot, to establish the public impression of the Opposition as a party with no purpose, direction or leadership.

And if there’s any doubt that this rhetoric is part of a deliberate, orchestrated gambit, former Liberal Martin Hamilton-Smith’s media release this morning, bemoaning that the “Lazy Liberals” have “no plan for international trade”, should dispel it.

Funnily enough, though, I argued a year ago this week that the Liberals had actually been unusually active (for them, at least) in the public policy space, given the relatively early point in the electoral cycle.

They have committed to re-impose the remissions on Emergency Services Levy bills, pledged to cut payroll tax, identified sealing the Strzelecki Track as a priority for infrastructure spending and affirmed an intent to abolish the Economic Development Board and establish a state-based productivity commission.

More recently they have committed to a cap on council rates and favoured a move to begin high school in Year 7. They have also been consistent in their arguments on establishing a Commissioner for Children and Young People with investigative powers and separating the child protection agency from the Department of Education – both measures to which Labor have now been dragged by the findings of the Nyland royal commission.

Moreover, we can expect the Liberals to increase their policy output in the 12 months leading up to the election; if they do not, only then will Weatherill’s attack hold weight. Of course, he’s hoping by then the perception will have usurped the reality in the public mind.

As chance would have it, on Friday one of InDaily’s two new podcast partners, The Message Pod, published an interview with Steven Marshall in which he reflected with a refreshing honesty about his performance as leader.

“Maybe I wasn’t ready at the last election,” he conceded.

“I’d only been in parliament for three years when I became leader of the Liberal Party – and a year later I was contesting an election against a Premier who had been in cabinet for 12 years.”

Labor was, of course, quick to seek political mileage from the admission.

Hamilton-Smith, in today’s release, snidely noted that “Steven Marshall was right last week when he told media he wasn’t ready to govern”.

But I suspect they won’t make much of it and, if they do, it may work in Marshall’s favour.

For while there is political courage in pursuing policy that may be divisive or contentious, there is also courage in admitting fault, weakness or error and making public amends.

It’s certainly an area in which Weatherill – seeking a mandate on his political “courage” – has been widely seen to fall short.

Marshall’s comments were made before Weatherill’s attack (indeed, he is currently on leave overseas); they were prompted by nothing more than considered reflection and candour. But the admission, perversely, suggests he may be a tougher proposition for Labor in 2018 than they would ever publicly concede.

And Weatherill’s new attack-dog rhetoric certainly suggests as much.

Tom Richardson is a senior reporter at InDaily. 

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