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Beware the grand plans of politicians


Beware the grand political gesture, writes former Liberal minister Mark Brindal. More often than not they are the ill-considered over-reaction of a government that has either made a mistake or finds itself on the wrong side of public opinion.

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In their most benign form they prove to be “A tale. Told by an idiot. Full of sound and fury. Signifying nothing.” At worst they can prove catastrophic both economically and socially. The damage can take decades to repair.

The reliability of the power supply and the soaring electricity charges in SA are proving to be the Weatherill government’s Achilles Heel. Heading towards a sixteenth consecutive year in power, the Treasurer’s repeated bleating that it was the Liberals who sold ETSA not only ignores the fact that it was Paul Keating who demanded privatisation and competition in a national electricity market but sounds increasingly hollow to a jaded electorate.

SA is not part of the third world. In the 21st century catastrophic black outs and extortionate power prices are not acceptable.

Australia-type democracy routinely demands that government fix every problem: how much more so for problems that we did not have before and that appear to have been created by our politicians?

This crop have made such an art form of taking credit that if the Crows win this year’s AFL premiership, the government will grab the kudos. But let something go wrong and not one of them can be found.

Public servants are wheeled out to explain and the blame game demands that it’s the fault of the previous government, the Federal Government, local government or big business. Even God is not immune.

The blame game can work. We are parochial. We love the underdog. Any Premier taking on a Federal government hought to be disadvantaging us is on a winner, especially if they have at least some right on their side.

However, while the problem remains, our tolerance narrows. No matter where the blame might really lie, we demand a solution.

If politicians don’t have one they resort to the grand gesture.

Take the River Murray as an example. In 2002, the Liberals were considered its most competent guardians, according to polling. To trump this situation, Mike Rann introduced a “River Murray Act”. The Act elevates the river to god-like status and gives the responsible minister breathtaking powers and a Papal authority over all other ministers and government departments.

For public consumption, it was a superb PR exercise.  However, the reality of government is that cabinet is a cooperative team led by the Premier. Ministerial dictatorships are impossible. Consequently, the Act is as useless as tits on a bull – it has and will never serve any useful purpose.

Electricity is receiving similar treatment.

Experts are divided on the recently announced electricity infrastructure plan. Some give aspects a chance of working. Others have labeled it a waste and liable to make matters worse. But to give credit where it’s due, any plan is better than no plan.

However infrastructure projects are medium to long term. With a state election less than a year away, a gesture was needed.

The same Treasurer who, one day after the blackouts, said that South Australia had been the lead legislator in the national electricity market and it was functioning exactly as planned, now claims that market is a mess and that he needs sweeping powers to protect South Australia’s interests.

Last week his remedy, The Emergency Management (Electricity Supply) Amendment Act passed the Parliament.  Not one word was changed. The Parliament has given him exactly what he wanted.

Now it’s a case of “be careful what you wish for you might just get it”. Given the toolkit that he said he needs to fix the problem, he has accepted responsibility for fixing it.

The blame game only works when there is someone else to blame. If prices continue to escalate and/or the next time there is a blackout, South Australians have a right to say: “You explained the problem. You asked for and were given the tools to fix it. It’s not fixed. You are responsible.”

It will not be a case of a Treasurer becoming the sacrificial lamb. This grand gesture could portend an ALP election catastrophe equivalent to the State Bank.

Mark Brindal was a state Liberal MP from 1989 until 2006. He held a number of ministerial portfolios between 1998 and 2002. He is now involved in academic writing and is a public policy consultant.

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