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Richardson: Have the Libs finally grown a pair?

Opinion

First they blocked the bank tax, then they forced the Premier into a budget debate. And finally, they broke parliamentary convention to refuse Jay Weatherill a pair, denying him a golden media opportunity. Was this week a turning point for the perpetually-bullied Liberals, asks Tom Richardson.

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There is an old cliché about the downtrodden dweeb who regularly gets sand kicked in his face by the proverbial bully at the beach, before bulking up over winter and returning the following summer to turn the tables.

This basic narrative – of the victim standing up to their oppressor – is a recurring theme in popular culture.

Back To The Future, Heathers, Mean GirlsRevenge of the Nerds.

And perhaps this week marked the state Libs’ ‘Revenge of the Nerds’ moment.

Approaching 16 years in Opposition, most of which have been spent idling along in Labor’s electoral shadow without evident direction, purpose or policy, the Liberals this week signalled a significant shift in tone and intent, at least as far as parliament is concerned.

First, of course – and most notably – came the decision to join the Australian Conservatives and Xenophon’s man John Darley in blocking the bank tax, even if it meant blocking the budget.

But there were other signs.

The faux budget debate – complete with the obligatory pre-debate debate about where, when and how to have the debate – might have been a sideshow but it was a sideshow largely dictated by Liberal leader Steven Marshall.

It was he who first threw down the gauntlet to Premier Jay Weatherill with the public challenge to debate him over the bank tax.

Which, in political terms, is exactly like saying: “Come on, I’ll take you” with your fists raised awkwardly.

Perhaps it’s the dwindling command of political rhetoric these days, but I’ve always found debates to be among the more overrated events in public life.

The silliness of the whole enterprise became evident as the leaders publicly haggled on Twitter over the format, location and, bizarrely, whether it should be held at 1pm or 2pm. Oh, the intrigue!

In the end, the points for the pre-debate debate went to Weatherill, when Marshall blinked and allowed the event to proceed on the Premier’s terms.

But all it really meant was that instead of Question Time, in which the Government is handed a media soapbox to defend their position and attack the Opposition, the Liberals were given a forum in which to berate the budget and demand an early election.

As the Government bemoaned the notion that blocking a budget measure was a break in a convention that had stood since 1857 (it was actually broken in 2014 with the carpark tax, but no matter), John Gardner, the manager of Opposition business, succinctly summed up the Liberal line: “I would rather break a convention then break the state.”

Of course, they may yet manage both.

Campaigning against the bank tax was one thing, but the Libs clearly understand it is a fraught proposition to forge an election debate on the proposition that they are fighting for the top end of town.

Politically, perhaps, it is better to score points over the Government in parliament.

To show them they’re not the weedy kid getting sand kicked in their face any more.

Of far worse consequence would be the impression that the state is effectively ungovernable

In reality, for whatever financial and reputational damage the bank tax could wreak, the difference between killing it off now or after March next year is pretty minimal.

So, in an election year, this argument about protecting SA’s brand from Labor’s tax is tenuous, if it’s Liberal policy to overturn it in government.

Of far worse consequence would be the impression that the state is effectively ungovernable, that a cohort of conservative-leaning cross-benchers can impose their whim on money-bills because they happen to disagree with them. Which, after all, they are wont to do.

Are we to assume that this is the first budget with which the Libs and the former Family First have found fault?

And if not, then what is to stop them or anyone else now cherry-picking every future budget bill to remove the bits that don’t suit their world-view?

I’m not saying that I disagree with them on this particular budget measure, but this debate is no longer about this particular budget – it’s about all future budgets and how we interpret the contract between the electorate and the government it elects (albeit with a minority of the statewide vote).

Of all those high watermarks of pop culture to employ the ‘downtrodden kid evening the ledger against the bullies’ narrative, perhaps the Libs’ gambit is in fact less ‘Revenge Of The Nerds’ than ‘Carrie’.

In the various film adaptions of Stephen King’s debut novel, the titular school misfit discovers a telekinetic gift she uses to turn the tables on her aggressors – but pretty much burns down the whole town in the process.

Ever one for an overblown cliche, Marshall likes to refer to Labor’s tax as a “wrecking ball” through the state economy – which, speaking of pop culture references, conjures the unfortunate image of the Treasurer swinging in like a besuited Miley Cyrus.

Premier Jay Weatherill reacts to Tom Koutsantonis in parliament. Photo: Morgan Sette / AAP

But the political tactics deployed this week could yet prove a bigger wrecking ball to the future governance of SA.

Still, if there was any doubt that the Libs were throwing precedent to the wind, they followed up with a seemingly-churlish refusal to grant Weatherill a parliamentary pair so that he could gallivant off to Whyalla to bask in the warm glow of Arrium’s salvation.

Yes, the whistlestop would have been a blatant media opportunity, but Arrium’s rescue was also a significant event for SA, and the refusal to grant a pair was unusual.

Particularly since the Libs had already granted a pair (effectively, an agreement to take one of their MPs out of commission for parliamentary divisions to cancel out the absence of a Government member) for Annabel Digance (who was sick), Jennifer Rankine (who was at a conference in Sydney) and Mick Atkinson. They also refused a pair for Whyalla-based Labor backbencher Eddie Hughes, in whose Giles electorate Arrium is based, but former Liberal-turned-independent Duncan McFetridge agreed to pair with Hughes after a separate request.

He told InDaily today he agreed to do so because Hughes is the local MP and “I know how much he’s out into it up there”.

He said he would not have agreed to an equivalent request from Weatherill but conceded “it’s one of those fine choices you have to make”.

“I can understand the politics of it,” he noted.

The politics, of course, cut both ways.

But for the Liberals there was a sense that this was more than parliamentary tactics, more than just cruelling the Premier’s big moment.

It was also a pointed riposte after a week of nasty personal Labor attacks on Marshall’s authority, and even on his character.

And after 16 years of fruitless Opposition, it had the feel of a party finally drawing a line in the sand.

If not kicking it in someone’s face.

Tom Richardson is a senior reporter at InDaily.

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