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Richardson: Musical chairs the main event in SA's party games

Opinion

South Australia’s political bureaucracies have a busy few months ahead, facing the looming loss of a federal seat while contesting a crucial state election. But, as in all party games, the trick will be in finding a way to navigate through the chaos, writes Tom Richardson.

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My eldest kid turned six last week, which meant being inundated with hordes of screaming reception students, who we duly loaded up with sugar and handed back to their grateful parents.

We booked a magician who helpfully kept the boisterous boys and girls entranced for a solid hour, before it was left to the long-suffering host (ie me) to keep them entertained with the usual round of games such as ‘Pass The Parcel’ and ‘That One Where You Dance Until The Music Stops And Then If You Don’t Freeze You’re Out’.

Not ‘Musical Chairs’, though.

That’s just a bit too crazy to contemplate.

Musical chairs, of course, is the one where you take one seat away and everyone runs around going nuts for a while before fighting over the ones that are left.

Fortunately though, we won’t miss out – because as we speak South Australia is currently engaged in its very own version of musical chairs.

The Australian Electoral Commission’s long-awaited decision to remove a South Australian seat from the federal map has, predictably, already prompted much wailing and gnashing of teeth among the state’s Commonwealth parliamentarians.

Just as in the children’s party game, taking a seat away has sparked an outbreak of near-hysteria, followed by a mad rush by participants to ensure they’re not the one left without.

There have been broad suggestions (from both Labor and Liberal insiders) that Mayo is an obvious choice, in part because its removal would cause less disruption to neighbouring electorates, into which it could be subsumed relatively painlessly. Mayo was also created relatively recently – it was held by Alexander Downer from its inception in 1984 – and would be considered on the theory of ‘last one in, first one out’.

But the conundrum for Mayo is that it is held by a crossbencher, NXT’s Rebekha Sharkie – and eliminating such incumbency would rightly rile local voters who have already sent a clear signal to Canberra about their thoughts on the two major parties.

Sharkie herself has vowed to “vigorously fight any attempt to wipe out Mayo and absorb it into another federal seat”.

Well, she would, wouldn’t she?

Can I helpfully suggest a campaign under the banner: ‘Hold The Mayo’? You’re welcome, NXT…

Makin is another seat formed at the same time as Mayo, and while it would see Labor lose a relatively secure metropolitan stronghold, its loss could also have serious implications for the Liberals.

Moderate powerbroker Christopher Pyne – whose seat of Sturt is itself certainly not outside consideration for abolition – would likely pick up a glut of Labor-leaning booths if Makin went the way of the dodo, which could leave the Liberal stalwart in deep doo-doo.

Still, the predictable response from the Libs and Xenophon Team to all this is also on the mark: losing a federal seat is a pretty shocking indictment of where we’re at as a state, with sluggish population growth helping cement our status as more rural centre than capital city.

And Jay Weatherill’s breezy response – effectively, that we should celebrate being a national backwater because becoming some kind of thriving metropolis would only hamper our unhurried lifestyle – involved more pointless spinning than a round of ‘Pin The Tail On The Donkey’ (which we didn’t play this year but only because we ticked it off last year instead).

When Mike Rann was Premier he identified population growth as a crucial measure of SA’s future success, and set a specific population target in his much-debated State Strategic Plan.

When, under Weatherill, the plan became the “Seven Strategic Priorities”, which later morphed into the “Ten Economic Priorities”, population targets were notably absent, as was any discussion of population growth being a policy end in itself.

It is time for the State Government to urgently revisit this oversight.

For SA, population growth should not be an incidental by-product of other policy, but an active focus of it.

Of course, none of this will prove much of a distraction for either major party as we meander towards the March state election, with Weatherill enjoying his continued ideological wrangles with the federal Coalition and Steven Marshall serving up his daily dose of alarmist populism – albeit a meagre dose.

There is a broadly-perceived notion among political insiders that all but the final few months of a parliamentary term is largely dead air in terms of getting your message across.

The theory goes that until an election is actually imminent, the great unwashed more or less switch off from politics altogether (and who could blame them?) and only genuinely engage at the proverbial eleventh hour.

Hence, Oppositions (in particular) prefer to hold fire on major policy initiatives throughout the parliamentary term, well aware their big picture announcements could be all-but forgotten come the campaign proper.

The only drawback, of course, is that they must in the interim endure the pointed accusation that they are not really doing very much, haven’t engaged in the battle of ideas and haven’t presented a cogent blueprint for government.

Moreover, in the Curious Case of the State Liberals, it presents a challenge to building up the profile of the still-relatively-unknown Marshall.

MUSICAL CHAIRS: Senator Nick Xenophon, SA Liberal leader Steven Marshall and Treasurer Tom Koutsantonis, in Whyalla last week, all will be key players in the March state election. Photo: David Mariuz / AAP

It’s hard to present yourself as a man of vision, action and principle when your political strategy involves holding fire on major areas of public policy.

To be fair – and as I’ve noted before – the Liberals have been far more proactive on policy in this term than in previous iterations and, indeed, perhaps more proactive than we would justifiably expect.

The problem, though, is that they’ve evidently set an electoral timeline that allows (one hopes) for a late-term flurry of activity.

And this flurry will have to do more than merely outline the policy agenda for a prospective Liberal Government. It must also flesh out Marshall as a genuine leadership alternative.

So this business with Troy Bell could prove a far bigger spanner in the works than merely an unhelpful distraction.

Given he has left himself so little time for the hard-sell, Marshall desperately needs clear air to spell out his credentials.

And Labor is determined that he doesn’t get it.

Between now and election day, there will be, conceivably, few occasions that Marshall addresses the media without being asked about the latest machinations in Mount Gambier.

The Bell fiasco will provide yet another layer in the cacophony of white noise through which Marshall must enunciate a clear and cogent platform from which to build momentum towards March.

But the Libs, as ever, have only themselves to blame. After four years in a political whisper, Marshall must find his voice – and quickly.

If he can’t, the Opposition might need to pull a rabbit out of a hat to form majority government.

Fortunately, I know a good magician they could call…

And, if nothing else, the next few months of frantic, frenetic political lobbying will be far more entertaining – and every bit as exhausting – as hosting a six-year old’s birthday shindig.

But you’d expect no less from party games.

Tom Richardson is a senior reporter at InDaily. 

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