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Richardson: The cancer on our political life


On any rational reading of it, this week’s revelations about the extent of the failure of South Australia’s government-owned TAFE – despite numerous warnings and red flags dating back years – should prompt some degree of electoral backlash against Labor, which has overseen the malaise for the past 16 years.

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After all, when Jay Weatherill talks – ad nauseam – about jobs being at the centre of everything his Government does, this is what he means. Identifying sectors with jobs to offer and empowering South Australians with the skills to fill them.

That TAFE evidently can’t offer the skills to pay the bills is a failure typical of this Government – whose key recurring weakness over four successive terms has been a disinterest bordering on ineptitude with the minutiae of government, the dour administration that facilitates its contract to provide key services to those who need them.

This Labor Government has strengths, of course – a party, even with agreeable electoral boundaries, does not find itself elected four times in a row by accident. Its building agenda, for example, has been fairly industrious, if sometimes calculated for maximum electoral bang for its buck. Weatherill, like Mike Rann before him, has a knack for the big announcement, the grand vision.

It’s the little stuff, the day-to-day administration, the conscientious administration of departments and agencies, that so often escapes his regime.

And that, over time, is effectively responsible for all Labor’s biggest failings. In child protection and aged care. In the botched Gillman land deal. And now in vocational training.

They’re fine with the big-picture stuff; it’s just administering it where they fall over, time and again.

The latest is a bitter blow because it assaults the very notion of what a Labor government is here to deliver: skills for jobs.

Which is why, by rights, the government that oversaw it should suffer some sort of backlash at the ballot-box.

It may yet. But probably not.

Apart from outliers in which the electorate has punished egregious incompetence by one side or other (1993 and 2006 spring to mind), the two-party vote in recent SA elections has remained fairly static.

That will change this time round, because of a concerted push by Xenophon’s SA Best that will strip paint off both the red and blue party machines.

But what we won’t see is a definitive response to successive administrative failures.

If anything, failure makes party supporters ever more rabid in their defence.

You cannot write an article criticising either the Labor Government or the Liberal Opposition without a spate of comments (usually on the Facebook feed) accusing you of calculated bias.

It seems the only thing that would satisfy the fanboys and girls of their respective parties is an entirely uncritical celebration of their multitudinous successes in government (or their inestimable aptitude for seizing government, if you’re that way inclined).

Ironically, of course, the real bias is not in criticising parties for their respective failures, but in failing to recognise those failures through a fog of partisan affection.

But this fog seems thicker these days.

Criticising political failure is not to be implacably prejudiced against the party per se; indeed, quite the opposite. It is merely to suggest that South Australia deserves both its government and its opposition to be the best they can be, regardless of political stripe.

But this is a nuance that is increasingly difficult to enunciate these days.

It is an age of hyper-partisanship. It’s a cancer on political life, fed by demagoguery and personality politics, fuelled by social media and the rise of tribalism over critical thought.

A partisan fog so thick that not merely administrative incompetence but basic moral decency can be overlooked in the baying feud that political life has become.

The hyper-partisanship is at its most feral in the US (of course), where senior Republicans – including the President – continue to back the party’s Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore despite multiple allegations of child molestation, assault and inappropriate sexual behaviour levelled against him, dating back decades.

The literal default position appears to be that while these things may have happened, it’s still better to have a Republican representative than a Democrat one.

And then to ramp up the attacks on Democrat Senator Al Franken, who today finally resigned over a string of sexual misconduct allegations from several women.

The level of discourse has literally sunk to such a level of innate tribalism that the debate is more “your alleged sexual deviant is worse than ours” than any sense of acknowledging the potential horror of letting such people hold a position of influence in the senate.

It’s not at that level here, thank God, but there is a palpable sense that politics increasingly resembles something more akin to football fandom than rational debate.

As regular readers of my various contributions to these pages may know, I have no issue whatsoever with blindly picking a side when it comes to football fandom.

But politics is a very different proposition.

It is not merely a question of ‘gotta support the team’.

There are real people with real lives and real career aspirations affected by these administrative bungles, and none of this is served by diminishing the debate to the level of ‘Labor good, Liberal bad’ or vice versa.

Perhaps in this climate, we should regard the interloping Xenophon threat as a godsend rather than a disruption.

For unless one is irretrievably rusted-on to their chosen side, one could not in all honesty claim either that the Labor Government has had a successful four-year term, nor that the Liberal Opposition has done nearly enough to instill confidence that it offers a safe alternative.

If both parties cede ground to SA Best, it will be as much as they deserve for failing to be the best government or opposition they should have been.

And if nothing else, having a genuine third-party lower house alternative may go some way to clearing the haze of hyper-partisanship.

Which would be no small achievement, and could yet be a noble one.

Tom Richardson is a senior reporter at InDaily.

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