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Three leaders, all deficient in their own way


Who to vote for? Former Liberal minister Mark Brindal reflects on the options facing voters this weekend.

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On Saturday, many South Australians will go to the polls confused. We have one vote. We must use it to decide a number of complex questions. Who do we want to represent us? Who do we want to lead us? Which policy platform represents the best way forward?

The person we vote for is our voice in Parliament. For some, the candidate is important: we might know them, they might have helped us or we believe in them.

Independents Frances Bedford, Geoff Brock and Troy Bell will be re-elected. Their electors so believe in them that they will forgo their opinions on other factors.

Bedford’s standing was reflected in comments by an ALP source over Don Dunstan’s appearance on Bedford’s Facebook page: “Dunstan would never support someone who has turned their back on the party.” That’s rich coming from the party that turned their backs on him during the Bannon years and which, in passing legislation conferring superannuation rights on same-sex partners, worded it to deliberately exclude a notable eligible recipient – Don Dunstan’s partner Stephen.

Duncan McFetridge will lose in Morphett because he has failed to gain the same standing as the other three.

I believe Nick Xenophon will lose Hartley. His loss will be blamed on the duplicity of others.

In reality, he never expected an outright win. He calculated that, finishing second, he could rely on preferences to push him across the line.

However, he’s made miscalculations – first among them, that, as the anti-politician, the honest broker, everybody’s friend candidate, he’d pick up a following. He has – but not enough.

He’s battling the Liberal equivalent of Bedford. Vincent Tarzia is committed to his electorate. He’s worked hard. He knows his people. He’s earned a loyalty and respect that trumps party allegiance. Xenophon could not have picked a harder battle.

Now everyone has decided not to give Xenophon the inside running, he is being ground between a rock and a hard place. His acolytes’ blindness and their protestations will only serve to ensure internal mayhem.

For those who do not have particular loyalty to any candidate, policy and leadership determine their vote.

In 2018, vision has become collateral damage. Rather than any spotlight blazing the path towards utopia, both major parties have opted for the Christmas tree approach. Their policies are a hotchpotch of glittering lights designed to dazzle the eye while providing little real illumination. SA Best’s policies are mince pies: half-baked, flaky pastry, unidentifiable ingredients.

This election, then, might then turn on leadership. That is bizarre, given our choices.

A likeable John the Baptist type, who, tired of the wilderness, wants to run the temple, leads SA Best. He leads no team, but a bunch of disciples. He has neither proved that he can lead nor has his team demonstrated that they can follow. The possibility that some might be elected without Xenophon equates to setting headless chooks loose in Parliament.

That Xenophon insisted that he would remain intimately involved in running the party if he failed to win shows a lack of understanding. Parliament has spent centuries protecting its autonomy from all outside interference.

Weatherill has led the state for six years and he has a known track record. He has finely honed his image as SA’s David pitched against a Commonwealth Goliath. He has used it with effect both when it’s been warranted and when it hasn’t.

Yet, as Tom Richardson has pointed out, he has another talent. His government creates a problem – Weatherill promptly blames the Commonwealth, denies responsibility or, when pushed, apologises. His party trick is to solve the problem and then demand credit for fixing his own mess.

To vote for Weatherill is to vote for the Trojan horse. He’s a dead man walking. He was installed and supported by the right faction because they had no acceptable candidate. To buy extra time, he bloodied the nose of Don Farrell, the right faction powerbroker.

With the move of Peter Malinauskas to the lower house, Weatherill’s meter has expired. It’s a matter of when, not if, he’s moved on.

Are we left to holler for a Marshall? He has led his team for five years. He garnered over 50% of the two-party preferred vote at the last election.

Ability in Opposition does not necessarily translate to the top job. Tony Abbott, a devastatingly effective Opposition Leader, proved an inept Prime Minister. Kim Beazley, a poor Opposition Leader, would have made an excellent Prime Minister.

Marshall should be the favourite. Yet he is commonly characterized as a liability. He is seen as a Cheshire cat leading an all but invisible team.

However, to write him off as an ineffectual non-entity is to ignore important factors since, perversely, it can be argued Marshall finds himself a victim of his own success.

Government in Australia is generally lost by incumbents rather than seized by Oppositions. SA has a tired government that has largely exhausted its talent pool. It has presided over a series of scandals and disasters. By all logic, it’s dead and awaiting decent burial. The only thing that could stop this is an Opposition perceived as worse.

For five decades the Libs’ Achilles’ heel has been infighting and disunity. Under Marshall’s leadership, this has evaporated. So much so that the ALP has not run a single ad on the subject. That speaks volumes.

To achieve this Marshall has applied rigid discipline. Rather than grandstand and stunt, he has forged an apparently cohesive unit, which he has protected by keeping as small a target as possible.

It was an intelligent approach, which should work well in a two-horse race. However, introduce the X factor and we have punters asking “Steven who?” and “What team?”  Does that mean he’s not a leader?

One insider summed it up well: “Marshall had become our biggest campaign liability.” He was being pragmatic, not disloyal, since he added: “Which is a pity because he will make a great Premier.”

Others will disagree with my assessment. They will see qualities in the candidates that I don’t.

The only thing on which we might find general consensus is that it’s truly Mad March and that we feel SA deserves a little better than a mock tea party. It’s what we’ve got.

Let’s hope that before March 17, South Australian voters find tea strainers!

Mark Brindal was a Liberal member of the South Australian Parliament from 1989 to 2006, and was Minister for Water Resources, Local Government, Youth and Employment and Training during the Olsen and Kerin governments.

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