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Richardson: Labor seizes the day by abandoning its past

Opinion

It may be cynical, it may be hypocritical, but Labor has seized the political agenda in recent days – by drawing a line under its 16 years in power. And that, writes Tom Richardson, could spell trouble for a Liberal Government still warming up to deliver its legislative agenda.

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There’s an old political adage that your worst day in Government is still better than your best day in Opposition.

I’m not convinced it’s actually true, incidentally, but regardless one suspects the theory will be duly tested over the coming four years.

As we slowly muddle into some form of routine, it’s become clear that the Libs have managed to shift their focus – and image – from a carping Opposition to a mindset of governing.

In doing so, it’s also clear that there is an intent to slow down the pace of political life.

As of today, according to Labor insiders, the Upper House has dealt with just over 180 minutes of genuine government business (not counting address-in-reply) in the 10 sitting days since the election – around 18 minutes a day on average.

This may not be altogether surprising, but it’s not exactly awe-inspiring either.

Still, maybe it’s par for the course. As comedy legend Billy Connolly once pointed out: “When you go to your work in the morning… you don’t sort of go ‘8 o’clock’ – and into it! You sort of relax – and scratch your arse.”

The early days of this government are starting to get that kinda feel.

I’m sure there’s plenty of frenetic work going on behind the scenes (by which I don’t mean an elaborate ‘arse-scratching’ metaphor), but the legislative vibe right now feels more like the first hour of a long shift, when you check a few emails, grab another skinny latte, maybe surf social media for a while, before pushing on with the day’s business.

Of course, the Government’s publicly set itself a to-do list to tick off within its first 100 days of office, which will make it fairly easy to deduce come June 26 how successful it’s been.

But even then, it’s ultimately beholden to the whim of the Opposition and crossbench in the Upper House.

One hopes Labor leader Peter Malinauskas was genuine in his stated intent to not lead a party that opposes for Opposition’s sake, as there’s little benefit for SA in arbitrarily blocking the policy agenda.

Whatever your political leanings, it’s clear that ideological consensus ebbs and flows over the decades, and that is most often driven by the whims of parliamentary democracy. While it was ultimately unable to capitalise on it, most of the first decade of Labor’s rule was predicated on the prospective economic legacy of Olympic Dam – something that possibly would never have gone ahead in the first place without the brief tenure of the Tonkin Liberal government, which passed the Roxby Downs Indenture Agreement (with the help of Labor dissident Norm Foster). On a timeline, the administration appears a mere blip on the radar, a three-year interruption in the midst of 20 years of Labor rule. But it left a legacy not merely in legislation, but in re-setting the parameters of political consensus.

That’s not something you can achieve by meandering through a parliamentary term – it requires some boldness of vision, and some pushing of boundaries.

And that’s not something, on current evidence, we can expect of a Marshall administration.

Legislation for two of its cornerstone policies isn’t expected to be introduced to parliament until next month, which will then allow the Libs to tick off on two of its ‘100-day’ commitments: to introduce legislation for local government rate-capping and a bill to remove restrictions on shop trading hours.

Why wait until June to do so?

Well, it’s possible of course that they’ve just been consulting, drafting, dotting ‘I’s and crossing ‘T’s. But then, these have been key points of policy difference for some time, so it seems inconceivable that no legislative work was done pre-election – particularly for bills that the Libs were committed to introducing so early on.

Perhaps the explanation is more political.

The shopping hours deregulation bill falls under the purview of Treasurer Rob Lucas, who sits in the Upper House.

While the Government commands a clear majority in the House of Assembly, the Legislative Council is another story – and it’s already clear that the shop trading bill has almost no chance of passing the Upper House cleanly, if at all.

Ditto, rate-capping legislation. While Labor’s been coy about its position – amid some internal angst about where it stands – its refusal to articulate where it stands until it sees the bill effectively challenges the Government to table it without knowing if it has any chance of success.

So little wonder neither bill has yet seen the light of day – there’s every chance both would have been kyboshed even before the Libs meet their arbitrary hundred-day deadline.

Which (you don’t need an army of media advisors to tell you) wouldn’t be the best PR foundation on which to build a political empire, even putting aside the legislative failure.

And, of course, the Libs don’t yet have an army of media advisors, although the cavalry are finally en route.

Which could be for the best, because it’s clear the Labor Opposition has the Government’s measure thus far on pure political strategy.

There may be something laudable about the Libs finally shucking their long-worn cloak of carping negativity, but they may not have banked on the ease with which Labor has donned it.

This week, ALP frontbenchers have come out swinging on the Government’s ESL remission (which Labor abolished while in Government) and ongoing design flaws at the new Royal Adelaide Hospital (which they built).

The hypocrisy is breathtaking, of course – but, crucially, they don’t seem to care.

Shortly after the election, I mused that the new Opposition could hardly fall straight into a narrative of attacking the Government for anything that goes wrong, given most of it would be a legacy of Labor’s generation.

But through a combination of grim determination and sheer political chutzpah, they’ve indeed done just that!

“Our job as the Opposition is to hold this Government to account and make sure they deliver on the commitments they made,” Shadow Treasurer Stephen Mullighan declared yesterday when reporters pointed out that he was criticising the Libs over the extent of their rollback of the very tax Labor had levied on homeowners.

Maybe there’s a competition going on for the most breathtakingly hypocritical ‘Labor hot take’ of the week, for just hours later Opposition Health spokesman Chris Picton fired up about the temporary fencing going up around the new hospital’s ED.

“The Liberals’ only plan for our hospitals is to build a tall anti-media fence around the RAH emergency department to block scrutiny,” Picton railed, dubbing it “a monument to the fact the Marshall Liberal Government has no intention of treating patients faster and will do all it can to hide from media scrutiny”.

Dude – you guys built the RAH emergency department!

But the rhetorical shift is significant, and it appears to have caught the Government off-guard.

Far from the traditional plan of attack of ‘kill the head and the body will die’, Labor is instead nipping at the proverbial ankles – all-but-ignoring Steven Marshall, and concentrating its invective on his most vulnerable ministers.

But if the Government is trying to create some open space on the political agenda – to slow down the frenetic pace of public life – Labor is only too willing to step into the breach.

Many sympathetic observers appear to be celebrating the Government’s evident intent to end the 24-hour news cycle. But in truth, it hasn’t ended.

It’s just being run by Labor instead. And for the Opposition to be setting the agenda after a mere two months of a Goverment still nominally on its honeymoon, the Liberals should be worried.

This week alone, Malinauskas and his acolytes have led the media cycle, with front-footed suggestions that the Libs should fast-track their payroll tax cuts, legislate to keep infamous pedophile Colin Charles Humphrys behind bars and issue a reward for information on the southern suburbs rock-throwers.

In essence, it didn’t really matter what the Government’s response to any of this was; what mattered was that it was forced to react to Labor’s agenda.

There was a scene in one of the old Asterix comics in which the Romans invaded Britain, only to be frustrated when the Brits stopped fighting at 5pm daily to take tea, and then disengaged again for the weekend.

Julius Caesar’s response?

Which is pretty much Labor’s strategy under Malinauskas. If the Government’s opted to vacate the field of battle, the Opposition is merely going in harder, and more often.

Hey, it worked for Caesar!

And all the while, we can expect more variations on Mullighan’s refrain, which appears to have become Labor’s internal mantra post-March: Our job as Opposition is to hold this Government to account and make sure they deliver on the commitments they made.

In other words, it’s not about us – it’s about them.

And that, as they say in Play School, is the end of the story.

Labor have now strategically drawn a line under their 16 years in Government; they’re now in Opposition, and adapting to it with cynical panache.

And while their best day in Opposition may never reach the heights of their worst in Government, on the evidence of the week just gone, they’re still going to have a few good days.

Relatively speaking.

Tom Richardson is a senior reporter at InDaily.

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