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Richardson: Marshall's hundred days of sod-all?

Opinion

It’s been an unremarkable start for the Marshall administration, which avowedly intends to be an unremarkable government.

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Whether you consider that a pejorative or not probably depends on whether you preferred the previous government’s frenetic style of political Attention Deficit Disorder or the new Premier’s stated philosophy of “radical incrementalism”, a phrase that on the face of it doesn’t really mean anything and rather just suggests snail’s paced reform, albeit with the word ‘radical’ chucked in front of it to make it saleable.

If that sounds like political jargon in the fashion of Tony Blair – an early pioneer of chucking words like ‘new’ and ‘radical’ in front of assuredly old and non-radical things to make them sound more exciting than they really are – it’s perhaps because the phrase was popularised by a British psychologist and civil servant named David Halpern, a one-time adviser in the former (New) Labour PM’s strategy unit.

He’s since hung around as part of the Tory Government’s Behavioural Insight Team – colloquially known as the ‘Nudge Unit’, a template for similar endeavours in other administrations, including Malcolm Turnbull’s.

Sure, the nomenclature may be reminiscent of the sponging neighbour from Hey Dad, but the notion behind it is far removed from the social welfare model favoured by the Aussie sitcom, and probably more in line with Monty Python’s famous sketch:

In short, it’s insinuating something.

Essentially, the brief is to help change social behaviour by suggestion rather than regulation.

As Halpern writes in his book on the Nudge Unit’s operations: “A nudge is essentially a means of encouraging or guiding behaviour, but without mandating or instructing and ideally without the need for heavy financial incentives or sanctions.”

“In everyday life it’s a gentle hint; a suggestion,” he says, which “stands in marked contrast to an obligation, a strict requirement or the use of force.”

It’s easy to see why the theory appeals to nominal liberals who ideologically abhor regulation: it’s essentially a less overt form of regulation, a gentle prod towards adhering to societal obligations.

Although adopting the terminology of politics as behavioural psychology is perhaps incongruous with Marshall telling The Advertiser last week that “we want more civil engineers and less social engineers”.

We should probably, incidentally, invest in more teachers too, given the new Premier evidently doesn’t understand the difference between “less” and “fewer”.

But the problem is that South Australia is well-versed in incrementalism: it’s been a leader in the field for generations.

Whether it’s a big, complex thing like a uranium mine expansion or a small, simple thing like developing prime North Adelaide real estate, the brief is invariably the same: mull it over for 30 years without ever actually doing anything.

Much of the dissatisfaction that was voiced against much of Labor’s agenda – particularly in its last four years – was driven by the realisation that despite all the ambitious ideas and ‘bold’ visions, very little had in fact changed. Indeed, until the infamous 2016 statewide blackout – a symbol of the flawed infrastructure system Labor had pledged to fix way back before it first formed government in 2002 – the Weatherill administration appeared to be fossicking around for an agenda to salvage from a largely wasted term, having abandoned the centrepiece push for a nuclear waste dump after spending millions of dollars laying the groundwork.

That nadir, ironically, gave Labor newfound purpose in Government, as Weatherill et al spent the next year or so making a political virtue of their own longstanding negligence on energy security, and doubling down on themes that resonated with their base and their brand: renewables, disruptive technology and new innovation.

Whatever you made of it, it was Labor’s ability to adapt to changing circumstances and reinvent its own agenda in government that helped it actually gain a two-party swing towards it at the March election, after the Libs had failed to win power with a 53 per cent statewide vote in 2014.

Marshall’s own agenda, as others have noted, involves far fewer bells and whistles. It appears, purely and simply, no more lofty an ambition than to deliver on what was pledged pre-election.

Which is fine, as long as the implementation of what was pledged pre-election is going to be enough to convince voters to re-elect him.

The reinstatement of (a portion of) the Emergency Services Levy remission, for instance, was always a popular political gambit and will undoubtedly save homeowners money. But given all it does is return the average levy to a rate still higher than it was when the remission was scrapped in 2014 – which, if you care to recall, wasn’t exactly a high watermark year as far as state confidence was concerned – it’s probably not going to be the panacea for all our ills.

Likewise shop trading deregulation, which seems unlikely to pass through parliament in any case – prompting a Government response akin to a standover tactic, with the Libs ordering an audit designed to catch out non-compliant independent retailers flouting the existing laws and threatening to “police” them more aggressively should the reforms fail to pass.

This week will mark the symbolically significant (but practically pointless) 100-day milestone for the first Liberal Government in a generation, so it’s apt to reflect on how far they – and we – have come. And more importantly, where they are going.

For the new administration, it’s been a period of ticking off a series of readily-achievable dot-points (except introducing the shop trading legislation, which will be about a week late) in a bid to sell the notion that the state is in safe, if unremarkable, hands.

But are we any clearer about where they’re headed thereafter?

Sure, we can read their pre-election policy agenda – or their generic mission statement that was the oft-lampooned 2036 values document – but what does it tell us about the kind of state they want SA to be?

There has been much grumbling from the fourth estate about the Marshall administration’s stultifying pace, most of which is probably not echoed by the public at large. In general, the media’s mood is probably summed up by that old Late Show sketch in which socialist troubadour Billy Bragg lamented the political demise of Margaret Thatcher – because the ardent critic of her government had lost his long-time muse.

The relationship with the broader media is probably not helped by the Government’s predictably unsubtle approach to media management, which seems to involve nothing more elaborate than using the only newsroom in the state that charges for content, News Corp’s Advertiser, as a sort of community noticeboard.

But the quibbles of the fourth estate don’t really register for the public at large which, after the extraordinary build-up to the March poll, is probably happy to see the pace of political life slacken.

The question is whether Marshall’s notion of ‘radical incrementalism’ – of snail’s paced reform dressed up with a saleable slogan – is likely to win broad approval in a state desperate to see its fortunes change.

The rhetoric implies evolution rather than revolution, and the laconic pace of change within the new administration’s own ranks – with key appointments being held up indefinitely – underlines that notion.

Yet political cycles are no friend of incremental change.

And the electorate, while tired of politicking and ‘big picture’ promises that go nowhere, nonetheless wants a government that can articulate our place in the nation and the world – what modern South Australia represents, how it sees itself, how it sells itself.

An identity.

This was something Weatherill generally articulated well, although he rarely turned it into something tangible.

And Marshall’s first 100 days – however they measure that deadline – has seen something akin to the death of political salesmanship.

By which I don’t mean ‘spin’ – there’s still plenty of that. But of the ability to articulate a policy agenda within a broader set of ambitions.

It’s possible the electorate will be patient with Marshall’s stated aim of minimal reform – of doing everything better, rather than one thing well. But only if the benefits of this stated approach are properly and thoroughly explained, and properly and thoroughly appreciated.

Because the downside could be four years of tinkering around the edges of change, with little to show for it.

It’s been 16 years since a change of government in SA: if there was ever a time for radicalism, it’s now. But incrementalism? We’ve been doing it for decades.

It may be time for something stronger than a nudge.

Tom Richardson is a senior reporter at InDaily.

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