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Richardson: Problems piling up for Marshall as parliament resumes

Opinion

An embattled rookie minister and contentious budget cuts will be in a the sights of a Labor Opposition buoyed by by-election success when parliament resumes tomorrow, writes Tom Richardson.

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I’ve heard it said that Valentine’s Day is the point at which we must officially stop wishing people a Happy New Year.

Personally, I subscribe to the notion that the year is no longer in its infancy when state parliament resumes.

For some reason, SA politicians like to spend all of January talking about legislating but the forum in which they can do so doesn’t actually open till the second week of February (and not till May in election years).

So you can be sure it’s time to stop wishing people a Happy New Year when the state’s MPs once again descend on North Tce to get on with the defining business of being an MP.

At any rate, it would be a redundant salutation for some of them, such as Environment and Water Minister David Speirs, for whom the year thus far has been anything but happy.

He’s been smashed by a royal commission over his handling of negotiations with the Commonwealth and upstream states, with Sydney silk Bret Walker declaring his “capitulation” so egregious that it was likely in breach of the ministerial code of conduct, and certainly “totally antipathetic to the interests of South Australia, and the SA environment”.

And this while his chief executive is busy cheerily informing Environment Department staff that they would be “transitioning to a new agency”, which would be, first and foremost, “an economic development agency” with “less [sic] staff and smaller budgets”.

Despite it all, Speirs has had a fairly soft media run of it in the media, which is presumably collectively still in ‘summer holiday’ mode (presumably because it’s not yet Valentine’s Day or the first sitting day of parliament).

He even got to run his own puff-piece in The Advertiser opinion section, which oddly enough didn’t reference the royal commission critique at all, but merely waxed lyrical about the “historic agreement” he struck (yep, the same one Walker declared “contrary to the interests of South Australians”) by “bringing all the states to the table and leading the development of a package that will lead to actual water being delivered back to the river, while ensuring regional communities are not ripped apart”.

So, in essence, Speirs’ response to the royal commission is along the same lines as that infamous refrain of Jay Weatherill’s: “I don’t accept the premise of your criticism.”

If you enjoyed his op-ed, you’ll want to tune in to the live stream of Question Time over the next few days, because you’ll probably be hearing more or less exactly the same phrases repeated ad nauseum when Speirs finds himself the target of the Opposition’s ire.

Labor will return to parliament tomorrow with newfound zeal after their entirely predictable but nonetheless timely by-election victories on the weekend.

Party renewal doesn’t come any easier than replacing an outgoing leadership duo in a pair of safe seats in which the governing party decides not to run, but strong swings to the ALP in both seats and the addition of fresh faces to the Opposition benches will inevitably put a spring in Labor’s proverbial step.

And the re-energised Opposition will be making Speirs a prime target when parliament resumes tomorrow.

At the very least, Labor will move for an Upper House inquiry that will flesh out the royal commission’s critique, as forecast by InDaily last week. With the Greens likely to support such a move – subject to its terms of reference – and SA Best confirming today that it will back the inquiry, that’s already a sure thing.

Beyond that, it’s highly likely Labor will be considering a motion of no confidence in the rookie minister, which will fail on Lower House numbers but nonetheless give the Opposition an unfettered forum in which to harangue him.

Speirs is a novice minister – first elected in 2014 and only promoted to the frontbench two years ago – and has never endured the sort of parliamentary attention he will cop this week.

For his government, it will be an unhelpful distraction – but only one of many that will dog its return to the Treasury benches.

The Libs finished last year on a relative high, courtesy of space bases, Sanjeev Gupta and a fair chunk of federal cash.

But, much like Gupta himself, the new year has brought an unwanted change in fortune – issues that have festered over the summer lull will be brought to a head on parliament’s resumption.

While there is little to worry the Libs in either by-election result, they’ll no doubt note how hard Labor ran on the issue of Service SA closures in the northern suburbs hub of Enfield.

Tomorrow, Florey independent Frances Bedford will table a 5000-signature petition objecting to the closure of the Modbury service centre – one of three targeted in the September budget, along with Prospect and Mitcham.

Oddly enough, these three service centres – among the state’s busiest – service areas that take in four of the Libs’ six most marginal setas – King, Adelaide, Newland and Elder.

And all while providing funds to build a new Service SA centre in the safe seat of Kavel.

As a political strategy, it’s certainly novel.

Bedford has also organised a protest on the steps of parliament – scheduled to start right after the Transport Workers Union rallies against a proposed new bus services contract and cuts to around 30 routes.

In other words, if there’s an issue the Government’s having trouble selling, it’s likely to get an airing this week.

Last month, I noted that decision-makers in the Marshall administration are eminently aware of the lessons of Victoria’s ill-fated Baillieu/Napthine governments, turfed from office after four years of relative inactivity.

The plan, no doubt, is to coast to the federal election before outlining an agenda that delivers a coherent vision for this term and beyond.

But the trouble with governing in a political vacuum is that it allows your opponents to set the political agenda – and for your own inevitable shortcomings to become your defining legacy.

As former British PM Harold Macmillan famously responded when asked what a politician feared most: “Events, dear boy, events!”

Whatever the Government had in mind for the first sitting week of 2019, it’s likely events have already got the better of them.

Tom Richardson is a senior reporter at InDaily.

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