A theme has emerged in the week since the state Liberal AGM – a mantra repeated by both party insiders and business backers: “Steven Marshall? He’s our Malcolm Turnbull.”
Inasmuch as the comparison is intended to highlight the fact that both leaders are moderate small-L liberals whose incumbency is causing friction with their Right-wing ‘base’, it is perhaps unfair to the former Prime Minister – whose leadership was so often compromised by his willingness to cede moral and policy ground to a conservative agenda far from his own beliefs.
Marshall, indeed, has been somewhat less diplomatic.
He has stacked his cabinet with “wets” – and ensured the only genuine Right-winger has his hands too full with the daily dilemmas of public transport and infrastructure to cause much trouble.
This may insulate the Premier from factional fracas within cabinet, but it could also be insulating him from the political realities of the SA Liberal Party where, as of last week, his moderate powerbase is formally the minority faction.
The Right now clearly controls state council and has an overwhelming majority on the state executive.
That will give the conservatives clout in a forthcoming run of upper house preselections, which is likely to further bolster their numbers in both state and federal parliaments.
The rise of the Right in SA has been fuelled by recent Government decisions that have rankled with the rank and file, particularly in rural electorates. These include bowling up a carbon copy of the former Labor Government’s mining bill, pushing laws that give CFS officers the power to direct farmers when to harvest, hitting business investors with an expected land tax impost and an increasing perception that the Government is preoccupied with courting new tech upstarts at the expense of the old Adelaide moneymen and rural constituencies that have long looked forward to a Liberal government on North Terrace.
It’s not hard to find people in the party to decry moves such as these – indeed, four of Marshall’s own team have already crossed the floor to oppose the mining changes – but it’s likely there weren’t many voices of caution around the moderate-dominated cabinet table.
But while the current angst may be the fruit of the administration’s virtual continuation of the former Weatherill Government’s agenda (even the spate of privatisations, while controversial, is entirely consistent with the policy pursuits of the last Labor administration), the rise of the Right has been long and carefully planned.
The current moderate hegemony has been largely masterminded by the outgoing federal powerbroker Christopher Pyne, whose drive and strategic nous has been among the biggest influences on the SA Liberal Left in recent decades.
But the seeds of what happened last weekend were sowed years ago, and have been patiently cultivated for years in a meticulous and strategic incursion by the conservative forces.
Their mission: to make the SA Liberal Party a truly conservative movement.
And, as of last weekend, they’ve gone a long way to achieving that goal.
…some weird state political version of those hipster wannabes that put on the ill-fated Fyre Festival – a bunch of kids with more self-belief than experience trying to manage a project that appears beyond them
While the impatient and impulsive Cory Bernardi became the public face of the party’s Right wing, a younger generation ensured a spate of key preselections in vulnerable seats.
A telling moment came in 2017, when the faction helped shoot down a concerted preselection challenge to prominent moderate John Gardner by one of its own, Right-winger Simon Le Poidevin. The ‘new conservatives’ didn’t want to rock the boat or spark brutal reprisals from the moderates.
After all, it’s harder to kill your opponent when they’re fighting back.
Marshall’s response to the latest in a spate of displays of dissatisfaction with his Government from those it purports to represent will be telling – and could be premiership-defining.
It’s unlikely the policy course will be changed, despite the Government being on the losing side of three of four policy debates at the AGM.
But less than two years into his administration, already the case for new blood in the cabinet is becoming compelling.
The moderate-dominated lineup is clearly out of step with the makeup of both the parliamentary party and the broader rank and file.
That not merely makes the Government look out of touch but insulates its decision-makers from the voices of dissent necessary to forge a genuine consensus.
Moreover, it could hardly be convincingly argued that the current lineup represents the cream of the state Liberal crop.
Indeed, there’s a sense from the no-longer-new Government that merely navigating the administrative realities of the bureaucracy is proving a daunting task, let alone pursuing a broader coherent agenda.
The administration should be wary not to wind up as some weird state political version of those hipster wannabes that put on the ill-fated Fyre Festival – a bunch of kids with more brazen and ill-founded self-belief than experience trying to manage a project that appears beyond them.
The promotion of some new – even dissenting – voices would at least help bridge the obvious divide between the Government and the party it represents.
It could also foster some genuine debate and creative tension, which could prove conducive to positive policy formulation.
On top of which, it would rekindle an evidently-necessary sense of urgency within the Government, sending a message to both its incumbents and aspirants that the ministry isn’t simply a place to while away four years on top dollar.
Or, of course, the Premier could simply do nothing.
But that option now would be akin to fiddling while Rome burns.
For the factional fire has been lit – and the long history of the SA Liberal Party should tell us that rarely ends happily.
Tom Richardson is a senior reporter at InDaily.
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