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Richardson: SA’s new political realignment


It’s been a largely squandered second year in office for the Marshall Government, which will look to recalibrate ahead of a crucial election run-up. But, writes Tom Richardson, distinguishing itself from its predecessor – and its Opposition – is proving its biggest challenge.

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I have of late, but I know not why, become unaccountably nostalgic.

The time of year, perhaps – the beginning of that annual, gruelling cycle of social shindigs that inevitably prompts some reflection on events both recent and distant.

These days, those fleeting moments of nostalgia are turbo-charged by daily Facebook flashbacks – passing reminders of life’s little snapshots from years gone by.

I’ve been on Facebook since 2007, which I guess is thus my ‘Year Zero’ in terms of my virtual memory.

And my actual memory these days in pretty hazy, which means the political beat I covered in the early noughties increasingly feels like some absurd dream.

Was there really a Liberal rebel called Lewis who spoke of the pleasures of ducks in hollow logs and was thereafter elevated to Speaker for kickstarting 16 years of Labor rule?

Was there really a Treasurer called Kevin whose social life was as regular a part of the political news cycle as his budget strictures?

These days the state political status quo feels notably less febrile, and far more sanitised.

Many Liberal ministers, indeed, barely seem to venture into the media realm, such that normal, regular people who pay, at best, mere passing note of the second tier of government would probably only recall a handful of idiosyncrasies: the guy with the Scottish accent, for instance, or the big bald bloke who turns up for the opening of an envelope, or the bespectacled school-prefect-type they always wheel out when things go wrong.

Of course, personality quirks are not necessarily a selling point for good government, but it’s telling that this administration’s great virtue is that its standard bearers try to not merely avoid controversy, but eschew any publicity whatsoever.

Their political philosophy is that governments should get out of the way and allow business to do its thing.

Or, as they put it on this week’s weirdly-soft-launched ‘Growth State’ website, “the government’s role is to foster sector wide growth by establishing and maintaining a competitive business environment”.

The problem, of course, is that it’s a work in progress. They’ve sort-of managed to get out of the way, but the vastly improved economic metrics haven’t materialised.

Indeed, as we kick off this year’s gruelling cycle of social shindigs that inevitably prompts some reflection on the preceding months and years, it’s impossible not to note that this time last year the vibe around the Marshall Government was significantly more buoyant.

The Premier went into the Christmas season 12 months ago in the charmed glow of post-electoral success, and celebrating Sanjeev Gupta’s big Whyalla spending spree, the federal government’s announcement that the national space agency would be headquartered in Adelaide and a mysterious ‘City Deal’ for the site Formerly Known As The Old RAH.

I’ve been hearing about this City Deal ever since, and I still don’t quite get it: it sounds like a new name for a bunch of things the Government was already going to do, but with more buzzwords thrown in.

Moreover, the centrepiece space plan was, lest we forget, first placed on the agenda under the former government by Liberal defector Martin Hamilton-Smith, in another instance of a policy agenda being placed online before it was ready to be announced.

But if this time last year was, metaphorically, all champagne and caviar for Marshall, the last 12 months have been hard to swallow.

Politically, it’s been a write-off. A year of treading water, half of it spent in a shit-fight with the Liberals’ own constituency over a poorly-conceived and even-more-poorly-executed land tax revenue raiser that has now had more regenerations than Doctor Who.

While every subsequent compromise has been an improvement, if you spruik a thorough consultation on an unpopular policy, for which you receive and largely ignore almost 200 responses – only to then make major legislative changes in an eleventh-hour deal with just one of the almost-200 respondents – this is not a crash course in good governance.

Little wonder then that the Government would want to re-set, and reclaim a narrative of sorts – a platform on which it can launch a pitch for re-election.

The thing is, though, there is as yet little that distinguishes the incumbent administration from its predecessor, save for the odd flamboyant personality.

Engineering a tech hub at the Old RAH site and exploring the new frontier are entirely consistent with the Weatherill government’s agenda, as is inventing new sources of revenue and then retreating from them after a political backlash.

The truth is, the two major parties effectively share a policy consensus on matters economic and financial.

It is only on social policy that the parliament breaks into clear divisions – but here the party lines become redundant.

This month’s conscience vote on a sex work decriminalisation Bill championed by Greens MLC Tammy Franks was a telling case in point.

The Premier, who leads SA’s ostensibly conservative party, voted for the reform. Opposition Leader Peter Malinauskas, who leads the ostensibly left-progressive party, opposed it.

Of the Liberals who voted for decriminalisation, all were members of the moderate faction (which is not to say that all the members of the moderate faction voted that way).

Of the many Labor MPs who voted against, all were members of the Right.

Then there were the two MPs, one from each major party, who opted to pair each other out rather than actually vote (because, you know, who needs a democracy anyway, right?)

It’s all perhaps the clearest indication that the Right of the ALP and the Right of the Liberal Party have more in common on issues that still divide the parliament than they do with their own partisan colleagues, just as the Labor Left has more in common with the Liberal moderates.

Look, for instance, at the chummy banter between Labor Right loyalist Tom Koutsantonis and Liberal arch-conservative Stephan Knoll (that bespectacled school-prefect-type they always wheel out when things go wrong) on ABC Radio the morning before the vote.

“I think Stephan and I, over a number of years, probably agreed on a lot of things on these matters,” Koutsantonis ventured.

“Stephan and I share a lot of the same values, we just disagree on a number of policy issues.”

The fundamental one being who gets to be in government, presumably.

It does suggest though that the primary purveyor of the Left’s social agenda is now a weird coalition of Greens, the Labor Left and Liberal moderates, with a partnership of Liberal conservatives and the SDA-Right sitting across the chamber in defiance.

Moreover, the recriminations after every failed attempt reinforce the notion that the two major parties’ favourite shared pastime is bashing the Greens.

This political realignment creates a daunting proposition for the incumbent government, which desperately needs to recalibrate and rejuvenate its fortunes in the new year.

But it has thus far been unable to distinguish itself from its predecessor on economic policy, while Peter Malinauskas is clearly leading a socially conservative Opposition, and one that now believes it has a better-than-even chance of returning to power within a single term.

The irony for SA’s social progressives, who will be working to achieve that very aim, would be that a Marshall Government defeat in 2022 would almost certainly end the Liberal Party’s moderate hegemony in SA, and help entrench SA parliament’s conservative consensus.

Marshall and Malinauskas have both stated in the past that they weren’t in politics to push a social agenda.

But after a year of treading water, a social agenda might be the only thing Marshall can champion that will distinguish himself from the Government that preceded him, or the Labor Opposition that seeks to replace him.

Those pre-2007 memories of politicians past might seem like some strange dream these days, but they’re at least memorable.

The last 12 months for the State Government, on the other hand, have been entirely forgettable.

Tom Richardson is a senior reporter at InDaily.

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