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Richardson: Marshall sways between statesmanship and scandal

Opinion

Scandal, missteps and oddly-timed leaks have taken the shine off Steven Marshall’s generally statesmanlike start to 2020. But, as Tom Richardson writes, there may be a political consolation from the Premier’s recent woes.

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Remember Jo Moore?

Probably not, but she’s one of those minor figures in political folklore who’s forever doomed to be known for that one particular action or event.

In her case, the then-adviser to then-British PM Tony Blair sent a missive to her fellow spin doctors shortly after the Twin Towers went down on September 11, 2001, urging them not to neglect the news cycle because it was “a very good day to get out anything we want to bury”.

Which obviously didn’t go down too well when it was leaked a few weeks later.

But needless to say, political strategists of all stripe understand the “take out the trash” principle: the practice of dumping bad news at the most propitious time to ensure it quickly disappears.

A corollary of that principle, however, is that it’s often hard to pick a propitious time.

Or as one party hack once privately put it: if you’re going to take out the trash, you’d better make sure the garbageman hasn’t gone on holiday.

As the SA Libs’ recent local difficulty demonstrated.

Revelations of backbencher Sam Duluk’s behaviour at a mid-December parliament Christmas party have rightly prompted swift action, with the Opposition and many more besides demanding an even stronger response.

SA Best’s Connie Bonaros — allegedly manhandled by the MP, who says he is seeking counselling over his use of alcohol — told reporters after inquiries she had “no idea who released these details to the media” and “had not intended to discuss this matter openly at this stage but because it has now been made public feel I must respond”.

The primary issue here, of course, is Bonaros’s — and any women MPs and staffers’ — right to a workplace free of boorish behaviour that, as Duluk himself conceded, was “unacceptable on any view”.

Bonaros, who left open her legal options, has not spoken on the matter since, while further revelations helped amplify the inevitable political fallout — creating an unpleasant diversion for a Liberal Government trying to kick off 2020 with the traditional resolution: ‘New Year, New Me’.

Steven Marshall began the year displaying a natural statesmanship, initially hitting every right note that his federal counterpart Scott Morrison had missed in his response to the bushfire outbreak.

I’ve never much cared for the low-hanging fruit of criticising politicians for taking annual leave, and Morrison’s much-lambasted Hawaiian jaunt probably made next to no practical difference to the Commonwealth Government’s response, or lack thereof.

But regardless, the backlash was entirely predictable and understandable, so his decision to skip the country at a time of national crisis showed, at the very least, incredibly poor political judgement.

Not so Marshall.

Without making a song and dance of it, he eschewed a long-planned family holiday to New Zealand to remain on the ground, overseeing the state response and meeting those affected – without ostentatiously putting himself front and centre of the media coverage.

(His efforts were somewhat undermined by his more ham-fisted handling of a routine trade mission this week – prompting an odd apology on ABC Radio “if people have had any confusion” about the trip.)

On the face of it though, the fact that every media outing last week ended with an addendum of questions about the latest in the Duluk debacle was fairly unhelpful for a Premier trying to appear Premier-like.

But the timing of the whole thing was peculiar. The Duluk controversy was initially broken by The Advertiser early in the new year, but had been floating around for some days beforehand.

Indeed, Bonaros noted she had been approached by two other media outlets before News Corp came calling.

The first of those approaches came in late December.

It doesn’t take a Jo Moore to surmise that if you want to publicise something that will inflict severe political damage, the week between Christmas and New Year seems an odd time to do it — particularly with the ongoing bushfire crisis still dominating the news cycle.

In fact, generally that’s generally – as she famously said herself — a very good time to get out anything you want to bury.

Now, I’m not concerned with whoever leaked the story to the various media – it’s a story in the public interest which deserved (and deserves) scrutiny.

But if it was intended as a political hit, it was a bit half-baked — and might have been dealt with much more quickly but for the Liberal Party’s handling of the matter, which seemed to give it ever more oxygen.

First came Marshall’s admission that he knew about the allegations of Duluk’s behaviour from the time it occurred.

Then there was a string of PR failings hinging on something that has become a recurring theme for many members of his Government – an apparent inability to use a telephone.

Vincent Tarzia, for instance – who as Speaker had initial carriage of the investigation into the incident — is evidently a man of few words, and he prefers to deliver them in written form.

His rigid adherence to a bare bones statement he released to media last week allowed Labor to spend a full day declaring that there must be an independent inquiry, which was probably Tarzia’s intent all along in any case.

Then, his subsequent refusal to provide any insight into where things are at with this much-touted inquiry again gave the Opposition opportunity to fill the void, publicly pondering why it was all taking so long.

Which, to be fair, was a pretty good question.

But while it’s proved to be an early problem for a Government seeking to rediscover the spring in its political step, the fact that Duluk has now been hobbled and politically sidelined for the foreseeable future is, in itself, no disaster for Marshall.

Duluk was regularly in the conversation about cabinet promotion if and when a reshuffle occurred.

Indeed, he was at the top of the queue, by dint of being among the most prominent and longest-serving parliamentarians from the Liberal Right.

After wresting control of the state executive at last year’s AGM, the Right faction has strengthened its claim to bolstering its ministerial numbers – though with presently only one (Stephan Knoll) out of 14 cabinet roles, it’s fair to say the only way was up.

Of the faction’s likely elevations, Duluk was the only one to have served a previous term.

In effect then, the Right’s primary case in agitating for a reshuffle was, in fact, to promote Duluk — the only member of parliament who could claim both the factional clout and length of tenure to demand elevation.

Now that elevation is very clearly off the agenda, the pressure on Marshall to rejig his frontbench has dramatically dissipated.

While other Right-wingers such as Dan Cregan and Stephen Patterson may make some claim, after two years in parliament they’re hardly banging down the cabinet door.

Beyond his odd gambit to snatch Tourism from David Ridgway, Marshall now has little obligation to fast-track any reshuffle unless he chooses to, and thus far he’s shown little inclination.

So, despite the Liberal brand taking a hit, this particularly ugly and unfortunate episode has probably strengthened Marshall’s party-room hand — and, with the Right lately on the warpath, that will be some sort of consolation for the Premier’s fellow moderate travellers (while offering none, of course, to Bonaros).

In the news cycle, the first week of January is generally considered a very good time to get out something you want to bury.

As it turned out, it wasn’t so much the story that was buried — but Duluk’s ministerial aspirations.

Tom Richardson is a senior reporter at InDaily.

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