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Opinion

This campaign will be defined by leadership

Opinion

A true leader stands up and takes responsibility for their decisions without hiding behind public servants, writes Mike Rann.

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Politics is more than a full-time job. Leaders and Ministers are out at functions most nights and weekends. My inbuilt alarm would remind me around 10.30pm that I must go home and get a decent night’s sleep for the next day’s early start.

Leaders are up before 6am to read emails, the papers and take calls from colleagues and media. Real leaders don’t go on holiday while bushfires rage and don’t go out partying all hours during a pandemic.

If you are a leader, you are on the front line. You “hold the hose” because it’s your privilege and duty to do so. You don’t stand behind public servants, no matter how good they are. You lead.

So, if you ever hear a politician whining about their “work-life balance”, remind them they’ve chosen the wrong job.

Leaders also have to listen. You often hear complaints that politicians don’t listen to the public. They do, but people speak with many voices and with countless different opinions.

When I was Opposition Leader we held “Labor Listens” meetings around the state. In town halls and at street corner meetings we asked people what they expected of us should we become the government. Some themes prevailed. We were told to stop the Liberals’ privatisations, focus on education as the key to opportunity and seriously invest in a better health system. South Australians also wanted us to create jobs and promote economic development. Health came up at every one of our 149 meetings.

Peter Malinauskas has focused on health almost every day of this campaign. That’s smart. It isn’t just about more beds, more nurses, more doctors, or dealing with the ambulance ramping crisis.  Labor is also presenting a “compare and contrast” showing different priorities. That’s what election campaigns are all about.

When I first met Peter, he was in his twenties. People were already talking about him as a future Premier. I was one of them. Peter has energy and is smart, decent and fit … to lead. He has experience as a Health, Police and Emergency Services Minister as well as four years as Opposition Leader.

Peter is a good listener and after canvassing varied opinions he makes decisions. He doesn’t pass the buck. He also leads a united team with an extraordinary number of outstanding women candidates, all of them bright and community-focused.

I have nothing against Steven Marshall personally. However, I believe he has listened too much to retiring Treasurer Rob Lucas and his former deputy Vickie Chapman. The political damage of not listening more to South Australians about their priorities was signalled in last weekend’s poor Newspoll results.

During this Covid pandemic, Marshall has stood behind or alongside Chief Public Health Officer Nicola Spurrier and Police Commissioner Grant Stevens. Marshall didn’t adopt the pandemic “Commander in Chief” approach of Premiers interstate. This suited SA Liberals. They could always argue when implementing much needed but unpopular decisions that they were following the best available medical advice and the plain-speaking recommendations of the Police. This benefitted the community and worked politically for the Marshall Government.

The problem is that the pressure of wanting to boost their standing before the election saw the government ignore the advice of Spurrier about the big opening up. That’s why all the health impact modelling hasn’t been released. This new, “political” approach to Covid management was disastrous for business, because the steep spike in Omicron cases convinced people to stay at home rather than go out and spend. Far worse, we saw the needless deaths of so many elderly people in nursing homes who weren’t given their third, booster shots in time.

The Marshall government opened up without being fully prepared. A big effort to protect the most vulnerable just didn’t happen. If you don’t believe me, talk to the nurses, rest home workers and ambulance drivers.

When the government decided to get political on Covid rather than follow the best advice, they made the wrong calls and people died. That is why the Liberals own polling shows their Covid management credentials slipping away. South Australians know who made the calls, and why.

The problem is that the pressure of wanting to boost their standing before the election saw the government ignore the advice of Spurrier about the big opening up.

Labor is right to concentrate on health. It hurt the government in the first weeks of the campaign and put the Liberals on the back foot. It forced them to change strategy and respond rather than continue with their planned economic announcements. They are also vulnerable on the economy given the massive rise in state debt on the Liberals’ watch, both before and after Covid.

Ultimately, “leadership” will define this campaign. It will be about whose values and priorities most reflect those of South Australians and who is best equipped to make the right decisions. To lead.

And to those who always sneer at elections, take a look at what is happening in Ukraine. Democracy is precious. So is real leadership.

Mike Rann was Labor Premier of South Australia from 2002 to 2011. He is the CEO of Rann Strategy Group, Visiting Professor at the Policy Institute of King’s College London and a former High Commissioner to the UK and Ambassador to Italy.

Mike Rann’s election commentary will be published in InDaily every Friday of the campaign, alongside a weekly contribution from Liberal veteran Amanda Vanstone. Read her contribution here.

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