A cynic’s guide to the change in government with Gael the galah
When The Liberal Party grasped power in South Australia, pundits heralded the change in Government as a new world order. But in SA, even as letterheads change, public servants duck for cover, and new Ministers wield their authority, some things will always stay the same.
As Steven Marshall walked into the Hackney Hotel on Adelaide’s east side to greet the pulsing crowd of excited supporters, The Man by The Killers played over the sound system. No one, apparently, had stopped to explain to the event organiser that the song was an ironic piss-take on being young and full of yourself.
Or maybe they had, but no one really gave a damn because the night of March 17, 2018 belonged to the South Australian Liberal Party. After 16 years in the political wilderness, it was their man – Steven Marshall – who would soon be crowned the 46th Premier of South Australia.
All indications signalled good news for the Liberals. The party which had lost a sure-thing last time around had decisively won the unwinnable election. In the seat of Hartley, Nick Xenophon – Australia’s most successful populist to date – had been slayed by Vincent Tarzia, a formerly no-name candidate. Labor, meanwhile, had fought hard, but it wasn’t enough. The seat of power had fallen to the Liberal Party.
“Thank you very much,” Premier Steven Marshall says as he takes to the podium to address those he calls the “blue army”. Like any good leader, he thanks the volunteers and he thanks party elders like John Howard, Julie Bishop, and John Olsen for their help. Most of all he thanks the young people in the room who had come of age never knowing a Liberal State Government.
Now they were about to.
As he closes out his speech, Steven saves his final thanks for the people of South Australia.
“We had specifically asked them to give us a majority government, because we know a majority government will be able to drive the reform agenda we desperately need here in South Australia,” Steven says. “I give you my guarantee that I and every single person in the team will be working diligently every day over the next four years so we can build a brighter future for South Australia, a better future for South Australia.”
Over the next few days the story of the 2018 state election was one of heroic triumph, but when the hangovers lifted and the numbers stabilised, it turned out the Liberals had not done as well as claimed. According to ABC’s Antony Green, the SA Liberals had taken government with a swing of 1.1 per cent against it and a 37.97 per cent share of first preference votes. Labor, meanwhile, logged 32.79 per cent, leaving about 29.24 per cent of South Australians voting for someone else.
The general feeling around town was that we were entering a brave new era. Daniel Wills, writing for The Advertiser, described the victory as a sweeping away of the old order: Labor, Jay Weatherill, and Nick Xenophon represented the forces of “old Adelaide”, he said.
Problem was, it had been so long since a change in government that no one really had any idea what that might look like. South Australians had 16 years to gather data on how the former Labor Government did business. But, the best they had to assess their new leaders was the centrepiece of The Liberal Party’s election bid – a website laying out what the party promised to do in the first 100 days of government.
Entitled “Strong Plan for Real Change”, the document emphasised the twin themes of “strength” and “authenticity”. Over the first month of the Marshall Government, it was largely followed to the letter. While the amount of items on the list were ambitious, the actual content itself was not radical. The various Liberal branches around the country had learned from the Tony Abbott era that it was unwise to push too hard, too quickly. Instead it was better to make small, uncontroversial, and even boring reforms that could be defended in isolation and which – over time – added up to a changed world.
All the focus in those first 100 days would be on two central policies – a promise to deregulate shop trading hours, allowing retailers to open whenever they pleased, and another to reduce payroll tax. Getting both across the line would be made easier by the ascendency of Peter Malinauskas to the Labor Party leadership. Among Labor circles, the former head of the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association has long been recognised as the anointed successor of Jay Weatherill and once confirmed, Peter was keen to strike a conciliatory tone. Among his first announcements as Opposition Leader were a promise to support payroll tax reductions and a willingness to negotiate on shop trading hours on Sundays.
What effect these reforms may have on the South Australian economy remains to be seen. John Spoehr, director of the Australian Industrial Transformation Institute at Flinders University said the repercussions would be “limited” in comparison to other potential changes.
“State Government investment in infrastructure has been around $2 billion per annum over the last few years,” John says. “The new government has indicated it will not reverse past decisions on infrastructure but it is not clear how much it is prepared to invest over the next four years. There is a high risk that unemployment will rise if the spend is not maintained at around $2 billion per annum over the next few years.”
“We will have a better idea of what to expect from the new Government after it releases its first State Budget and after it has made key appointments into senior roles including establishment of the new Economic Advisory Council and SA Productivity Commission.”
Democracy may have replaced the executioners axe with a polite letter cancelling someone’s security pass…
but the general principle has remained the same.
The rest of the new government’s agenda is a sort of mish-mash of policy items that tinker around the edges or make mostly symbolic points.
On energy, the new Liberal Government said it welcomed the investment of Sanjeev Gupta and Elon Musk that occurred under their predecessors, but promised during its campaign to get rid of South Australia’s renewable energy target. Old Labor loyalists speculated the new government might go so far as to try and kill the “big battery” Elon Musk had built out near Jamestown in association with the State Government. As it turned out, that contract and others signed in the dying days of the Weatherill dynasty had gone too far to be unwound. On the battery specifically, Danny Price, chief economist at Frontier Economics and author of the previous Government’s energy plan, dismissed the conspiracy theories on the basis that pragmatism would ultimately win out.
“[The battery with Neoen] works well for both parties,” Danny says. “I think it is too early to say anything about the other aspects of what the Libs will do as they haven’t had time to get their heads around the godforsaken mess that the Feds have created. I think they need a bit of time to figure it out.”
And on the repeal of the renewable energy target, Danny says there’s no real-terms loss. The target had always been more an aspirational than practical mechanism driving the growth of the sector in South Australia. . A bigger blow instead came when Steven Marshall confirmed he would not adopt Labor’s proposal to build a virtual power plant through a joint venture with Musk simply telling the media that, “it’s not part of our agenda”.
That project had promised to install 50,000 solar panels and battery systems on housing trust homes across the state and would have required no government money other than the initial set-up cost. The Liberal plan instead offers up a $2,500 means-tested subsidy to install batteries in 40,000 SA homes with existing solar systems over the next four years. Through this policy swap, those on lower-incomes lost out in favour to the middle class who could already afford solar systems to help lower energy costs. To justify the decision, Steven cited the Finkel Report, even though Recommendation 6.6 of that report called for government subsidies to help install solar and battery systems on low-income homes that couldn’t otherwise afford them.
Other promises were something of a mixed bag. During the campaign the Libs promised $9 million in funding to provide more crisis housing for women fleeing domestic violence and a Royalties to Regions program modelled on Western Australia, which would redirect a portion of the state’s mining wealth to country communities. Both were welcome decisions, but in almost the same breath Steven also promised to expand shoot-to-kill powers of police in the event of a terrorist attack, allow the use of drug sniffer dogs in public schools, and increase the penalty for cannabis possession from $500 to $2,000.
All of the latter raised questions. How many terrorist attacks had the city of Adelaide lived through, exactly? Sniffer dogs were going to be mandatory for public schools while private schools would be able to opt-in. Could anyone honestly say they would? And for a state like South Australia which treats the possession of cannabis more like a parking fine than a murder, talk of cracking down at a time when Canada, Uruguay, Portugal, and the US state of Colorado have all gone in the opposite direction seemed cynically designed to appeal to those who were old and afraid.
This, however, was the realpolitik of South Australia. While on the campaign trail and once in office, Steven Marshall had repeatedly told news crews that the primary goal of his Liberal Party would be to “restore state pride” and stop the flow of young people leaving for interstate. Yet he had gone to the election gambling on the idea that a war on drugs waged on “all fronts”, particularly in schools and among young people, was the best bet.
In one sense Steven’s rhetoric served as the first real acknowledgement from a state leader that South Australia had legitimate troubles and wasn’t just experiencing a sanitised “transition”. As a crossroads town on the southern half of the Australian continent, Adelaide is geographically isolated with a manufacturing base in long-term decline. With the closure of Holden, that decline is threatening to speed up, as anyone who didn’t work in the factories likely made their money off someone who did.
The ongoing downturn has consequences, and though it was a federal decision – it left South Australia with no good options. Whenever a city or region begins to deindustrialise, one of the effects is population decline. In April, Australian Bureau of Statistics figures showed South Australia’s population growth would have fallen into the negative were it not for new migrants. An aging, stagnant population means the most consistent voting bloc in SA is the growing ranks of elderly voters. As much as Steven Marshall likes to talk about the kids, in practical terms, on any issue that threw the interests of young and old into conflict, he inevitably sides with their grandparents.
“Hopefully everyone wins, apart from the Labor Government and Xenophon, but we shouldn’t look at it as binary, who wins or loses,” says BusinessSA’s executive director Anthony Penney.
“The Government is elected by the people or for the people to create an environment where people can safely live, have reasonable access to services such as water, healthcare and have a future for their family and their kids. That comes down to having a vibrant, financially sustainable business environment and community.”
If that sounds like smarm, it’s because it is. Around the time of the South Australian election, Business SA’s federal counterparts had been organising a $26 million fundraising campaign to fight the influence of GetUp and what they called “anti-business forces”. At the local level, Business SA had road tested the rhetoric under the promotional slogan “For the Common Good”. The basic theme of the campaign seemed to be that we should all move past our personal hang ups and peccadillos to discuss the issues. We all win, the message went, so long as a pro-business party wins.
It may have been a nice sentiment, but it’s irrelevant –politics is about the power to decide who gets what, when, and in what amount. Elections, by their nature, empower one group of people and disempower another. Someone always wins, and someone always loses.
In recent times, this has often played out geographically. Labor drew its leadership from the professional classes on Adelaide’s west side and its base largely hailed from the working-class communities that stretch around the northern metropolitan fringes. When the Liberal party rules, the merchant classes on the east and south side are in charge and in turn draw their support from a country base.
When a change like that heralded by the recent election comes, the state’s public servants tend to feel it first. For most of human history, politics has been less about being right or wrong in any given fight and more about making sure you were on the winning side. In times past, getting it wrong meant you’d most likely end up with your head mounted atop a pike outside the city gates.
Democracy may have replaced the executioners axe with a polite letter cancelling someone’s security pass and asking them to pack up their desk, but the general principle has remained the same. Few understand this as well as the public service, though no one working in the sector would talk on record for this story. Instead, the general sentiment around the time of the change in government was captured in an image published to the South Australian Public Sector Memes Facebook page over the Easter period:
And for many there was good reason to worry. When the Liberal Party was last in power back in the nineties, one of their first acts of government was to organise a Commission of Audit which inevitably called for public sector funding cuts.
In the time since, sixteen years of Labor Government hires politicised some areas of the public service. One example was the appointment of Dr Don Russell, a Labor party elder who had advised Paul Keating. When he was sacked by Tony Abbott’s Government in 2013, he was hired to head up the Department of Planning, Transport and Infrastructure in South Australia and so became a FIFO bureaucrat – living in Sydney and working in Adelaide.
When in Opposition, now-Treasurer Rob Lucas spent plenty of time attacking Labor over its tendency to hire for loyalty rather than skill. All the while, third party organisations like Business SA have long advocated for the size of the public service to be reduced.
“It’s not cutting heads for the sake of cutting heads. It’s what efficiencies can be delivered,” Anthony Penney says.
When the Premier sacked four senior public servants upon taking office, including Dr Russell, those inside and outside the public service interpreted it as a signal of the new Government’s intention to clean house. Treasurer Rob Lucas, however, was quick to downplay this interpretation, telling The City Standard that all decisions about hirings and firings were made by the Premier’s office and would be constrained by the amount of severance pay that would need to be doled out.
“It’s no secret that there has been a lot of concern about long-term public servants, that the former government politicised the public service to a certain degree,” Rob says.
“There’s been four chief executives who have not continued in their roles. That’s out of a very large number of public sector CEOs. That’s not a big spring clean.”
If Lucas’ language has moderated in office, there was good reason for it. Those Ministers that make up cabinet might call the shots, but it is the bureaucracy that carries out the orders. Alienating public servants with a scorched earth attitude to job security is the quickest way to stall a government’s agenda.
Nev Kitchin – the General Secretary of the Public Service Association – was quite happy to return the Treasurer’s play-nice approach, saying in a statement that his organisation is looking to establish “constructive working relationships” with the new Government.
In fact, what both sides could agree upon was the need for “merit based appointments” among the public service, though privately those working in the sector were cynical. They might talk a good game, but when it came down to it, many wondered whether the new Government would simply clean out the partisans of the old order to make way for their own.
“Ultimately, [politics] is not a game,” Kelly Vincent says after a particularly long day. “It’s not snakes and ladders. It’s an opportunity for influence and a rare opportunity to influence people’s lives. For people to talk about it like it’s a sort of game and this is what we’re here for, it doesn’t sit right with me.”
When Kelly Vincent was elected in 2010 to serve as a Member of the Legislative Council she was just 21-years-old old, making her the youngest member of the South Australian Parliament, the youngest woman elected to any Australian parliament and the first person to be elected with a disability. In her time, she had been an idealist with a critical, yet even-handed approach to dealing with the major parties. Whoever held government may write legislation, but ultimately it lived or died in the upper house with votes like Kelly’s.
As far as the 2018 election went, Kelly says it was one of the dirtiest she had seen. To shore-up their falling vote share, both major parties tweaked the electoral rules in ways that would disadvantage independents and minor parties. When it came time to negotiate over preferences, Kelly says her party found themselves locked out, especially on the Labor side. Meanwhile, the unexpected entry of Nick Xenophon into the state race vacuumed up most of the media attention.
The day after voting, the major parties would have both recorded their second worst results in South Australia since World War II while the vote share of the minor parties had increased to record levels, in line with the trend elsewhere in Australia. Still, it wasn’t enough to help Kelly keep her job. Her party had done well, but not well enough, and so South Australia lost the critical voice of a young woman in a Parliament particularly dominated by old men.
“This job is so much more than a job,” Kelly says. “It’s your life, your lifestyle. In some ways it defines you because your politics is about who you are as a person. To lose that is an enormous loss as a person. I do feel an awful anxiety.”
Asked what comes next, Kelly says she honestly does not know.
She is not the only one.
Frank Pangallo spent most of his career as a hard-nosed, foot-in-the-door investigative reporter for Channel Seven before resigning his commission to run with Nick Xenophon’s start-up political party. The leader may have fallen and the party may have struggled in the lower house (despite capturing at least 14 per cent of the vote), but SA Best still secured two seats in the upper house. The learning curve will be steep, Frank says, but at least he isn’t facing it alone. After almost two decades out of power, the only Liberal with any real experience is Rob Lucas. The rest are as unblooded as Frank.
“I think they’re also lost a bit,” Frank says. “They’ve been only looking at it [Government] through a window and now they’re inside, they’re discovering there’s a lot more to it. The thing with this Government, it’s going to take them at least a year or maybe two for them to settle in.”
“…in the closing scene he’s standing alone in a room by himself like a scared rabbit.” – MLC Mark Parnell
An early casualty of this inexperience was Corey Wingard. In mid-April, the rookie Police Minister committed a faux pas when he snubbed a community-safety forum organised by the police. In his panic to control the story and completely outflanked by his Labor counterpart, Wingard blurted out that STAR Group officers would be deployed to unruly teen parties in the southern suburbs, despite having no authority to make that call. When it finally became clear he had dug a hole too deep, the Premier was forced to step in to help him out.
Over the next weeks and months, more mistakes along those lines can be expected as the Government learns to adjust to a new level of scrutiny. That being so, Greens MLC Mark Parnell says he is willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.
“I would be surprised if Marshall comes out with a radical agenda that turns the past 15 years on its head,” Parnell says. “I won’t name the person, but I was discussing with one Liberal Minister and we were reminiscing about that film Robert Redford starred in called The Candidate. The whole thing is about this ruthless candidate Bill McKay who finally gets elected but in the closing scene he’s standing alone in a room by himself like a scared rabbit.”
“What’s on your mind, Senator?” asks Bill McKay’s campaigner manager when they get a moment alone, away from the howling press and the fawning supporters. For a brief moment, there is silence, but there is no time to respond before the roaring crowd finds the room and demands to be let in.
“Marvin,” McKay says with his hands in his pockets as his campaign manager cracks the door, “what do we do now?”
Marvin doesn’t answer because he doesn’t hear him. As the door opens, the crowd pours into the room to swamp their candidate and lead him away. Then the door closes and the room falls silent.
The lesson is that getting elected is one thing, but actually having to run the joint is another. Change may have come to South Australia, but then South Australia hasn’t changed. The same forces that were at work within the state under a Labor Government have not disappeared since the election. What’s different is that another group, with different priorities, are now in control. Theirs is a young government which has crammed most of its small-target, easily attainable election promises into a plan for the first 100 days in office. After that, things start getting vague and then there are only more questions.
For better or worse, Premier Steven Marshall is The Man.