A “SUPER SATURDAY” of by-elections in safe seats — to regenerate the moribund party’s talent stocks — is an idea that should be seized if the South Australian Liberals are to break the run of four consecutive state election defeats; former leader Iain Evans’ lead this week should encourage others, beginning with factional foe Vicky Chapman, to follow suit. Yet for the exercise to have value, it must amount to more than a rearrangement of deck chairs.
For once will say something relatively favourable about treacherous dog and Liberal turncoat Martin Hamilton-Smith: his defection the to ALP last week opens a safe conservative seat through which the Liberal Party can inject fresh talent into its ranks without worrying about who it offends; Hamilton-Smith’s true value to the Liberal Party has been clarified once and for all, and the political whore and traitor deserves no quarter from the party he shunned as it gets on — like a jilted lover — with the rest of its life.
Regrettably, after four straight state election defeats there are others in the Liberals’ ranks who, whilst by no means deserving of the contempt Hamilton-Smith has earned, have also reached the end of their useful political lives, and the idea that has been publicly canvassed of a “Super Saturday” in some of the party’s safest seats is one I actively support.
At the outset, I must say that I am mindful of the likely argument of critics that the cost of a slew of by-elections is a cost that should not be inflicted on South Australian taxpayers, and ordinarily I would agree.
In this case I make an exception, and the primary reason for doing so has nothing to do with political expediency.
To put it bluntly, the so-called fair boundaries in South Australia that are drawn up after every election can only be viewed as sanctioned pro-ALP gerrymandering; of the seven state elections since (and including) 1989 Labor has won a majority of the statewide two-party vote once, yet won five of those seven elections.
At the most recent election on 16 March, the Liberal Party took 53% of the statewide vote and still lost.
As far as I am concerned, “the system” in South Australia is rigged against the Liberal Party, and the March election was the final proof (were any required) that the party is forced to operate with one hand tied behind its back on account of an electoral rort masquerading under the banner of “fairness.”
(The proliferation of highly marginal Labor electorates, seemingly and increasingly immune to successive additional statewide movement toward the Liberal Party in spite of these redistributions, is further evidence again).
And if “the system” is designed to optimise the prospect of consigning the Liberals to permanent opposition, then I have no problem with the Liberals operating under the cover of darkness to freshen up their parliamentary team. Labor can scarcely bleat about such an exercise: after all, it was the architect of this blatant sham in the first place.
So let’s not have any talk about hypocrisy from the ALP.
If anything, the moral imperative for the Liberal Party to do whatever it can to gain the advantage required to get into office has been strengthened even further by so-called “Independent” Geoff Brock’s decision to reinstall Labor in office despite empty rhetoric about taking the election result into account.
Hamilton-Smith, on the other hand, simply reduces by one the number of old hands the party needs to move on.
There’s a precedent for a “Super Saturday:” three by-elections one weekend in 1992 in safe Liberal seats that brought former Tonkin government ministers John Olsen, Dean Brown and Jennifer Cashmore back into the Parliament to contest a leadership ballot; the thumping win the party scored in 1993 under the eventual leadership of Brown vindicated the party’s actions. It is obvious that something similarly radical is required now.
Two terms in office under three Premiers, between 1993 and 2002, has been followed by more than a decade of political infighting and torpor.
Entrenched factionalism, personal rivalries, the culture of local fiefdoms and a get-square mentality toward internal opponents weren’t even masked by the huge 1993 election win: Brown and Olsen were old enemies long before they returned to North Terrace, and the replacement of one with the other saw the party run perilously close to losing after just one term in government.
In their absence — and after final Liberal Premier Rob Kerin lost office in 2002 — these cultures have flourished.
How often, in the years since, have South Australians observed the ritual search for a “fresh start” by state Liberals? How often have bitter internal foes publicly promised to bury the hatchet (so to speak) only for one of them to attempt to plant the said implement in the back of another’s skull? And what value does the growing band of time-servers in state seats — who will never lead the party to an election win, or perhaps even cut ice as a Cabinet minister — deliver to the party?
Current leader Steven Marshall was installed as “a cleanskin” in an attempt to rid the image of the party of the stench these machinations had conferred on it over long years, and arguably decades. Yet the fact Marshall was a first-term MP with no experience of government speaks volumes about the depth of the problem the state Liberal Party is afflicted with.
Marshall will survive as leader — for now at least — on account of the fact there is literally nobody in the party’s ranks who can purport to have a claim on the role that carries greater validity than his does. Deputy leader Vickie Chapman would like it, of course, but Chapman is arguably a big part of the problem.
Like Evans, Chapman comes from an old Liberal tradition; two generations ago their respective fathers were bitter factional enemies. That conflict has lived on vicariously through their offspring, and Chapman is someone the SA Liberals could well do without.
Previous leader Isobel Redmond — like Marshall after her, elevated as “a cleanskin” — might well have led the Liberals to victory in 2010 were it not for Chapman, who simply couldn’t help herself, publicly refusing to rule out a leadership challenge after the election in the event of a Liberal win.
Nobody will ever know or be able to quantify the effect this unhelpful contribution to the 2010 campaign had.
It is safe to say, however, that it did nothing to dispel the image of a party filled with competing egos and squirming appetites incapable of putting its house in order irrespective of anything Redmond might have achieved. The fact Chapman remains in Parliament at all (in the aptly named electorate of Bragg) speaks volumes of the strength of the factional structures that probably insulate her from ever facing a successful preselection challenge.
If she can’t be blasted out, therefore, she should show some decency toward the Party — taking a dispassionate view of its stocks and its standing — and fall on her sword.
In fact, Hamilton-Smith in Waite, Redmond in Heysen, Evans in Davenport, and Chapman in Bragg — along with others such as Michael Pengilly in Finniss and Duncan McFettridge in Morphett — all occupy safe Liberal electorates, and the case can be made that none realistically has a role to play in the next Liberal government in South Australia, whenever that might be.
Additionally, the seat of Fisher held by Independent Bob Such, who is on leave for treatment of a brain tumour — otherwise a safe Liberal electorate — is (as unkind as the reality is) likely to be vacant in 2018, if not sooner; and the imperative to find a credible candidate to drive the robustly populist and pro-Labor Brock out of Frome has assumed new and driving urgency as a result of his recent actions in propping up Labor in office.
There’s eight seats the Liberals should be focused on installing its next generation of ministers and leaders into, and at least five (there could be as many as seven) that can and should feature in a “Super Saturday” exercise the party can pull on of its own accord.
With the Liberal Party now back in government in Canberra, the party at a state level should have less trouble attracting talent to its ranks; this has been offered up as an excuse for the party’s woes in SA time and again. But the reality is that all state divisions of the party face the same issue, and notwithstanding this Liberal governments occupy the Treasury benches in Victoria, NSW, Queensland, Tasmania, WA and the Northern Territory.
In other words, the “brain drain” is a red herring, and amounts to little more than a justification.
Until it wins an election, the Liberals can do nothing about the rigged electoral boundaries that bedevil them; it goes without saying that once in office the state’s electoral commission should be either abolished or subjected to a root and branch cleanout, and replaced with a structure that formulates boundaries that give practical effect to the principles of one vote, one value rather than paying mere lipservice to them.
But the issue of personnel is the other great problem the SA Libs face, and whilst it can do nothing about one from opposition, it can certainly resolve the other.
In fact, an overhaul of its list of MPs may well help garner the extra votes required in rigged marginal electorates to bring enough of them into the Liberal fold to win office.
Perception is everything in politics, and for too long the perception of the SA Liberals — outside their most rusted-on supporters — has been inadequately constructive, to say the least, to win the 54% it seems is required to win anything of real consequence at all.
Fighting over the spoils of defeat and doing the same things the same way are pastimes the SA Liberal Party has spent too long engaging in. And for all of these reasons — and especially the circumstances the party cannot control that are so prejudicial to it — I think moving a raft of MPs into retirement is the game changer it probably needs.
In closing — wistfully, ruefully, but in one sense thankfully — the observation has to be made that some now surely regret not drafting former Foreign minister Alexander Downer into the party leadership to stand as Premier at the March election; I think he probably would have been the difference in pulling an additional seat or two into the Liberal column despite the rigged boundaries, and he would have made an excellent Premier of South Australia.
Had this happened, we probably wouldn’t be having this discussion now.
But had Downer ended up in the Premier’s office, the problem — a party room filled with ageing, time-serving MPs often too preoccupied with their petty fiefdoms and interests at the expense of the wider good — would remain unaddressed.
Indeed, dealing with it from government would pose a greater challenge than the one Marshall now faces.
And as much as I was supportive of the move to draft Downer (and said so in this column when the plan was first floated), the fact the idea was even raised at all was a symptom of just how bereft of real talent the South Australian party has become at the state level.
Cart out the deadwood, and roll on “Super Saturday.”
The alternative is another Labor win in 2018: a prospect seemingly unimaginable just a few months ago, but which now must be regarded as a 50-50 proposition at least — unless, of course, the Liberals grab the circuit breaker of regeneration with eager and willing hands.