SA Libs Show Why They Languish In Opposition

THE ISSUE — daylight saving — is innocuous, but the approach is fatuous, bloody-minded and downright childish: spearheaded by Vickie Chapman (a waste of a safe seat if ever there was), South Australia’s Liberals have scuttled a proposal to bring the state into line with Victoria, Tasmania and New South Wales. At great cost to business, an opportunity to partly untangle the annual daylight saving mess across Australia has been needlessly squandered.

For those who were wondering, I haven’t forgotten Her Majesty’s milestone; effective from yesterday, Queen Elizabeth II is now the longest-serving monarch in British history: and whilst I am delighted of course — God Save The Queen! — it isn’t an anniversary as such, and so on this occasion I opted to let it pass.

Heading into the weekend, we will have much to discuss, but for now I want to speak about what at first blush might seem a triviality, but which instead perfectly embodies the reasons South Australia’s Liberal Party thoroughly deserves the favouritism it already “enjoys” in betting markets to be consigned to a fifth consecutive term in opposition in that state.

There has been a “debate” (for want of a more suitable term) going on in South Australia for some time now over whether to keep its time zone settings as they are, move 30 minutes closer to the Western Standard Time that applies in Perth, or — most sensibly — abandon their time zone and align official time in South Australia with New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania by permanently moving SA clocks forward by 30 minutes.

The last of the three options (which would still feature daylight saving adjustments in summer) would go a little way toward unpicking the ungodly mess that Australia’s time zones constitute, particularly in the warmer months: whilst Western Australia will never share a time zone with the east coast on account of distance, the practical effect of a 30-minute movement in South Australia would be minimal, and would mean that during daylight saving four of the five easternmost states at least would operate on common time.

Those effects would be easily outweighed by benefits in productivity and efficiency in trade and communications between states and economic gains.

But as seems characteristic when discussing the South Australian Liberals, common time — just like common sense — does not appear to be a commodity in abundant supply, at all.

The final article in this column for 2014 examined the lot of the South Australian Liberals in great depth and with brutal honesty, and rigged the state’s electoral boundaries may be — which really is no excuse for failing to win last year’s state election with an abysmal campaign that nonetheless secured 53% of the two-party vote — nothing that has transpired since then is remotely suggestive that the SA Libs have gone anywhere but backwards.

And quickly.

Yesterday’s issue of The Australian carried an article detailing how a Weatherill government initiative to align South Australia with the south-eastern states was effectively scuttled by a Liberal Party threat to block the requisite legislation in the upper house; in and of itself, this mightn’t be such a crime.

But to go through some of the crap (there is no other way to put it) that the Liberals have offered up as their pretext is to recognise a party in need of a top-to-bottom cleanout that is a disgrace to conservative politics, and in what seems to be becoming an all too familiar refrain, one which is appallingly run, stands for virtually nothing, and is a clubhouse for a little junta of cronies when it should be advancing liberal and conservative values to the betterment of the hundreds of thousands of South Australians whose hopes and aspirations depend on it.

The party’s deputy leader, Vickie Chapman, produced what must rank among the most cringeworthy and contemptible political soundbites in Australian political history, claiming “there’s no demonstrable evidence to support (South Australia) becoming a western suburb of Sydney,” which to be entirely candid shows that there is, in fact, no demonstrable evidence to support the contention that Chapman isn’t completely brain dead.

What makes Chapman’s idiotic pronouncement worse is her follow-up claim that “there’s good reason to stay in sync with the Northern Territory and our northern trading partners.”

What reason?

Half the distance from Adelaide lies more than a hundred times as many people as there are in Darwin. Our northern trading partners? What pap. The flow of goods and services in and out of South Australia — to say nothing of tourists, actual trade, and at the risk of sounding old-fashioned, money — has far more to do with Melbourne and Sydney than it does with the north. Any South Australian government which implemented a literal interpretation of Chapman’s remarks would bankrupt the place (not that they’d have to try hard, admittedly).

The business community could see the economic benefits in the move, but this supposed party of the business community has characteristically chosen to kick sand in its face; much better to rattle on with stupid and wholly defective rationales for a stupid decision cooked up in some ghastly backroom hollow by useless spivs unworthy of the stipend they are paid.

And to say something nice about him, remarks from treacherous dog — now SA Trade minister — Martin Hamilton-Smith are not very far wide of the mark, noting the loss of job opportunities and trade benefits, and accusing the Liberals of living in the past and looking backwards.

(Just in case anyone thinks I’ve relented in my criticism of Hamilton-Smith, I still maintain the that shrewdest assessment of that individual ever published appeared in this column in May last year, and I stand by every syllable of it. Those who missed it at the time may peruse it here: Hamilton-Smith might be making a reasonable fist of his job as a minister, but where integrity is concerned, he is sorely wanting).

But for all that — just like a Demtel commercial — there’s more.

The Advertiser today is running a story that details a position agreed by the Liberals’ party room on local government reform: rather than arrive at a position on the issue and stick to it, the party decided to wait and see what Labor’s position was: if Labor was in favour, the Liberals would oppose; if Labor opposed, the Liberals would support.

Liberal plan to “swing both ways,” The Advertiser aptly put it.

It actually doesn’t matter, in a sense, what the issue in fact is — which is why I’m not going to bother discussing it. The formulation the SA Liberals wanted to pursue is one that makes the likes of Bill Shorten and Daniel Andrews look principled and responsible. And that — not to put too fine a point on it — is a bar set low enough as it is.

You really have to wonder how the Liberal Party in South Australia can ever break out of the confines of opposition, given its apparent determination to render itself completely unelectable.

Yes, electoral boundaries that supposedly engineer “fair” boundaries prior to every election at fixed four-year intervals can only be dismissed as patently biased, delivering victory to the ALP at seven of the past nine state elections despite Labor only once winning a majority of the two-party vote in 2006.

But as I said earlier, that’s really not an excuse: and it certainly cuts no ice when this is the kind of thing the SA Liberals are serving up.

Many of its safest seats are occupied by long-standing no-hopers; in football terms they would be described as list cloggers. Nobody would make the mistake of ascribing all that much talent to the SA Liberal party room, for the brutal fact is that it boasts none.

For decades the SA party has been more interested in factional chicanery and the settling of long-dead scores than in any serious attempt to behave as a rational political party.

And yet again, Chapman, who has caused no end of trouble over the years with leadership mischief and factional machinations, despite being an insipid performer in Parliament and on the campaign trail — ensconced in her 70-30 safe Liberal seat — is at the epicentre of another object demonstration of why the Liberals really don’t deserve to win in South Australia.

Leader Steven Marshall is as good as useless. Terribly for the party — and in an utter indictment on it — there is simply nobody else fit to replace him.

Especially not Chapman, whatever plotting and scheming she might care to indulge herself with.

I really don’t like having to critically analyse the various Liberal Party divisions around the place; it’s depressing and, when the subject arises, I’ve got to be honest about it — there’s no credibility in glossing over trouble when the only people to whom it isn’t glaringly obvious are the members of the insiderish junta that runs things in Liberal land.

But with the expectation the recently-restored President of the Victorian division, Michael Kroger, will knock the party in my own state back into some semblance of competence and professionalism, South Australia’s Liberal Party is easily the worst-run and least electable of all the Liberal divisions across the country — the farce of its federal effort, run by yet more washed-up has-beens who are of no value to the party whatsoever, notwithstanding.

There’s another election due in South Australia in March 2018 — two and a half years away — and if a week is a long time in politics, obviously anything could happen to the conservatives in the Festival State over such a long lead time.

But right now, you’d have to say losing that election is very much on the cards: and if the party in SA doesn’t pull its collective finger out, and quickly, it won’t have the fig leaf of a majority of the two-party vote to hide behind when defeat rolls around again, either.

SA Libs: Redmond, Chapman Should Follow Evans Out The Door

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.