‘Tis the season for Liberal leadership speculation

We’re approaching halfway through the South Australian electoral cycle and some Liberals are having surprising thoughts about the future of their party’s leadership, reports Matthew Abraham.

Nov 24, 2023, updated Nov 24, 2023
Ashton Hurn looks on as David Speirs addresses a news conference. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Ashton Hurn looks on as David Speirs addresses a news conference. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

The definition of optimism in radio is ironing five shirts on a Sunday night, especially at this time of the year.

As the big shifts of on-air talent at the ABC over the last week or so demonstrate, heading into summer is the killing season for radio careers.

I’ll particularly miss Jon Blake who has been told his services are no longer required at FIVEaa. Blakey is one of the very few broadcasters who makes me laugh out loud with his honed satire, grammar pedantry and cutting mimicry, not just of politicians but even his fellow on-air colleagues.

Transport Minister Tom Koutsantonis may not miss Blakey’s cruel but funny impersonations of the veteran MP barging into the Premier’s office, but I sure will.

The killing season in politics is slower and longer, but traditionally gets rolling around about now, as we head into the Christmas break.

South Australia has four-year terms – an invention sold on the promise it’d create stability and give governments wriggle room to bed down big reforms.

In practice, the extra year has produced lazy and cautious government and oppositions that feel they can goof off in years two and three, the political equivalent of Years 8 and 9 at school.

Next March marks the half-way point in the first four-year term of the Malinauskas Labor Government.

As we head into the summer break, smart operators on both sides of politics are taking stock.

In Canberra, Labor Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is wobbling all over the national capital’s Barton Highway, his wheel nuts loosened by an increasingly dangerous Opposition Leader, Peter Dutton.

Labor MPs who dismissed Dutton as unelectable are thinking again. The smart ones are, at least. To paraphrase former PM John Howard, the times seem to be suiting him.

As one source with close links to the party put it: ‘Nobody other than Speirs and (shadow treasurer) Matt Cowdrey think they’re going to win the next election.’

It was once said that when former Labor PM Julia Gillard put her head on the pillow in The Lodge at night, she’d be worrying about what outrage Liberal leader Tony Abbott planned to pull the next day.

But when Abbott put his head on the pillow, he’d go to sleep.

In other words, the job of an Opposition Leader is to live rent free inside the head of their opponent, to mess with their minds, to make them toss and turn.

By this equation, South Australian Premier Peter Malinauskas must sleep like a log, unlike the latest addition to his clan, little baby George.

For South Australian Labor, any mid-term appraisal should take about five minutes, tops.

The “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” rule means the Malinauskas bus is rolling merrily along.

It’s a different story for the Liberals.

Not only do they need a wheel balance, some think they need a new driver behind the wheel.

It was Speirs, in one of his many Truth Serum moments, who said that being part of his party’s losing election campaign two years ago was like “a kid strapped in the back seat of a car and dad’s passed out”.

“But the car’s still moving forward and there’s a corner coming and a big drop,” he told The Advertiser’s Michael McGuire.

“I can’t get out. The seatbelt’s on too tight. I was a cabinet minister, a reasonably influential one, and I couldn’t get my hands on that steering wheel.”

It’s a fair bet that’s exactly how many Liberals, and not just those inside the party room, now feel after two years of the Speirs Opposition.

As one source with close links to the party put it: “Nobody other than Speirs and (shadow treasurer) Matt Cowdrey think they’re going to win the next election”.

To be fair, that’s one more than the number of Labor MPs who thought Mike Rann would win the 2002 election. Rann alone thought he could pull it off, and he did.

Let’s kick the tyres on four scenarios. The fourth is the most surprising, but we’ll start with the most predictable.

STICK WITH SPEIRS: Decency and common sense dictate that Speirs deserves to at least lead the party to the 2026 election, and to the 2030 contest if the Liberals lose.

It took Steven Marshall two cracks to win his oncer government. It should have taken one, but that’s another story.

Labor’s electoral success has been built on factional unity that effectively guarantees a leader two terms to reclaim office. If they do it in one, it’s a bonus.

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Factional discipline, decency and common sense are always in short supply in the SA Liberals.

If Speirs loses in two years’ time, he’ll be out on his ear.

ASHTON MAKES HER MOVE: The Flint Factor may see Shadow Health Minister Ashton Hurn bring forward her expected leadership aspirations.

While she’s shown no hint of disloyalty to Speirs, the former staffer is a smart and tough political newbie, with no baggage. Hurn would unsettle Labor’s cosy run.

It’s no accident that the Koutsantonis X account (once known as Twitter) features a screenshot of a frowning Hurn standing behind Speirs at a media conference.

What’s the Flint Factor?

THE FLINT FACTOR: Former federal Liberal MP for Boothby, Nicolle Flint, a leading conservative mover and shaker, is shaking the Liberal tree and apples are falling out everywhere.

She’s considering a jump into state politics by wresting back the seat of MacKillop, held by Liberal defector, now independent, Nick McBride.

If Flint, who now works on the family farm in the South East, wins the seat in 2026, she’ll be on the leadership fast track.

Of all the potential leadership candidates, she’s the only one who would seriously mess with Labor’s mindset. Flint as leader would force a major tactical shift on Labor.

But she may also force the hand of someone like Hurn, who could stake a claim for the top job before the election rather than see Flint throw her Akubra into the ring after it. That’s if they lose, of course.

STEVEN VERSION 3.0.1: And then there’s Steven Marshall. The defeated Premier was meant to have scored a juicy corporate gig by now, resigned and forced a risky by-election in his seat of Dunstan, one of the most marginal in the nation on just 0.5 per cent margin. He hasn’t.

What if Marshall thinks life as an MP isn’t so bad after all? He was popular, until he wasn’t, is a strong communicator, wears a tie and while Speirs has a better political brain, Marshall has a formidable policy grasp.

What if he decides he’s got the chops to once again lead the party to the next election?

My information is it’s become a thinking-out-loud moment inside a few Liberal noggins.

In politics, it helps to have all your ducks in a row, and all your shirts neatly ironed, just in case.

Matthew Abraham is InDaily’s political columnist. Matthew can be found on Twitter as @kevcorduroy. It’s a long story.

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