Richardson: Giving up on the battle of ideas

Feb 28, 2014
Steven Marshall stepping out this week with a leaked Treasury document. Photo: Nat Rogers/InDaily

Steven Marshall stepping out this week with a leaked Treasury document. Photo: Nat Rogers/InDaily

It feels like I’ve spent the bulk of the past four years, if not most of the past 12, chiding the state Liberals for failing to engage in the battle of ideas. This was sometimes done, to borrow Mike Rann’s well-worn phrase, as a “goad to action”, and other times merely in bemused resignation, but it was generally still done under the assumption that we weren’t to see much in the way of Liberal policy until the run-up to the election proper. What Steve Marshall would call “five minutes to midnight”.

So I have to admit, I’m impressed. It takes a bit to surprise me, and I’m actually somewhat astounded. Libs 1 – Richo nil.

Because here we are, halfway through the bona fide campaign, and the Opposition is meandering along like a self-funded retiree on a summer’s sojourn with the top down.

It seemed bloody-minded to stick to the small-target strategy through the entire parliamentary term. To stick to it through an entire election campaign as well shows a dedication to the cause that is actually kind of breathtaking.

Late last year, I observed that the Libs were basically irrelevant to political discourse in South Australia. A fortnight from polling day, and they still are, except of course for the simple fact that they’ll probably form our next Government.

The way campaigns generally work is: both parties use four or so weeks to strategically outline all their policies and try to convince people to vote for them.

The Libs, by and large, are doing what they always do; putting their heads up to have a whack at the Government, while deflecting any questions about how they’d do things better, or differently, with sweet nothings about 12 long years of Labor mismanagement. Every few days they might throw in a policy announcement for good measure; once every week or two it might even be a significant one.

I remember Isobel Redmond (she was Liberal leader for a time) once saying there were plenty of major policies in the bottom drawer, just waiting for a propitious time to be unleashed upon an unsuspecting public. I’d say by now the public is not so much unsuspecting as comatose.

The Liberals appear to be trying to stretch a week’s worth of policy into a month-long campaign. And to be fair, they’re doing it quite deftly. Largely, it must be said, with the help of a substantial leaked document that fell in their laps sometime before the campaign began, a Treasury missive that essentially pours scorn on almost every policy move Labor intends to make. Thus, for the Opposition, this campaign generally consists of waiting for the Government to unveil its agenda, before effectively destroying the credibility of said agenda and then tut-tutting about all the back-stabbing in the ALP camp (which, from the Libs, is a bit like Charles Manson complaining about sex and violence on TV).

Not to say that Marshall might not turn out to be an effective, even a dynamic Premier; it’s quite possible. It’s just that the Libs have taken a very deliberate strategy not to advertise the fact.

Their plan is not to convince people to vote for them; it’s more to shut up and do nothing that might dissuade people from voting against Labor.

Thus, when the ALP dropped the one about the silly Lib candidate in the unwinnable seat of Ramsay embarrassing himself and his party on social media, Marshall’s own media commitments for the ensuing day were hastily abandoned. As it turned out, this didn’t make much of a dent in his media diary, because it was just one of a handful of days in the past fortnight that he hasn’t worried about fronting up. Which is entirely his prerogative, it’s just a bit unusual for the leader of a major party during an election campaign.

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I understand the strategy, of course. But it does beg the question: if Marshall’s own party doesn’t think enough of him to let him engage the electorate in a genuine dialogue, to let him enunciate his vision for Government and sell that vision as a genuine alternative – if they don’t trust him to do that, why should we?

Perhaps the answer is we shouldn’t, but neither should we believe Labor’s platitudes about budget surpluses and job creation, when persistent unemployment and budget deficits have been the enduring themes of recent years. That’s certainly what the Liberals are banking on, and it’s a sound strategy based on a very sad principle: that the electorate has lost hope, and lost faith.

Much like Labor itself, by many accounts. Various ALP types tell me of their frustration with the all-pervading sense of despair and malaise, the choking lack of urgency, as though the fact that not only the livelihood of everyone employed in the cause but the future of everything they have worked for in government is at stake has barely registered.

Even facing defeat, surely it is worth striving to make every seat, every percentage point, every vote count in their favour? That can be the difference between making it back within a term and a generation in the wilderness.

But then we all have indifferent days; perhaps it is naïve or starry-eyed to assume loftier motives in politics, to assume it is a vocation, a calling, rather than merely another job, with its attendant drudgery and distraction.

I once had a conversation with a senior Liberal, who acknowledged that Opposition wasn’t all bad; it was, indeed, a fairly cushy gig, without the relentless scrutiny you get when you sit on the Treasury benches. But he explained the prospect of victory, after years of political failure, had steeled him, and he had worked like he’d never worked before to see it realized.

If the scent of success can motivate those for whom ideological zeal is not enough, the reek of defeat tends to paralyse. While Jay Weatherill and one or two of his offsiders are grinding themselves into the dust on the campaign trail, the casual indifference of others in the Labor camp betrays the popular belief that their era is at an end. The voters, it seems, will choose the devil they don’t know.

Tom Richardson is InDaily’s political commentator and Channel Nine’s state political reporter.




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