Richardson: Not quite the worst day ever

It was one of the biggest days in SA’s recent political history – but for Tom Richardson, almost everything that could go awry, did. In his last column for 2018, he reflects on a day that he remembers for all the wrong reasons.

Dec 21, 2018, updated Dec 21, 2018
Relax and be merry as we recall the factional angst of Labor past. (Image from a Liberal leaflet released shortly after the events described below)

Relax and be merry as we recall the factional angst of Labor past. (Image from a Liberal leaflet released shortly after the events described below)

Jay Weatherill formally resigned from parliament this week.

It’s not often a former Premier resigns from parliament (we have had, after all, only a few former premiers thus far this century) so that fact alone is probably worth pondering.

A retiring Jay Weatherill regales Liberal MPs with an anecdote, probably at their expense. Photo: Sam Wundke / AAP

The time of the year is also nigh upon us for some indulgent self-reflection.

In this spirit of the season, then, I’m taking leave from my usual tone today, to touch for a moment on the ups and downs of journalism – a trade that’s seen more of the latter and less of the former in recent times.

It’s a fine trade to persist in, nonetheless – at its best, it allows its dwindling band of participants a front-row seat to some of the defining moments of the age… and even occasionally a brief cameo on the stage.

But it doesn’t always follow the script.

And so, to mark the final week in Jay Weatherill’s political career, it’s time to (reluctantly) tell the tale of one of the more dramatic days in his premiership.

Which just happened to coincide with a day in my own journalistic career that one might politely refer to as – a complete clusterf***.

(If one were impolite, one would remove the asterisks.)

A terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day.

A day in which whatever could go wrong did go wrong – and, moreover, went wrong before the day had even really begun.

January 31, 2014.

Six weeks out from a state election at which the Libs, led by a fresh-faced Steven Marshall, were expected to surf into office, cruelling the career of the left-wing upstart Labor’s Right-faction powerbrokers had installed as Premier in a political ‘Hail Mary’ little over two years earlier.

The previous evening, a Thursday night, I sat down to write my weekly InDaily politics column.

This was back in the days when my day job was as Channel 9’s state political reporter, but I still chipped into these pages with a regular Friday missive.

I started writing around 10pm (a fortifying glass of scotch at my elbow), figuring I could knock something over by midnight and still snatch a respectable six-or-so hours sleep before my two-year-old roused me (and my then-very-pregnant wife) for the day – as he reliably did at 6.30, more or less on the dot, every morning.

Besides the notable benefit of a silent house, the other advantage of working late back then was that once the clock had ticked past 12, you could check the next day’s news stories on the various papers’ respective websites, and update your copy if necessary.

Not that there was much hope of a news bombshell on that Friday in early 2014.

The pre-election campaign had been shuffling along at its own lackadaisical pace, with the respective party leaders doing their best to diligently avoid controversy as their prospective voters slowly eased into the new year.

Thus, without much to muse on, my evening’s work was more akin to pulling teeth.

The most compelling event of the preceding days was a largely-uneventful media conference Weatherill had held with Hollywood A-minus-lister Sam Worthington spruiking his forthcoming role in an SA-made, state-government-backed Gallipoli mini-series.

During the presser, the Avatar actor bristled in that way celebrity types do when you ask them about celebrity-type stuff (such as his relationship with wife Lara Bingle) instead of actor-type stuff (such as his forthcoming role in an SA-made, state-government-backed Gallipoli mini-series).

Thus I noted at the time: ‘Worthington tends to deport himself like a man auditioning to be the most sullen of Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds. Or perhaps he’s simply a brilliant method actor and he’s currently immersed in a role in which he plays a brooding introvert. Either way, it was like a match made in heaven for our notoriously monosyllabic Premier.

‘A not-altogether-unexpected question concerning Mr Worthington’s current love interest prompted a lingering death stare followed by a growl along the lines of “I’m here to discuss my very important film project, not my private life”. Which was basically the Hollywood version of Weatherill’s patented: “I don’t accept the premise of your question.”’

Sam Worthington broods alongside Lara Bingle. Photo: Amy Sussman / AP Images for Discovery Communications via AAP

No, it’s not really much to go on as far as incisive political commentary goes.

Moreover, the laborious effort to find something worth remarking upon in this wholly unremarkable event ensured it was not until sometime after 3am that I finally hit ‘send’ on the whole sorry enterprise (a glass of scotch still at my elbow, albeit somewhat less in the corresponding bottle).

Fortunately – for reasons that will soon become apparent – the column never saw the light of day anyway, and I had never read it since – until I tracked it down from the bowels of my computer hard-drive this week, almost five years on.

It is… not good.

It appears to be some heavy-handed attempt to draw a loose and quasi-humorous political analogy between SA’s political combatants and the A-minus-list couple, and is every bit as pointless as it sounds:

‘At a red carpet event in Sydney, Sam and Lara fended off questions about her acting potential, with he growling, “You can’t ask questions like that”, and she purring: “I’m wearing Ellery”. Which is basically the past year of Jay and Steven’s political rhetoric in microcosm.’

Jay and Steven: the Sam and Lara of SA politics? Photo: Tracey Nearmy / AAP

Anyway, task done (at length) I quickly scoured the news sites for a heads-up on the new day’s agenda, before shuffling off for my sadly truncated repose.

Sure enough, the only remotely interesting story was a worthy-but-esoteric offering by Michael Owen in The Australian, who had uncovered a plot to parachute SA Labor Right-faction ‘Godfather’ Don Farrell into state parliament.

It involved then-Weatherill Government minister Michael O’Brien – who was known furtively and derisively as ‘Potus’ to his party comrades, mainly due to his propensity to publicly say things like “I’m probably the most qualified member of the South Australian Parliament, both Liberal and Labor, to be doing this job, and probably one of the best nationally” (actual quote).

Potus, who had also once claimed to have founded the Right faction (which was a bit like that time Al Gore claimed to have invented the Internet), had secretly offered to vacate his safe northern suburbs seat of Napier at the forthcoming poll, allowing Farrell an armchair ride into state politics.

Farrell’s federal career had been cut short after he bowed to media pressure to allow his ministerial superior (but factional subordinate) Penny Wong – a confidant of Weatherill’s – to usurp his spot on top of Labor’s Senate ticket.

Actual injury was added to insult when he promptly lost his seat.

Farrell’s second coming in state parliament, then, was seen as a strategic masterstroke that would not only resurrect the powerbroker’s stalled career, but quietly wrong-foot Weatherill to boot.

Still, I masterfully reasoned as I pondered Owen’s yarn, the nuances of a minor factional scuffle wouldn’t arouse much interest in the following day’s commercial TV news cycle.

And while the Libs would surely attempt to make some mileage from the drama – inevitably invoking the old “faceless men” trope and the travails of then-recent federal feuds – the pragmatic Weatherill would, I figured, inevitably turn up to a presser with Farrell, praise him as a great statesman of the party, endorse him as a worthy candidate for Napier… and the whole story would be done and dusted within a day.

So, I reasoned, I could slip into bed and still nab three or four hours sleep, before the insistent cry of my in-house human alarm clock would awaken me to haul my sorry carcass off to work. And I’d then just have to navigate what appeared to be a fairly straightforward Friday, before making up for the lost hours of repose over the weekend.

But, of course, it didn’t quite play out that way.

Weatherill’s 2013 cabinet, with Michael ‘Potus’ O’Brien over his left shoulder. Photo: Tim Dornan / AAP

Because today was the day that Murphy’s Law kicked in.

Whatever could go wrong, did.

And indeed, mostly already had – by the time my bleary eyes finally blinked open around 9am.

I think, on reflection, that it was my phone that woke me first.

I’m pretty sure it wasn’t my two-year-old – who had taken it upon himself to enjoy a lengthy sleep-in FOR THE FIRST TIME EVER – and was still happily dozing away as the big hand ticked past 12 on the Play School clock.

I half-sat up in bed, next to my heavily-pregnant wife, who was similarly happy to catch some extra sleep on her day off.

“Hmm,” I thought. “This is not good… I’d better text the office and tell them I’m gonna be late.”

I went into the adjoining room to retrieve my phone…

And stood staring at it through my sleep-encrusted eyes for a few moments, trying to work out if I was still mid-dream.

Or nightmare, as the case may be.

According to my iPhone screen, I had about 20 missed calls. And about as many unread text messages.

Another popped up as I pondered what it was all about, from a young fella in the Channel 9 office who wasn’t generally in the business of texting me at 9 o’clock on a Friday morning.

It said simply: “Holy shit!!”

This shook me from my stupor a little (the scotch was definitely a Bad Idea). But not as much as the fact that as soon as I opened his message, the phone sprang to life in my hand with an incoming call. The number that beamed up on the screen was that of FIVEaa announcer Leon Byner.

Instinctively (and somewhat stupidly) I answered it.

“Hello?” I slurred through parched lips.

“Mate, this is amazing,” Byner excitedly erupted. “Can we get you on the show in 10 minutes to talk us through what’s happened?”

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“Um… ok,” I mumbled apprehensively, just managing to stop myself adding: “What has happened??”

In the journalism trade, a memorable day always trumps an efficient one

What had happened, as it turned out, was that Weatherill had gone on Matt Abraham and David Bevan’s ABC radio show and had been asked about Owen’s story, and had emphatically rejected the state parliamentary insurgence from (as he put it) the factional forces that had “destroyed” the former federal Labor Government.

He then went on to warn he would have to reflect on his own position if Farrell won preselection.

And all while I was still blissfully snoring away.

I was still piecing all this together when Phil Luke, my chief of staff at 9, called for the umpteenth time.

“Mate, what’s going on? I’ve been trying to get you!” he barked.

“I’m…um… just caught in traffic,” I lied, as I frantically searched the floor for a suitably-uncreased suit.

“You haven’t been answering your phone.”

“Yeah, I was listening to the radio,” I lied again.

“And I’ve been on the phone.” That one, at least, was technically true.

Phil told me he had Will McDonald, who is now a Famous Newsreader but was then a lowly senior reporter, at my disposal to gather whatever interviews needed gathering, since the SA Government was now in crisis and all.

“Farrell and O’Brien are doing a presser together up north in about half an hour, and Weatherill’s on the way to the airport to catch a plane to Whyalla – which do you want to go to?” he said.

The airport being about 10 minutes from my house, this was a no-brainer.

“I’ll turn around and go straight to the airport,” I half-lied.

No sooner had I got off the phone with Phil, I got a call from my editor at InDaily David Washington, who is now…um, my editor at InDaily.

“It’s about this column,” he began sheepishly.

Of course – my hideous turd of a column about Sam Bloody Worthington and Lara Sodding Bingle that I’d spent half the preceding night trying to polish. I’d forgotten all about it!

“I’m…um…not sure I can really run it now – it would probably look a bit odd,” said David apologetically. And then added optimistically: “Do you reckon you can write another one?”

I wasn’t sure whether to laugh out loud or scream obscenities.

“Um… no, I won’t have time to do that,” I finally responded.

“Well, we’ll just have to manage without the column this week,” he decided.

I finally made it to the airport, where Phil had booked me and a camera crew on a charter flight to Whyalla.

(I did have to pull over on the way down South Road to do that Leon Byner interview, in which I expertly explained why the morning’s events may not be The Ideal Thing for a government hoping for re-election in a couple of months’ time.)

In the event, after all that, I somehow made the plane and tracked down Weatherill in Whyalla.

Within a few hours, Right-faction disciple Tom Koutsantonis had accepted his lot as the ‘St Peter’ of this particular crucifixion saga and publicly denied his master three times, after which Farrell had backed down and embraced political oblivion while Potus sailed off into the sunset.

Weatherill and Farrell. I’m sure they’re now the best of friends.

Furthermore, because all the other political reporters who hadn’t slept in and missed the whole story had been already en route to the plotters’ presser up north, I was able to snaffle the Premier for a live interview from Whyalla into our 6pm news bulletin to reflect on the events of an extraordinary day (his, not mine).

Which is a good journalistic lesson: never underestimate the power of serendipity.

(Mind you, the fact I was stuck in Whyalla meant I was the only political reporter unaware that the entire Right faction spent the evening raucously commiserating with The Don at his eastern suburbs pad, remarkable footage of which led all the other bulletins the following night. Which is also a good journalistic lesson – you’re only as good as your last story.)

But the power of serendipity was strong that day.

Weatherill’s seemingly-obstinate threat, which was seen at the time as the last nail in his government’s political coffin, actually became a deliberate ‘line-in-the-sand’ moment, galvanising the believers and bestowing the first-term Premier with an authority and self-possession he had theretofore lacked.

And as for Farrell, he eventually found his way back into the Senate, while Potus’s former safe seat of Napier was abolished at a subsequent boundaries review and replaced with the marginal seat of King, which fell to the Liberals earlier this year.

So he’s probably thanking his lucky stars too.

Moreover, the episode was a turning point for the Labor Right, with Farrell’s defeat handing greater authority and autonomy to the faction’s young convenor – the then-shoppies’ union secretary Peter Malinauskas.

So, swings and roundabouts. Photo: Tony Lewis / InDaily

Friday January 31, 2014 was, undoubtedly, one of the more significant days of our state’s modern political life, and – less significantly – it also coincided with one of the more shambolic mornings of my own journalistic career.

But it was at least memorable.

And, in the journalism trade, a memorable day always trumps an efficient one.

I’m hoping for more of them in 2019 (and I’m still waiting for that sleep-in).

Until then, Happy Christmas. May all your alarm clocks – human or otherwise – allow you a few hours respite in the coming days.

Tom Richardson is a senior reporter at InDaily.

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