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The worst job in Australian politics

David Speirs is learning first-hand the difficulties of captaining the South Australian Liberals’ leaky boat, writes Matthew Abraham.

Aug 19, 2022, updated Aug 19, 2022
David Speirs face some tough tasks as environment minister, but none as difficult as leading the Liberals in SA. Photo: AAP/Sarah Marshall

David Speirs face some tough tasks as environment minister, but none as difficult as leading the Liberals in SA. Photo: AAP/Sarah Marshall

Being an Opposition leader is supposed to be the worst job in politics.

It isn’t.

Believe it or not, a more miserable, soul-destroying, unrewarding, achy breaky heart job really does exist.

That job is being leader of the South Australian Liberals in opposition. Or in government. It doesn’t seem to matter much.

It looks like the current Opposition Leader David Speirs is about to learn this the hard way. He’s only been in the job five months, but the early signs aren’t looking flash.

Over decades, I’ve watched SA Liberal leaders being torn down and stomped on by a motley crew of their own MPs, assorted factional hacks, advisers, party members and guilty bystanders, whether they deserved it or not. From Steele Hall to Steven Marshall and all stops in between, it’s been an ugly business.

I had front row seats to the utter bastardry that characterised the Brown-Olsen years – the destructive feud between the camps of former Liberal leaders and Premiers Dean Brown and John Olsen, a feud that crippled the party both in government and opposition.

It’s hard for outsiders to comprehend just how bad it was unless they were in the thick of it, or reporting on it. Not only were MPs brazenly leaking against each other to the media, some fed information directly to then Labor Opposition Leader Mike Rann.

During one of the Brown-Olsen election campaigns, political psephologist Malcolm Mackerras flew into Adelaide to join us in The Australian’s then generously-staffed Adelaide bureau.

I’ll never forget the astonishment after he took a call from one Liberal MP about their leader.

Hanging up the phone, with a bucket of dirt fresh in his ear, he looked at me through his thick glasses and said excitedly that he’d never seen anything like it. To the bookish chronicler of countless Australian election campaigns, watching the South Australian Liberals at close quarters was like peeking around a leaking barrel, watching bullets fly at the O.K. Corral.

Now the mumbling has started against David Speirs, and it already bears thumbmarks of the bad old days.

It’s said former Premier Steven Marshall’s greatest achievement was keeping the SA Liberal rabble united in opposition long enough to win an election. This is correct. What isn’t said is that he didn’t keep them united long enough to win a second election.

That has been the pattern for the SA Liberals for the last half a century.

Sir Thomas Playford was Liberal Premier for 27 years until his election loss in 1965, a longevity due in no small part to an outrageous gerrymander of pro-rural seats, dubbed the Playmander.

Since the first election fought on reformed and fairer seat boundaries in 1970, the Liberals have won only four of the 17 elections – 1979, 1993, 1997 and 2018.

Two of those – the 1979 win by David Tonkin and Steven Marshall’s 2018 election victory – resulted in one-term governments. Dean Brown won a stunning victory in the 1993 State Bank election but was rolled as leader by John Olsen after three years.

In the SA Liberal Greatest Hits Album of Dumb Things, this was the dumbest track.

Olsen almost lost the 1997 election, squeaking home as a minority government and resigned in 2001 without contesting another election.

Olsen is the only Liberal premier since Playford to have lasted more than four years, and then only barely. None have won second-term majority governments.

Now the mumbling has started against David Speirs, and it already bears thumbmarks of the bad old days. During the week, the SA Liberal leader gave his first media conference since going on leave around July 18.

He first returned to Scotland with his mum on a poignant personal visit.

But last week I received an anonymous email from a person or persons unknown calling themselves “Concerned Liberals”. It came in on an email account I largely reserve for political contacts and fishing emporiums.

“Does Speirs really want the job?” it began. “We parted the seas for this guy to be Leader. Gave him a massive opportunity. Now we finally have an issue damaging the government (the CFMEU donation) and he has spent the weekend cruising the Whitsunday’s on a millionaire’s yacht.”

It continued: “A lot of us put aside our differences and backed in this Speirs to be leader. I am afraid, we are starting to realise we may have made a big mistake.”

Another one dropped into the inbox on Wednesday, flagging that Speirs would be proposing a state-based style ABCC – the Australian Building and Construction Commission watchdog, soon to be disbanded by the Albanese Government – at a media conference the next day.

The email reasoned this should have been announced while the issue was hot but the leader had “missed the boat while literally sailing on a millionaire’s yacht”.

It’s fair to assume this has come from within the Liberal Party at some level. It’s also possible it’s from a Labor mischief-maker. But whoever it is, they seem well informed. Leaking juicy advance details is destabilising for a leader.

Mike Rann, in his dying months as Premier, was damaged by an insider feeding useful information to political journalists and was apparently clueless about being white-anted.

I messaged David Speirs asking if he’d been cruising the Whitsundays on multi-millionaire Gordon Pickard’s yacht and, if so, had he been on board as a guest.

He confirmed he’d “spent a few nights with close friends (on the yacht) as a guest and returned last weekend”.

Mr Pickard, a real estate developer, is one of the state’s wealthiest businessmen. His yacht isn’t in the same league as your average Russian oligarch’s floating palace, but it looks like a superb, luxury tub from the pictures online. As a philanthropist, he makes it available for charity auctions and other good causes.

So, cruising the Whitsundays on a luxury yacht isn’t a crime. But the political atmospherics aren’t terrific. What’s wrong with relaxing in a beachfront cabin at Coobowie Caravan Park? Maybe this is being churlish.

By Friday morning, the “Concerned Liberals” leaks got serious traction, with Speirs accusing the office of Transport Minister Tom Koutsantonis of somehow being involved, an act furiously rejected with the Minister’s trademark high dudgeon.

This was a rookie error by the Liberal leader, only highlighting the leaks.

He released a statement saying that “this type of behaviour is disappointing” and “we must find who is behind this fake email account”.

Indeed he must. For when it comes to South Australia’s Liberal leaders, the captains of a leaky boat often find themselves up a certain creek without a paddle.

Matthew Abraham’s political column is published on Fridays.

Matthew can be found on Twitter as @kevcorduroy. It’s a long story.

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