SA Labor needs to prepare for the unthinkable

South Australian Labor would be wise to plan now for a day when their star leader decides he has bigger ambitions than state politics, argues Matthew Abraham.

Aug 04, 2023, updated Aug 04, 2023
He's riding high now, but how soon before Peter Malinauskas wants more from his political career? Photo: AAP/Lukas Coch

He's riding high now, but how soon before Peter Malinauskas wants more from his political career? Photo: AAP/Lukas Coch

We bought our home in Canberra from a newsagent and his wife escaping to the Gold Coast for a new, warmer life running a high-rise apartment building.

For many years, seven days a week, the newspaper man had been up before sparrow’s fart to lob The Canberra Times onto the usually frozen front lawns of its readers in Woden Valley, the first satellite city in the nation’s capital.

He said he was often so dog-tired and bone-cold that some mornings he’d sit down in the gutter and cry.

Just down the road, the same fate was awaiting this little feathered duck.

Signing up for the breakfast radio shift with the ABC in Adelaide, joining a tight-knit, super-smart team, was a blast.

But if anyone ever offers you any gig that involves getting up at 3.30am five days a week, just say no.

The brekky shift always reminded me of the bleak Leunig poem The Demon that begins: “When I awoke this morning, exhausted from my rest, a demon dark and terrible was sitting on my chest.”

It ends: “A masterpiece in wickedness, this last sadistic joke, he sends me out into the world, a smiling sort of bloke.”

One morning, instead of the robotic ritual of toilet, shave, shower, porridge, cuppa and toothbrush that’d send me out into the dark world a smiling sort of bloke, I did something completely out of character.

I walked out onto the back lawn and stood in bare feet in the dark, contemplating the universe.

When sharing this moment with listeners, my radio partner in crime, David Bevan, observed: “Ah, when a man stands on the back lawn in his bare feet, who knows where it will end up.”

Prophetic words, because within a few short months, I’d quit both breakfast radio and the ABC.

And so, to our Premier Peter Malinauskas, a thoughtful and intelligent man, who must be sorely tempted to wriggle his toes on the damp back lawn and contemplate his political universe.

Early retirement isn’t written in the canopy of stars for our Premier, but instead, it’s the ultimate step up the Australian political ladder – Canberra.

If he’s not thinking about his next step, he should be. And so should the Labor Party that worships at his feet, that can barely believe its luck, because nothing lasts forever.

Even at this early stage, not even two years into the first term of the Malinauskas Government, the party needs to think the unthinkable. Will there be life after Malinauskas?

Former New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern following the announcement of her resignation. Photo: AAP/Ben McKay

In the past year, we have seen several examples of dominant, popular and populist leaders suddenly pulling the plug on their brilliant careers, moves that have left their parties floundering.

In late May, the hugely popular WA Premier Mark McGowan – who created Fortress WA during the COVID pandemic – announced he was quitting politics.

He cited the demands of a “relentless” job, explaining he no longer had the “energy and drive to continue”.

Only a year earlier, McGowan had led Labor to a stunning election victory, winning 53 of the 59 seats and reducing the Liberal Opposition to a miserable two seats.

Last weekend, a by-election held in McGowan’s coastal seat of Rockingham, 47 kilometres south-southwest of the Perth CBD, saw an equally stunning result – one that swung the other way.

Labor suffered one of the biggest by-election swings ever witnessed in WA, with a 33.4 per cent plunge in its primary vote and 22.5 per cent drop in its two-party preferred vote.

While the two Liberals might have high-fived each other, Labor’s candidate, Magenta Marshall, still attracted a primary vote just shy of 50 per cent, securing the seat with a generous two-party margin of 65 per cent.

In Labor’s landslide 2021 COVID-fuelled state election victory, McGowan had retained Rockingham with a whopping two-party vote of almost 88 per cent – so the party could afford to lose some skin.

But the by-election result does show the gaping hole that can be left in a political party by the sudden exit of a wildly popular leader.

In April last year, Tasmanian Liberal Premier Peter Gutwein, who in 2021 led his party to a record third straight election win, announced he was quitting politics because after two years of fighting the COVID pandemic, he had “nothing left in the tank to give”.

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His replacement, Jeremy Rockcliff, now presides over a fractious, mutinous outfit that threatens his already wafer-thin hold on majority government.

Across the ditch, NZ Labor PM Jacinda Ardern abruptly quit politics in January this year, saying she “no longer had enough in the tank” to lead her country. Sound familiar?

The new PM, Chris “Chippy” Hipkins, is now struggling to fill the jerry cans in a Labor Government poleaxed by the unexpected retirement of Ardern, a leader who defied stale political stereotypes.

How long before the boredom of the job starts to nag at him?

How would Victorian Labor fare if Premier Dan Andrews suddenly decides he, too, has run out of unleaded?

He enjoys a weird, cult-like status in a state dubbed Danistan, and it’s hard to see another leader appealing to such a besotted populace.

Without Premier Dan, Victorian voters will be left confounded, like the joyous followers of Forrest Gump when he simply stopped running in the middle of a desert highway, turned around and walked home.

Even in politics, life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.

Nobody is suggesting the Malinauskas tank is empty. Far from it, his cup runneth over.

But how long before the boredom of the job starts to nag at him?

His personal intervention last week in a single but dreadful case of cruelty against racing greyhounds – even considering calls for a Dishlicker Royal Commission – was hardly warranted. He does have a Racing Minister who should be able to handle it, you know.

Within 24 hours of Labor’s election victory in March last year, an astute now retired Labor figure, not normally given to hyperbole, phoned predicting that Malinauskas would be the next Labor Prime Minister. Put your money on it, was the message.

The expectation on the Premier to pull on the boots for the big game will become increasingly hard to ignore.

Let’s think about this. If Labor wins the 2026 state election as expected, a jump to federal politics could happen as early as 2029, roughly a year out from the 2030 state election.

This would give a new leader, possibly Shoppies Union secretary Josh Peak, time to settle in. He’s from the right faction, the Malinauskas Right, and could be slipped into the Premier’s safe seat of Croydon.

The longer view is that Malinauskas would make his move mid-way through a third term, say around 2032.

But that seems like an eternity away, especially if things are starting to seem dull, or if you still haven’t fixed ramping at the RAH.

Finding a federal seat would simply involve a tap on the shoulder of either Mark Butler in Hindmarsh or Steve Georganas in Adelaide.

The back lawns are colder at this time of year in Canberra, but the starry, starry nights beckon a leader with a full tank of talent, ambition and ego.

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

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