What’s next for bland state Labor? Maybe not even they know

With the obvious exception of ambulance ramping, the Malinauskas Government has been vaguely competent so far, writes Matthew Abraham, who wonders whether it’s all downhill from here.

Jan 19, 2024, updated Jan 31, 2024
What is this is as good as it gets for Premier Peter Malinauskas's government? Photo: AAP/Matt Turner

What is this is as good as it gets for Premier Peter Malinauskas's government? Photo: AAP/Matt Turner

The shortlist for the greatest question ever asked in a movie stretches to infinity, and beyond.

It’s a question that will send you down one of those social media rabbit holes, emerging blinking like a bunny in the headlights, wondering where another wasted hour of your life has gone.

It’s hard to go past the question posed by Jack Nicholson’s character Melvyn Udall to a glum waiting room of patients as he exits his psychiatrist’s couch.

“What if this is as good as it gets?” he asks in the movie As Good As It Gets.

My front runner, however, is the very last line of the movie The Candidate, about the campaign by an idealistic lawyer, Bill McKay, played by Robert Redford, to win a US Senate seat.

Moments after clinching the prized seat, a panicked McKay turns to his campaign Svengali and asks: “What do we do now?”

This is the “dog that caught the car” question.

Many politicians, CEOs, Year 12 graduates with a 99.5 ATAR score, the odd Pope and maybe even a few recently-minted Kings must ask themselves the same question.

It’s a question Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, should be asking himself, if he was so minded, which I suspect he is not.

He likes to remind us that people have been underestimating him his whole life. After his first lacklustre 12 months in office, some of us are starting to understand why.

Nobody could be accused of underestimating Premier Peter Malinauskas. His fan club has always expected great things from him.

But his last media release for 2023, emailed on New Year’s Eve, smacks of the “what do we do now?” syndrome.

It was meant to be a thrilling list of Big Things his Labor Government has achieved in its second year in power. Instead, it was hard to stifle a yawn.

His spin doctors couldn’t even come up with a sexy headline.

“Housing, education and health headline a big 2023,” it blared in red typeface.

It reminded me of my younger brother Frank’s saying about his former home in Pasadena, close to the hospital, high school and cemetery.

“Matt, in my suburb you can get medicated, eddikated and cr-e-e-mated,” Frank liked to say.

The Liberals have the measure of Health Minister Chris Picton.

The Premier seems to think South Australians are as fascinated as he is with the merger of the University of Adelaide and University of SA and that they’ve drunk the Kool-Aid when he says things are tickety-boo in the state’s health system.

“The Malinauskas Labor Government legislated a new university, embarked on the biggest housing package in the state’s history and continued to make significant investments in health in 2023 – all while the state’s economy hit record-breaking heights,” he proclaims.

He says his government made housing a “top priority”, delivering for first home buyers, renters and public housing tenants, with “the biggest land release in SA’s history”, legislating the “most significant rental reforms in a generation”, announcing “the first substantial increase to public housing in a generation” and “scrapping stamp duty” for eligible first home buyers.

You could argue the government made legislating a mini Voice its “top priority” in 2023.

It held a special parliamentary sitting and a rather odd “state ceremony” on the North Terrace steps of Parliament House when its First Nations Voice Bill passed both Houses in March.

This will give SA’s Indigenous communities a direct voice to parliament and every public service chief, but was put on the back burner while the doomed national Voice campaign ran off the rails.

The elections this March for members of the SA Voice, and how it works in real life, will be worth watching closely.

As for housing, the “biggest land release in SA’s history” will take years to make a dent in the state’s mounting housing affordability heartache.

One parcel of land is the old Glenelg sewage works. Another, perched alongside Port Wakefield Road, near the International Raceway, will need a “noise barrier” for new homes. Still, dirt is dirt.

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The “most significant rental reforms in a generation” may see many landlords quitting the rental market, throttling the number of homes to rent.

And when it comes to “scrapping stamp duty”, most first home buyers will not be eligible. The mid-year budget update late last year shows a government rolling in cash from stamp duty and other property taxes.

While the Premier trumpets the merger of the two universities as a historic achievement, it is also one that leaves voters cold.

The super Adelaide University, a merger only sealed with hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, risks being the Malinauskas version of Lot Fourteen.

Former Premier Steven Marshall loved Lot Fourteen, on the old RAH site. Voters simply yawned.

South Australians are excited, and not in a good way, by the government’s failure so far to fix the ambulance ramping disgrace.

In the “quotes attributable to Peter Malinauskas” section of his media release, he correctly states that his government has “continued to make significant investments in our health system”.

He also correctly states ambulance response times have improved.

Ramping? The government has pulled off “six months in a row of year-on-year improvement in ramping numbers – but there is still more work to do in 2024”.

This is playing with statistics. To borrow from its own spin dialect, ramping numbers hit “record-breaking heights” under a government that promised to fix them.

The Premier has now conceded he did promise to fix ramping but reminds us that would be in his four-year term. Two down, two to go.

Meanwhile, Liberal leader David Speirs is sending texts and emails to voters asking for hospital horror stories.

The Liberals have the measure of Health Minister Chris Picton.

Maybe the Premier needs a new health minister to have a crack at the problem.

The Premier’s last line for 2023?

“While 2023 has been big, I expect 2024 will be even bigger as my government continues to get things done for South Australians,” he promises.

How 2024 will be even bigger remains a closely guarded secret for now.

But it’s likely to be a far cry from former Labor Premier Jay Weatherill’s 2015 Year of Living Dangerously.

Advising South Australians to fasten their seat belts, he unveiled a nuclear royal commission, floated changing our time zone and pushed lifting the GST to 15 per cent.

They all came to nought, but it was a fun ride.

So far, the Malinauskas Government has been competent in a lighter shade of pale way. But it hasn’t made too many dumb mistakes.

What if that’s as good as it gets?

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

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