The hard truth about Peter Malinauskas

Why does the Premier always seem to escape the political consequences of policy failures and gaffes? Matthew Abraham believes he might have discovered the psychological truth.

Mar 08, 2024, updated Mar 08, 2024
Composite image: James Taylor/InDaily

Composite image: James Taylor/InDaily

Let’s play, hard!

With those words, ABC host Tom Gleeson launches into each night’s episode of Hard Quiz.

Just as The Chaser flows seamlessly into Seven news at 6pm, Hard Quiz is now our routine run-up to the ABC’s 7pm news bulletin.

Both news services are our windows into what’s going on in Hell.

The Hard Quiz contestants vie for the main prize – a big brass mug – as they are quizzed and teased by Gleeson on their specialty topics.

These traverse the outer reaches of the trivia spectrum – be it women in Greek mythology, cholera, Bunnings or Arnott’s biscuits, nothing is too big, or small.

The show is a tribute to the infinite human capacity to accumulate useless knowledge and tuck it away in the brain box in case it comes in useful one day – much like opinion columnists.

Stick with me, this is leading somewhere.

A few nights ago, Hard Quiz generated a personal a-ha moment.

It explained something that’s been puzzling me for some time now and it is this: how does South Australian Premier Peter Malinauskas walk away unscathed from political train wrecks?

Specifically, how has he emerged with barely a scratch after, in quick succession in recent weeks, blithely admitting that:

1: Key promises, like his pledge to fix hospital ramping, aren’t worth the paper they’re written on;

2: Nine out of 10 promises to provide cost-of-living relief are “bullshit”.

Gleeson asked a contestant – a PhD student in social psychology – to name the condition where some people become more likeable after making mistakes, while others become less likeable after making the same boo-boo.

The contestant shrugged. So, Gleeson explained it’s something called the Pratfall Effect.

The Pratfall Effect, also known as the Prat or Blemishing Effect, shows that “highly competent individuals tend to become more likeable after committing mistakes, while average-seeming individuals tend to become less likeable even if they commit the same mistake”.

When the late Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke publicly admitted to being unfaithful to his wife Hazel, or wept when talking about a daughter’s struggle with drug addiction, or said any boss who sacked a worker for taking a sickie after our America’s Cup victory was a “bum”, we loved him all the more for it.

Voters instinctively knew that he was an intelligent and highly competent Prime Minister.

Compare that to the backlash after former Liberal PM Scott Morrison took a family holiday in Hawaii during the dreadful Black Summer bushfires of 2019-20, and dismissed it by saying: “I don’t hold a hose, mate.”

He never lived it down.

Perhaps history will judge him more kindly, but Morrison as PM wasn’t seen as the sharpest chisel in the toolbox.

In October 2009, former Labor Premier Mike Rann got whacked in the eye with a rolled-up WineState magazine by Rick Phillips, the irate, estranged husband of parliament house waitress Michelle Chantelois, over an alleged suspected affair.

Rann admitted to a “flirty” relationship with Ms Chantelois, but denied they ever had sex.

Fresh in the minds of voters, the so-called “Chantelois Affair” was heavy lead in Rann’s saddlebags during the March 2010 election campaign, but despite a 7 per cent swing that cost three seats, he was returned for a third term.

Over two terms in office, Rann had a proven track record as a competent Premier who ran a smart, mainstream, conservative government.

He may have been a prat at times, but the Prat Effect helped him across the line.

Can it also explain the apparent superpower that sees Premier Malinauskas breeze through his unguarded moments as though they never happened?

His admission that promises aren’t real if they’re only in media releases – they need funding to become “real” – and that nine out of 10 promises to ease cost-of-living pressures are “bullshit”, should be poison for any political leader.

Ramping is a potent issue in a frightened, greying community. He promised to fix it and as yet has not. Now he argues it wasn’t fair dinkum.

And how about telling households in a state of high anxiety over finding money to pay basic household bills that 90 per cent of promises to help them out are a load of cold cobblers?

In the absence of any current opinion polling on the state of play in SA politics, we can only guess what voters make of it all but I suspect his “bullshit” moments will barely dent his personal approval rating.

With a few exceptions, like a dysfunctional Health Department, the Premier has run a competent and populist government that doesn’t scare the horses, unless they’re Police Greys.

Maybe that explains the forgiveness.

Or maybe all this Pratfall thing is a load of malarkey.

Is it instead just part of a cunning plan by the Labor leader to create an escape hatch if ramping numbers are still abysmal come the 2026 state election? Don’t discount this option.

Or does a minder arrive at the Premier’s home each morning and spray the guy with a fresh Teflon coating before he starts work? Sort of the political equivalent of a mobile spray tan booth?

Is it the George Clooney good looks, the coy smile? We half expect him to whip out a Nespresso capsule for a short black halfway through his media conferences.

Or are voters so accustomed to being lied to by politicians it’s all a bit of a yawn?

Is it an Opposition leader who doesn’t know how to deliver a killer line, and keep repeating it until voters get sick of hearing it, at which point they start to remember it?

Or is it all of the above?

Time’s up. Thanks for playing. Hard!

And another thing

Speaking of playing hard, Labor has gone bare knuckle against the Liberal candidate in the Dunstan by-election, Anna Finizio.

Revealing that she had previously applied for a job with Attorney-General Kyam Maher in Opposition, and the mysterious release of her detailed job application, was dirty.

Labor’s resident political hit man, Transport Minister Tom Koutsantonis, also went in hard raising questions about Finizio’s previous role as a director of a family company before it went belly up, owing creditors and workers millions.

While it’s usually not a wise career move to disagree with the boss, I have a different view to InDaily’s David Washington who has cogently argued dirt unit tactics may be a turn-off for voters.

Dr Finizio’s Labor job application is simply embarrassing. On the eve of the 2014 state election, then Liberal leader Steven Marshall mistakenly implored voters to “vote Labor tomorrow” for a better future. They did. He lost.

The questions about Dr Finizio’s role with a failed company, however, are legitimate.

We know this because the Liberals ask all potential preselection hopefuls to sign a statutory declaration stating that they have “never been involved either as a director or shareholder in a company that is or was at any time under administration or receivership”.

They wouldn’t do that if they hadn’t been burned before and if they didn’t think it was a campaign negative.

The Liberal stat dec is quite forensic. Koutsantonis helpfully loaded a copy on X, formerly Twitter.

We do not know how Dr Finizio dealt with this particular question. We should assume she is a truthful person.

It all certainly seemed news to her party’s leader, David Speirs.

Dunstan is a tight by-election, with the Liberal seat teetering on a margin of 0.5 per cent, just a handful of votes.

The Speirs defence of Finizio was decidedly lame. She deserved better.

While his star candidate needed some heavy hitting from her corner, her leader this week was more excited about unveiling his latest stroke of tactical genius – legislation to ban how-to-vote cards at polling booths.

It’s about as soft 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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