SOUTH AUSTRALIA: by Damian WyldNews Weekly
Labor's Right topples another party leader
, August 20, 2011
South Australia’s Labor Government is a shambles. A coup planned against Premier Mike Rann has essentially failed, with Rann announcing he will linger on until October 20 in a “mentoring” role.
Any suggestion that this is an orderly transition, an exercise in healthy generational change, is scarcely credible against the background of long-running Labor turmoil. The spin cannot mask the fact Labor needs more than a new leader to pull it out of a poll free-fall. Furthermore, recent happenings raise questions about factional dynamics.
First, some background.
The credibility of both former Treasurer Kevin Foley and soon-to-be-ex-Premier Mike Rann was severely dented after each of them was involved in separate but very public assault cases. These cases on their own did not cause each man’s fall from grace, but they certainly increased rumblings of discontent within Labor ranks and calls for new blood.
Prolonged union campaigns against the government failed to force the issue, and Labor’s Left faction Education Minister Jay Weatherill’s 2010 challenge for the deputy premier’s position was a forlorn hope. At that time, Labor’s Right was still confident in the strength of its caucus numbers.
Earlier this year, Foley’s step down to more junior Cabinet portfolios saw the Right install John Rau as Deputy Premier, Jack Snelling as Treasurer and Bernard Finnigan as parliamentary upper house leader.
This seemed to indicate a clear succession plan, with growing public speculation, denied at every turn by Premier Rann, that he would step down in late 2011 or early 2012, depending on which former SA Labor premier (John Bannon or Don Dunstan) he might be trying to outlast.
But an unexpected series of events, coupled with the collapse of Labor’s poll rating (on a two-party preferred basis) to below 40 per cent, shattered Labor’s relative calm.
The last few months have seen Bernard Finnigan resign his position as Labor’s upper house leader. A fortnight ago a former long-standing Rann Government minister, Paul Holloway — another former upper house leader — announced his retirement from parliament. Last month, newly appointed Minister for Local Government Russell Wortley was on the receiving end of only the second successful no-confidence motion against an upper house minister since the Legislative Council was established in 1857.
Meanwhile, other issues have eroded Labor’s public standing, including the government’s long-running conflict with the Public Service Association over entitlements; the axing of funding to the Keith and District Hospital in the state’s south-east; the planned privatisation of the south-east’s forests; and massive cost blow-outs on projects such as the new Royal Adelaide Hospital.
The crisis engulfing Labor became so great that the Right, instead of backing one of its own members, threw its weight behind the Left’s Jay Weatherill. Even with this almost all-encompassing support behind him, Weatherill shrank back from confronting Premier Rann himself. That unenviable task was left to Jack Snelling and SDA (the shoppies’ union) state secretary Peter Malinauskas.
According to The Advertiser, Rann swore at them and threatened “World War III” (he later denied this), before he headed off to India for a week on official business.
The similarities with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s forcible retirement are eerie, right down to the figures involved (including Senator Don Farrell, foe of Rudd and major Right figure, having been Malinauskas’s predecessor at the SDA).
Weatherill’s conspicuous absence at key moments in the drama has left him looking weak, an appearance compounded by Rann’s stalling tactics. Rann may well have unfinished business — and possibly, just possibly, even a genuine desire to ease his successor into the job — but the phoney coup has left no one in charge. Rann looks like a spoiler who won’t leave, and Weatherill won’t — or can’t — make him.
So where does this leave things?
The Liberals will be delighted to return to Parliament for three weeks of “Will the real premier please stand up?”. They will also be preparing for at least two by-elections: Rann’s seat of Ramsay and Foley’s seat of Port Adelaide. The Liberals need swings of 18.1 and 12.9 per cent respectively, but even a strong showing would be a boost ahead of the 2014 state election.
Labor’s factional future should also give pause for thought. The Right may have the numbers, and Weatherill may have been installed at its pleasure just as Gillard was federally. But, should Labor miraculously survive 2014, Weatherill will doubtless become his own man and no longer be beholden to the Right.
Other signs of the party’s leftwards-lurch are apparent. Labor recently revealed that it will oppose Family First’s bill to provide adoption and foster-care information to women seeking an abortion. Conscience votes on abortion are obviously passé.
So too are the old ideological lines, with an increasing number of Right positions being given to MPs and union leaders who have defected from the Left for pragmatic reasons.
When he finally comes to power, Weatherill may well enjoy a honeymoon poll bounce. But, as a member of the Rann Cabinet, he has directly participated in many of the decisions that have reduced Labor’s standing to where it is today. He will need to address these issues and chart a new course for the government. Otherwise it will just be the same problem horse with a different jockey.
Damian Wyld is South Australian state president of the National Civic Council.