Oz Blog News Commentary

Heave away, haul away

March 26, 2016 - 21:05 -- Admin

Critics of privatisation and outsourcing often complain you can go too far, that by hiving off "non-essential" functions you end up compromising some part of the organisation that is essential to its survival. Despite what organisational theorists say, there often is no clear line between essential and non-essential functions, and plenty of smart and experienced people have gotten that wrong. So have the South Australian Liberals. Liberals in that state will follow their Queensland counterparts into history. The old one-twoNick Xenophon evolved a constituency that neither the Liberals nor the Democrats fully recognised: people concerned about the increased availability of gambling in a state where it had never been prevalent. He expanded his appeal to cover the spaces left by the dying Democrats, and vacated by the Liberals as they moved right. Now that the Liberals want to move back to the centre, it's too late; Xenophon owns that space now. Part of the Liberal Party's shift to the right meant that they lost the ability to rein in someone like Cory Bernardi. A precocious young student politician, Bernardi modelled not only his policy outlook but his organisational structure on US brimstone-and-sodomy conservatives. Nobody becomes a Liberal Senator without backing from a substantial portion of the party, having worked the branches and other party structures assiduously (Bernardi was a protege of Nick Minchin, the party's State Director who stacked an overwhelmingly moderate state organisation in favour of conservatives). What made Bernardi different was building networks of fundraising and patronage independent of the Liberal Party, tapping into funds and support that the SA Liberals didn't know about and weren't obliged to declare. By the time Bernardi took top spot on the Liberal ticket in 2007 the threat was implicit: put me at the top of the ticket or I'll run against you. Nick Minchin retired soon afterwards, knowing Bernardi was building a political superstructure taking him beyond the reach of the party, and beyond the discipline of people like himself. His setting-up of a new conservative party has been a long, long time coming. Finally, he's judged that his hour is at hand, and that he is free to drop off the Liberal Party like a sated tick. Bernardi hasn't done this before now because the SA Liberals were always a more viable vehicle than anything he might cobble together, alone or with useful idiots like Family First. No longer: the SA Liberals are done. But the relative strength of left and right isn't enough to explain the collapse of the SA Liberals. They assumed they would have a permanent place no matter how little they did, how little they delivered for South Australia.The franchiseeLabor has become the default party of government in that state. They actually focus on health and education and transport and all those other properly state-based issues. While they don't get every call right and have been in too long, they seem to actually care about congested roads or bad schools or whatever - they aren't diffident about those issues like the Liberals. Labor fights ferociously for every election and the Liberals are diffident about those too; the Liberals win the protest vote but fail to translate that to winning a majority of lower house seats, which underlines their diffidence and lack of the necessary political passion necessary to govern. They talk about economic development but they can't do it, and everyone knows they can't do it.The leader of the SA Liberals is a nice man - Simon or Stephen or something like that - who acts like the franchisee he has always been, in office but somehow not in charge. If John Martin's department store still existed he would be standing in the window modelling what a suit might look like if a man were wearing it. When the federal government comes to town (rather than flying past Adelaide) they drag along what's-his-name to stand and nod.He might have disagreements with Jay Weatherill - but Weatherill has imposed himself on his own party so ruthlessly you get the sense if Stewart ever took him on, Weatherill would leap over the Dispatch Box and rip his liver out. Even his "home" electorate is named after Labor's greatest Premier. Weatherill gets bogged down in the intractable difficulties of funding a growing state with a stagnant economy because he doesn't have to play politics with an opposition that is simply no good at that game.It isn't like he stands before a band of seething rivalries, either; the Franchisee is the best they have. Conservatives spent years hissing at Vickie Chapman until they realised there was nothing for them to worry about. The years of backroom drama with titanic figures like Joan Hall or Nick Minchin having at one another meant that Liberal candidates tended to be no-fuss, inoffensive, even insipid. Minchin realised early, and schooled John Howard in the idea, that the lack of Liberal governments at state level helped ensure a Liberal government at the federal level. He smoothed the dying pillow over the careers of several promising MPs who might get in the way of his wider vision. Can't be fixedChristopher Pyne was 26 when first elected to the very safe Liberal seat of Sturt in 1993. When John Hewson was replaced by Alexander Downer as Liberal leader soon afterwards, Pyne said to John Howard "why don't you retire?". A decade after that, Howard was still Prime Minister and Pyne was still a backbencher. Pyne became chief source for breathless press gallery stories that any day now, any day, Peter Costello would challenge Howard. It was nonsense but it kept both Pyne and the gallery in work, and each was grateful to the other. Eventually, by sheer attrition, Pyne became the guy at the centre of it all, the fixer without whom nothing would get done. The press gallery applauded his childish parliamentary tactics, borrowed from the US Congressional Republicans. In the leadership turmoil following 2007 he switched his vote late, but decisively, ensuring his choice and the winner were the same, and that the winner was grateful to him. Back in South Australia, the mining boom lulled South Australians into overconfidence about Olympic Dam and defence equipment and other big dreams to transition the economy away from the clearly failing vehicle industry. When the dream died with the mining boom, Labor went back to basics at the state level and lost the plot federally. The Liberals offered criticism but not an alternative. 2013 offered South Australians a change of federal government with one of their own, Christopher Maurice Pyne himself, where he had always wanted to be: at the centre of the action. Pyne could have had the clout to kick the car industry along for a little while, but he didn't. He could have managed a vast transition from cars to military manufacturing (or something else), but he didn't. Goodness knows he's had time enough and resources to think of something. Unhappy is the land that needs a hero. Those of us who never believed in Pyne were vindicated at such a terrible cost; those who thought he deserved the benefit of the doubt are so far beyond mistaken, it's embarrassing all round.As Education Minister, he might have found a way to channel more money to the state's creaking institutions - but all he did was propose $100k degrees (increasing the impetus for talented young South Australians to flee their state), and open gimcrack colleges that collapsed before students could complete their courses. South Australia backed Pyne for decades and had hoped for more from him than he could ever deliver. "We will support all Australian students to embrace the digital age" - yeah, right. When the naval construction contracts went to Spain over Adelaide, the story made the news in Sydney but it did not carry the full anguish from South Australia. It went way beyond Port and the Crows bundled out of the footy finals. It was a realisation that their final hopes were dashed, despite doing everything they could within the system to get some sort of relief. He's blown it. All the consultants who claim they can help him un-blow it are just taking donors' money under questionable pretences. Pyne has compromised and triangulated so much, like Hillary Clinton in this masterful examination of US politics, that it isn't clear who he is any more. Maybe it isn't even clear to him. He's Minister for Industry from a de-industrialising state, when the BCA and the IPA expect him to sell the unsellable and judge hm accordingly. The new Liberal candidate for Boothby would want to be a cracker because otherwise Adelaide will be an all-Labor city in Federal Parliament, like Canberra or Newcastle. If there's a double dissolution, the top two Liberal Senate candidates will be Bernardi and David Fawcett, two right-wing goons (if the standard half-Senate election, just Fawcett). Next on their list is Senator Sean Edwards, former real estate agent and transactional pol who put together the painstaking case for frigates and submarines to be built in Adelaide. If Edwards loses (as well he might - your 3-3 half-Senate election results are less likely going forward) it will be another one in the eye for the standard politics of representing your constituency and having your voice heard in Canberra; it will be the government's own fault for failing to respect assiduous grass-roots politics. The next state election is in 2018 and the Franchisee is unlikely to take things forward. Chris Pyne may well be a private citizen, and we'll see what his extensive experience is worth then. Xenophon's federal focus will see his party play a limited role. Bernardi will trash Safe Schools and abortion, but otherwise have little to offer education or health. People will still vote for those guys, though.HoldfastThe seismic shift in SA politics places a heavy load on Labor's internal processes to keep the state government honest and vital, and stop them sending monkeys to Canberra. When Sam talks about 2036 he looks forward to a time when the children will indeed be the future but most of his party's current members will be dead. He may well be the last SA Liberal leader, or at least the last where the party is clearly the second-biggest party in the state's politics. All centrists get accused of being neither one thing nor the other. Most centrists muddle through with a bit of both and something else besides. The SA Liberals have none of that, not any more, and they won't be getting any in. They've abandoned the centre and the dingoes on the right have abandoned them. The state is stagnating economically, so any donor money is going to have to flow in from outside. The Queensland Libs struggled along as the branch office of a national movement for so long, and then gave up on themselves just as conservatives came to realise they needed the suburban south-east more than a shiny new civic centre at Woop Woop. Whyalla isn't falling back on small business grandees, but on renewable energy - no help from the Libs there. The drought will exacerbate water quality problems in the Murray River, but the Liberal MP who represents that area has spent half a million dollars renovating his office. The SA Libs don't have Nationals but that's the least of their problems. They don't have enough to fall back on, and conservatives need something to be nostalgic about. Playford, Hall, Tonkin, Brown, and Olsen aren't a heritage: they're answers in a pub quiz.The only future the SA Libs have is to show the rest of their party what structural decline looks like, and that majoritarian arrogance (what US Congressional Republicans call "the nuclear option") is a non-starter. Maybe lack of background will benefit the SA Libs, as it did for Tonkin and Brown, but only briefly - and it's too late for Saul. There may be a reconciliation of left and/or right after Xenophon or Bernardi, but you can't bet on the SA Liberals being led by broad-coalition community-minded people who could pull that off.