Friday, 30 May 2014
The South Australian Labor Party is so clearly out of talent it has to reach into the ranks of the Liberal Party to fill its Ministry.
Liberal MP Jamie Biggs’s response to Hamilton-Smith’s defection. Perhaps not quite thought through.
If Queensland continues to show with its latest product that it remains the home of anti-politics, on Tuesday South Australia showed, in fairly spectacular fashion, that it remains the home of its flipside, the political class’s response of technocracy.
Hamilton-Smith’s defection is, of course, not the first seen in Australian politics, nor is it the first time this state Labor government has had political opponents in the cabinet, with ex-Liberals like Rory McEwan and National MP Karlene Maywald in the Rann Labor Cabinet. Yet there are some features of not only the defection, but the response to it, that make it illustrative of the curious state of politics today.
The first striking aspect of the defection is the policy driven nature of it. There has been no change of view on policy by Hamilton-Smith nor any by the state government, but here we have someone supposedly from the conservative side of the Liberal party joining a state government led (unusually) by someone from Labor’s left – and there is no problem. Hamilton-Smith can claim he’s “a Liberal and will always remain a Liberal” while being a senior Minister in a Labor government.
The Liberals are understandably claiming that Hamilton-Smith defected for less pure motives, a Ministerial salary, spite, etc. This may be true, who knows. But the point is Hamilton-Smith and Weatherill could present it as a policy decision and get away with it. Given that they are supposed to represent the polar opposites of the Australian political spectrum, what exactly is that spectrum about?
But even if it’s accepted that there is little policy difference between the parties these days, and it’s all just a political game, there are some questions raised by that as well. For a start, it was not just that Hamilton-Smith was the leader of a Liberal party trying to oust the Labor government just five years ago – surely there can be few Liberal leaders for whom the fight was so bitter and personal. The “dodgy documents” affair, when Hamilton-Smith claimed the Rann government took money from the Church of Scientology, resulted in him being personally sued by senior Labor figures for defamation, one of who is now greeting him to Cabinet.
But at a more important level, it also raises a question about the nature of government now given that traditionally a party-led government would mean Cabinet is a political, as well as governing, body. This is a government that is currently conducting a political campaign against the federal government, as Labor’s last state government. Hamilton-Smith has said he will recuse himself from any Cabinet discussions that talk of the federal campaign, but what about when politics comes up against the state party whose values he still claims to identify with?
That this sort of thing should happen in South Australia is not a coincidence. If Queensland’s low urbanisation and decentralisation meant the two party system there has been weak, making it a breeding ground for anti-politics populists, South Australia should be the opposite. A high level of urbanisation and the (historical) importance of heavy industry gave it a politics more like that of the bigger states on the east coast than the smaller regional ones.
Yet there are a couple of factors that meant South Australia has also shown more clearly the hollowing out of the two party system. One factor could be that the high urbanisation never saw political representation, with a gerrymander keeping Labor out of government for decades, despite its strong presence in Adelaide. The “playmander”, which kept the LCL in power for over 30 years until the 1960s has shaped both parties and speeded up the process of the hollowing out of the major parties – even if they remain dominant on the political scene.
One consequence for Labor of being excluded from office for so long was to weaken the ties between the unions and a party that never saw the light of government. It was in South Australia where Whitlam’s “modernising program” of weakening those ties was first tested with the ascension of Dunstan to the state leadership in 1967 and, after the gerrymander was broken, ensconced firmly in power for a decade. South Australian Clyde Cameron was also key in helping Whitlam do the same in the federal arena, even if with a bit less electoral success.
During the 1980s, the Centre Left faction, strongest in South Australia, played a critical role in helping Hawke manage the left-right divide in Canberra to bring in his reform programme. And in the late 1990s, Rann took this further with being not only one of the first Labor leaders not to be from either faction but also drawing political opponents into the Cabinet. In a sense, Weatherill coming from the left in a party dominated by the Right is following in Rees’s footsteps in NSW, by taking advantage of disarray in the right, but with a bit more success in seeing off attempts by factional leaders to recover the status quo than Rees (or Rudd).
Yet if this demonstrates the increasing flexibility (some might say hollowness) of Labor that’s been a long time coming, probably more revealing is the reaction of the Liberals. At one level, their tactic of launching a deeply personal attack on Hamilton-Smith is pretty dumb. The government’s majority is still tight, and they might need him one day. They did a similar tactic to another renegade Liberal, Peter Lewis, which was also counter-productive until Howard called them off.
But of course parliamentary tactics are not the only consideration. In Canberra the Liberals are going through a branding exercise and nowhere do they need it more than South Australia. Here again, a consequence of the playmander was that it made Liberals largely rural-based, so the tension between the metropolitan and rural right was never managed through the Nationals being a separate party as in the eastern states. The tension broke open in the late 1960s when Liberal Premier Steele Hall broke the gerrymander and then later resigned to form his own party.
Forty years later and whatever principle there was in the tensions has just descended to a vipers nest of random personal rivalries and groupings. Just how pleasant it is suggested by one report that claims that some senior Liberals are thinking of a purge of some of the party’s most senior figures in a sweep of by-elections, which they hope to win after what is supposed to be a horror state budget in June – thereby demonstrating the political astuteness that has kept them out of power for over a decade. The one small flaw in this, er, bold plan was that after having purged the old to clear the decks, as the report suggests, there is a lack of new blood to replace it anyway.
It is no wonder that Liberals have leapt on the defection in the hope it is the one issue that, as one put it, will finally unite the warring factions in a single purpose. Hence the histrionics. It is unlikely to do so, with a less united front behind the scenes and even a former Liberal Premier claiming he could understand Hamilton-Smith’s actions.
Will Weatherill’s coup work? It’s not so clear. The backlash in early polls has been described by The Advertiser as “huge”. Well, huge-ish. The call of betrayal itself is unlikely to have much resonance beyond the dwindling band of party partisans. Yet the golden age of technocracy has passed with the fall of Rudd and most of the state Labor governments that preceded him. The mood has turned even sourer, and while people will care little of what Hamilton-Smith did to the Liberals, they might be receptive if it can be shown he did it for less altruistic reasons.
Indeed the very need by Weatherill to recruit one of their most hated opponents in order to shore up their majority is testament to the weakening grip of the technocrat government model compared to even a few years ago – even if the weakness of the Liberals has allowed him to get away with it. But as media commentators have finally picked up after the Budget, the age of South Australian technocracy has passed anyway, and the age of less tidy Queensland anti-politics is now well and truly upon us.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Friday, 30 May 2014.Filed under State and federal politics