26 March 2016

Heave away, haul away

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-two

Nick 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 franchisee

Labor 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 fixed

Christopher 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.


The 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.


  1. You have explained some of the machinations behind the Liberal party selection process that has resulted in the current crop of prats that populate it.

    Maybe I'm naive but they seem to be much more ideologically driven than in the past, certainly with extreme right, religious philosophies that oscillate weirdly between the capitalist work ethic and Catholic social teaching (http://tinyurl.com/3w69bg6). Maybe Pyne is the embodiment of this.

    I have often wondered (perhaps in replies to some of your blogs) what has caused this. I sense the dead hand of John Howard, who I reckon exhibited extreme cunning but little intellectual rigour.

    In fact, I reckon Howard's machinations have fucked the Liberals and shifted them from a benign and representative political force to a an outlet for the desires and needs of Sydney spivs.

    I only have circumstantial evidence for this. Could I be on the right track?
    Cheers, Bil

    1. I've said for a while, the gfc showed that right wing economics doesn't work. The man who worked for teagan and invented the term trickle down economics now writes boiks about why it doesnt work. So the economic literates left. The global warming denial caused the scientific literates to leave. The treatment of refugees caused the decent people to leave. Bronny's local membership has gone from 1600 to around 400 in 4 years. Those that remain to do preselection duties are true believers who believe the same things as abbott, bernardi and crew. The liberals will not be able to get anyone sane through preselection.

  2. With reference to SA there are 2 sources of power and influence that should enter any local political equation.
    1. The Advertiser - and all its subsidiaries, those mediums which take its agenda and analysis as their starting points eg radio, TV, ABC included.

    2.Within the ALP the SDA union aka the "Shoppies" - the extremist Catholic Right. They just about run the show.
    Farrell, Koutsontonis, Malinauskas are just the tip.

    I thought the SDA hold may have been weakened after 4 tactical defeats - when Weatherill publicly slapped Farrell down before the last state election - after Farrell was forced to concede #1 Senate position to Wong - De Bruyn got rolled by Shorten and Plibersek on the SSM issue at the ALP national conference - after the expose of SDA protege Bernard Finnigan as a 'paedophile'.
    Since then the ALP indecorously rushed Malinauskas into Finnigan's slot and then just as indecorously into Cabinet.
    And the latest rumour [?] is that Farrell is going to be resurrected by being given the #2 slot on the Senate ticket.

    After a lifetime of involvement with the SA ALP the situation is such that now I wouldn't want to come within a mile of their nastiness.

  3. I live in regional SA and this is a spot on analysis Andrew.
    I look on in disbelief as the Libs pre-select ninnies in safe (state) seats who are no chance of making the front bench - and have you seen the state of their front bench?

  4. I came of age in Dunstan's Adelaide, then left to live in the real world. This essay is an excellent analysis of the decay of decency.

  5. Danny Lewis27/3/16 11:49 am

    The dysfunction at the heart of the SA Liberal Party is on show most starkly at every state election. Forget the BS we always read about the electoral boundaries: the fact is the Libs will probably always win the rural seats, so they only need to knock over a couple of ALP marginals and they are back in government.

    Except they haven't been able to. Even Labor's low-hanging fruit hang on. And that is partly because the Libs are really, really crappy campaigners who have repeatedly chosen really, really crappy candidates.

    This doesn't matter in rural electorates - where people will vote Liberal come hell or high water - but in areas where the voters do actually excercise their little grey cells the choice of candidate and the campaign they run actually DOES matter. A lot.

    As does party unity and the sense that everyone is singing from the same song sheet. The barely-concealed factional rivalries that date back to the late 1960s have often raised their ugly heads during election campaigns, and as the saying goes, disunity is death. Add to that the sheer incompetence of some of their MPs (some truly ridiculous gaffe in the last week of the campaigns) and the rise of the real uglies - the DLP types like Bernardi - and you can see why the party is having to constantly push shit uphill.

    What the SA Libs need more than anything else is a DLP-style split; get rid of Bernardi and the other crazies and move the remainder of the party back to the sensible centre. That way they can develop policies that appeal to centre voters and will, in turn, attract sensible people to the party and, in time, see the development of strong and appealing candidates. Yes, some of the old rivalries will remain, but a huge proportion will also be hived off to the crazy party.

    Meanwhile the crazy party will garner a certain percentage of the vote that will come back via preferences at a rate much higher than Greens to ALP. In the wash-up, nothing would be lost but a whole lot would be gained.

    If I was in the SA Liberals I would be doing everything in my power to encourage Bernardi to make good on his threat and bugger off to the "Australian Conservatives". It would mark the first day of the rest of their lives.

    1. Correct. Call him out. Split the party and watch the parsitical canker die.

  6. The Liberal candidate for Boothby is Nicolle Flint (yes daughter of David) whose main claim to fame irc is a series of Judith Sloan like articles for the Australian- so no to the quality candidate for Boothby

    1. Lachlan Ridge28/3/16 4:54 pm

      Christ! You couldn't make that up, could you!

    2. She's an astonishingly stupid young woman.

    3. Also wrote a few articles on politics for Fairfax IIRC, initially without disclosing her party affiliation. People complained about the lack of disclosure, Ms Flint's lack of qualifications to commenting on politics for Fairfax, and the laughable quality of the articles and first her affiliation appeared, then her column disappeared.

    4. She's a kind of a "Planet Janet, Jr."

  7. The liberals in SA are hardly a blip on the horizon now. Everynow and the then Steve what's his face bobs up with some irrelevant drivel then disappears again without a trace. The fact is the ALP government in SA is a very good one and the liberals federally have trashed it in revenge.

  8. Lachlan Ridge28/3/16 4:53 pm

    Ah, Adelaide. As Paul Kally said, "all the kings horses, and all the kings men..."

    Jay Weatherill is a strange fish. He actually came out of Albo's Young Labour Left machine in NSW. Active at UNSW I believe? He has done the obligatory and superficial "transition" to "non-factional" (ho ho ho), to stop some loser from the SDA handing the state government to an undeserving Liberal Party by default.

    Yes, the SDA are an anomaly dating back to Whitlam's need to cut the base out from underneath the DLP in order to win seats (and government) in Victoria. Given that they are the outsourced HR arm of Coles and Woolworths they have a stronger and more viable financial base than, say, the Metalworkers, the ETU or, certainly, the construction and mining divisions of the CFMEU. This gives them clout within the ALP up to that point where unions continue to retain large voting blocs at conferences and in centralised preselections. But with the rise of intervention in preselection, affirmative action rules and the decline of the concept of the "safe seat", their ability to simply waltz into an entitlement is increasingly shaky.

    Yes, Malinauskas' rush to Finnegan's wake was unseemly, but the important part of the electorate (those that change their vote) didn't draw the link beyond the fact that they're both ALP and Finnegan was gone and Malinauskas was new. They got away with it.

    But the jig is looming for the SDA. theer are any number of whiny facebook pages having a go at them from their long suffering membership. This won't take too long to coalesce into an online movement, as the paranoid anti-Halal/Sharia law whingers did in 2012-13. I've worked with Gerard Dwyer, the SDA national secretary. Democracy doesn't come naturally to him. As they say in big retail, he isn't opportunity focused. The rigid Opus Dei strictures he lives under interweave with modern Australia like a semi trailer doing 100km/h interweaves with a stationary caravan. But given their primary service base is the management of big retail rather than their long suffering membership (SDA will be the first to roll over on weekend penalty rates, hanging Shorten et al out to dry in the process - you watch) they will hang aroujnd for as long as the current credit binge keeps retail bubbling away. The enxt downturn will be the end of them as anything like the influence they have today.

    And this is no bad thing. Especially if it opens up opportunities for other organisations to organise the workforce in retail.

  9. From Lachlan above:
    "But given their [SDA] primary service base is the management of big retail rather than their long suffering membership (SDA will be the first to roll over on weekend penalty rates, hanging Shorten et al out to dry in the process - you watch"

    They have already entered into a deal with the supermarket duopoly to get rid of penalty rates.

    From New Matilda

    " deal which trades off retail workers’ penalty rates in exchange for higher base-rate pay is proof – the South Australian shoppies union said today – that if employer groups negotiate in good faith their concerns over the cost of penalty rates can be addressed within the current system."

  10. Thanks for the SA specific analysis - very much appreciated.

    Even people who don't vote Liberal have an interest in the SA Liberals picking up their game but year in and year out they fail by (1) offering up weak candidates and displaying weak discipline and (2) being policy-free zones.

    It's still hilarious to me reading comments on any news article about SA's economic problems and finding a significant number of people personally attributing problems to 'Jay' and talking about how if only we voted Liberal things would be fine.

    I worked in the SA public service under the Olsen/Kerin Liberal governments and then under Rann almost until the end. The difference between the two was more or less in the choice of people for plum jobs and even that was surprisingly less different than you would think (small local talent pool, anyone?).

    Frankly the SA Liberals seem unable to say anything except 'cut payroll tax' and complaining about basic state revenue measures - most of which they would be unable to do anything about in Government. It's no surprise that the ALP manages to keep power even if they are most definitely tired.

    1. I suspect that the sell-off of ETSA casts a long shadow.

  11. Thank-you for an interesting analysis of the state of SA politics.

    I wish for the sake of balance that we actually had a Liberal opposition that was actually worth voting for but sadly they don't seem to have anything to offer and confirmed this at the last election by essentially running a campaign along the lines of "we aren't Jay Weatherill" and then seemed shocked when they couldn't convince people to vote for them despite Labor's long incumbency: I guess part of the issue is that that have nothing to say apart from 'no'. They were even stupid enough to run an "anti-tram extension" campaign several years ago when it was obvious that it was going to be a success (which it is)... I for one wish that someone like Minchin or Downer would try and rescue the Libs because at the moment they've turned into a ridiculous parody of themselves with no vision and no hope of winning the next election.

    As for Bernardi - I've never met anyone who has knowingly voted for that opinionated stooge. Why the hell is he at the top of their ticket - certainly not because any of the voting public in SA want him there, that's for sure.