Tale of two premiers plays to mixed reviews
VOTERS are a fickle lot. The extent of their capriciousness can be told with the tale of two governments: Mike Rann’s generally competent Labor administration in South Australia, which is facing possible defeat today, and that crazy sideshow act in NSW now under the care of a new ringleader, a likable American-born woman called Kristina Keneally, who is harnessing public sympathy if not pity as the basis for an improbable political comeback.
Rann has presided over a state where job growth has surged and investment has boomed. The one-time basket case of the national economy, which younger people (like me) were keen to flee in the backdraft of the State Bank collapse 15 years ago, now finds itself in the once-unimaginable position of having the lowest level of unemployment in Australia.
At the turn of the century Adelaide looked like Detroit without the gangs. Its working-class southern and northern suburbs were filled with boarded-up reminders of a glorious manufacturing past; those factories that used to make car components, whitegoods and textiles were all closing as this small and geographically disadvantaged state stood powerless against globalisation.
Off the back of mineral exploration, some of it co-funded by the Rann government and a burgeoning defence industry, the state is now chugging along nicely.
In NSW, where there have been three premiers in just a little more than 12 months and the party was forced to look off-shore for a new human sacrifice for the most poisoned leadership chalice in the land, the economy that once powered the nation has become a dead weight around its neck.
In terms of service delivery the government has bordered on inhumane in its treatment of its tax-paying citizens, nowhere more so than in hospitals and roads.
Its inability to craft a workable and expanded rail system has become the stuff of eye-rolling and droll gags in front bars and among mothers’ groups across the state.
It doesn’t matter who you talk to in NSW, everyone thinks the state has been neglected by a pack of incompetents who were saved at the 2007 election only by a hapless opposition and who should get their comeuppance in March next year. So which of these two premiers is in trouble?
That’s right, it’s the SA Premier.
In less than 12 months, Rann’s approval rating has plummeted from a stunning 75 per cent. It was once as high as 80 per cent, yet he now trails Opposition Leader Isobel Redmond, who is just eight months in the job compared with his eight years as Premier.
The party vote also has collapsed, so much so that Labor is looking at best at forming a minority government in a hung parliament with the support of independents, or even of being turfed out altogether.
In NSW, Labor’s party vote remains stuck at about 30 per cent. But Opposition Leader Barry O’Farrell has failed to turn the ubiquitous disgust with Labor’s performance into a groundswell of personal support.
In the four short months since Keneally rolled Nathan Rees she has managed to pull in front of O’Farrell as preferred premier.
The NSW Liberals seem almost professionally deluded in their ambivalence towards this fact. As Peter van Onselen wrote scathingly earlier this month, O’Farrell was so foolish as to attend a fundraiser in his own electorate a few weeks ago that was billed as a cocktail night to celebrate the coming victory of the NSW Liberals. Don’t count on it, Baz. If anyone can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory it is the NSW Liberal Party.
When your most memorable achievements have been to shred sacrosanct conservative policy positions by opposing privatisation, or siding with the Greens to block school leagues tables, this kind of cockiness and complacency is spectacularly misplaced.
The seemingly probable demise, at the time of writing, of Rann and the remarkable recovery of Keneally say a lot about Australian politics, in that we may be at a point where personality triumphs policy in the minds of many voters.
Inane as it sounds, the main problem Rann has is that a lot of people simply don’t like him that much. Equally, you can’t help but feel sorry for that nice Keneally.
The X-factor for Rann—you could more accurately label it the XXX factor—is the scandal involving Michelle Chantelois. A former parliamentary waitress, Chantelois came forward last year with a salacious potboiler of a story alleging an affair with the Premier. Rann, who was unmarried at the time, has vehemently denied the allegations and taken legal action against those who ran them as fact. The story only emerged after a chance encounter between Rann and Chantelois’s estranged husband Rick Phillips at the Adelaide Wine Centre last October, when Phillips punched Rann repeatedly in the face with a rolled-up copy of a wine magazine. It was a very South Australian form of assault, a bit like glassing someone with a Riedel flute of Tim Knappstein’s delicious sparkling shiraz.
But for Rann it was obviously terrifying and the obsessive behaviour of both Chantelois and Phillips in the aftermath must be unnerving for him.
For all that, there has been little sympathy for the Premier; quite the opposite in fact. During the fortnight I have been in SA covering this campaign, many people have pointed to Rann’s initial explanation of that assault as the beginning of his demise.
After the attack Rann said publicly that he had never met Phillips. It was true, he hadn’t. But his statement conveyed the impression that Rann had no idea who Phillips was. He definitely knew, as he later confirmed that the relationship he had with the married Chantelois was “flirty”, despite insisting it never went beyond that.
This racy episode has coincided with the biggest drop in Rann’s and Labor’s support and kept him distracted throughout the campaign. And while voters don’t really care whether anything did or didn’t happen between Rann and Chantelois, it was Rann’s explanation that became the touchstone for perceptions that he’s the consummate spinner who could talk his way out of anything.
This perception has been amplified further by Redmond’s infectious and unpolished political style, her inability to speak in short grabs, her endearing sincerity in trying to answer every question that comes her way, her general lack of poise.
The things that are often seen as negatives for politicians have become positives for her because they contrast so markedly with Rann’s style as a career politician.
One person who will be watching today’s result with particularly interest is Rann’s good friend and ally Kevin Rudd. Should Rann fall to a knockabout new opponent who is winning plaudits for speaking her mind on a range of issues, for eschewing the stage-managed or jargon-laden approach to politics, and being marked up for freshness and energy, the chilling parallel will not be lost on the Prime Minister.
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