Economic climate has Rann in the sun

Premier Rann is surfing the good times all the way to a second term, some tricky cross-currents not withstanding.
By Geoff Anderson


BECAUSE POLITICS IS essentially about the interaction of human beings it remains always fascinating and almost entirely unpredictable. Nevertheless, politicians, as well as those who observe and comment on them, thrive on the contemplation of the imponderables that shape political fortunes. So can we draw any conclusions from the year just past that will provide clues to how 2005 will play out, remembering that with an election on March 18, 2006, the pace of politics will rapidly accelerate over the next twelve months?

The consensus among media commentators is that in the wake of the Attorney-General’s problems with so-called ’hidden funds‘, an unexpectedly bad result in an opinion poll, and ongoing collateral damage from federal Labor’s defeat on October 9, the State Government has finished the current political year on a low note.

It is, however, all too easy to exaggerate such moments and the extent to which they might influence voters over the longer term, or more precisely when they enter the polling booth. Regardless of which party is in power it is not unusual for governments to run into problems at this time of the year. Politicians are not immune from the irascibility and impatience that can come with the anticipation of holidays after a long working year. So mistakes get made and arguments happen. And, anyone who has ever experienced the last few weeks of a Parliamentary sitting will know the slight insanity that the imminent end of the year can bring on.

But despite the problems of the last few weeks, by most objective criteria it has been a good year for Mike Rann and his government. The release of the South Australian Strategic Plan has given the Public Service direction and provided a framework around which the government can speak to voters about its future vision. Despite the woes of Mitsubishi, and now Ion and Allied Engineering, the state’s economy appears to be defying gravity, while the unemployment rate has fallen to lows not seen for more than a decade. The holy grail of a triple A rating is firmly in the Treasurer’s hands, and alongside the good economic news has been the absence of major problems in the electorally sensitive areas of education and health – indeed, there has been in many respects steady progress.
Meanwhile, the Premier’s approval ratings are orbiting above the political stratosphere and with the one exception the polls suggest he is on track for a second term.

Nevertheless, it does seem that on the eve of what is effectively an election year the controversy over transfers in and out of the Crown Solicitor’s Account may have given the Liberal Opposition what it has so far lacked: an issue which has political legs, and the potential to distract the media from the good news. It is surprising, given the political astuteness of the government, that these problems are starting to look a bit like self-inflicted wounds. While the importance of the principle of adhering to Treasurer’s Instructions cannot be denied, it is odd that the government seemed intent from day one on raising the temperature and elevating the breach to a major issue, even a crisis. Perhaps given the language and behaviour of the Auditor-General they had had little choice, and the game is always easier to play from the commentary box. But a “more in sorrow than anger” approach might have kept the temperature down and avoided public brawls with public servants, which can often get messy and out of control.

And while Ministers might rightly feel aggrieved that public servants have not followed the financial rules, and want to ensure that those officers shoulder the blame, voters do not always easily distinguish between the Public Service and the government. And they were well educated when Labor was in opposition to believe that ministers are in always in charge and always responsible.

For an Opposition that has enjoyed little traction for the past three years it’s an issue they will obviously try keep on the boil. They are also trying hard to ensnare other ministers as they trawl through the documents that have been demanded by the Opposition-controlled Legislative Council Select Committee that is investigating the matter. As this edition of The Adelaide Review is published Kate Lennon, the former CEO at the centre of the affair, is due to give evidence. All of which should ensure that the story keeps running into the new year. But, as uncomfortable as this might be for the Attorney and the government, will it be enough in the short 15 months remaining of this term to shake the voters’ faith in Premier Mike Rann?

Legislative Council Committees carry some weight, but they are still essentially politicians judging other politicians and lack immediate credibility. Mike Rann in Opposition won an independent judicial inquiry into whether John Olsen had misled the Parliament. But the Liberal government at that time did not control the numbers in the House of Assembly. Given that two of the independents who brought that about are now in Cabinet, and the other two are the Speaker and Deputy Speaker, it’s a course of action unlikely to be repeated.

There are of course other political imponderables that will shape 2005. At the top of the list is the trial of the Premier’s former senior adviser, Randall Ashbourne, who is charged with offering an inducement to former labor Deputy Leader Ralph Clarke to drop legal action against the Attorney-General. It would be dangerous (politically and legally) to speculate on the outcome of this event, but a criminal trial involving the Attorney as a possible witness (perhaps even the Premier) can’t be all that helpful.

But when it comes to what influences the decisions of voters, the federal election appears to have proved the point that in the absence of major scandal or gross incompetence Australian voters do not change governments when economic times are good and confidence in the future is high. To date there is no sense that voters see either the problems surrounding the Attorney-General or Randall Ashbourne in any category that would take precedence over economic success.
Those good times could, of course, change, and that is a real imponderable for the government given it has no control over the major decisions that affect the health of the national economy on which we depend. The fall in the value of the US dollar, fluctuations in the strength of our own currency, the end of the housing boom; a combination of changes in the international and national environment could send our prosperity pear-shaped. But you can’t base an election campaign on such a possibility.

The government led by Mike Rann operates on high levels of political energy and policy development built around continuous campaigning. This style has won support but has the potential to come unstuck if the policies that are announced to deal with immediate problems throw up contradictions over the longer term. But, it hasn’t happened yet. The Opposition is still looking for the traction that will keep them on top of the political debate, and the imponderables of politics are yet to line up in their favour. If the government is to face problems in the future it is likely that they will be such as to make Labor’s second term difficult, rather than bring their first to an end.

“There is no sense that voters see either the problems surrounding the Attorney-General or Randall Ashbourne in any category that would take precedence over economic success.”

Geoff Anderson