What’s going on in the South Australian Labor Party? Federal powerbroker Senator Don Farrell, having lost his seat in September, has decided to continue his career as a legislator by entering the South Australian parliament and called upon his considerable connections to parachute himself into a safe seat. There’s nothing particularly strange about that, from Farrell’s perspective the South Australian Labor Party is heading for a shellacking anyway so it wouldn’t really do much extra harm to their electoral chances and it would allow him to continue his career in public life for which he clearly has a fair bit of passion.
Premier Jay Weatherill responded by blocking Farrell’s entry into state politics, threatening to resign just months out from an election if the deal went through. There’s nothing strange about that either, having prised the leadership from Mike Rann’s fingers some eighteen months ago, Weatherill is now facing what appears to be the end of his political career at the young age of 49. If Weatherill loses the election he will be, to quote the Prime Minister, political road kill. It is therefore understandable that the Premier is not so resigned to defeat as Farrell is, and not so prepared to give the opposition an inch. So he road roughshod over the party processes and went directly to the public to block Farrell’s appointment leaving Farrell with no choice but to withdraw.
This is the sort of tactic you can only really get away with if you’re the leader and even then if you do it too often you might find your party gets tired of it and cuts you down as in the case of Kevin Rudd, but Weatherill is facing oblivion in less than two months so he can afford to be trigger happy. There is nothing Farrell or the party can do to him that is worse than the fate that awaits him if he loses the election.
The intriguing element however is that a string of South Australian Labor identities: Kate Ellis, Michael O’brien and Amanda Rishworth to name a few, has emerged queuing up to tell the world how wonderful Farrell is. Given that Farrell has now withdrawn his candidacy and the election is in seven weeks one might have thought it was in Labor’s interests to put the issue behind them and move forward, unless of course they plan to resume hostilities after the election, which I fear is the case, gulp.
It’s clear from the reactions of senior Labor identities that Weatherill hasn’t smashed any factional nexus by staring down Farrell. Unlike his factionally neutral predecessor who kept the factions on the outer for nearly a decade by hiding behind good election results, Weatherill’s only really managed to keep one of them off the parliamentary payroll for a few extra months. After Weatherill loses the election a new leader will be chosen, one palatable to Farrell and as normality resumes those who stuck by Farrell through these seven weeks of defiance will be safe from any recriminations.
Of course all this is predicated on the assumption that Labor will lose the election. If Labor wins Weatherill will be the come from behind hero, his political capital enormous. And having dug his heels in so deeply to block Farrell before the South Australian powerbroker will find it nigh upon impossible to muscle his way in through a by election which raises the scariest question of all, does South Australian Labor want to win the election? Or having accepted the inevitably of defeat have they began grimly preparing for life after Weatherill and if so will they drag their feet through the election campaign? It was hard not to notice Stephen Conroy’s restrained jubilation on September 7 2013 as he watched Kevin Rudd’s glittering career end in flames, so too must some Labor figures be inwardly hoping for a small but decisive defeat for Jay Weatherill in March. The terrifyingly Machiavellian question is: how badly do they want it?