Political spin-doctors are, once more, strutting their stuff in the South Australian election, ensuring that real issues are obscured behind glossy presentations, slogans and clichés. But, despite their best efforts, voters may yet discern that there is a real choice for them to make, Davydd Williams reports.
On the face of it, the looming State Election in South Australia is, once again, a choice between tweedledum and tweedledee. The rhetoric of both parties sounds much the same – schools, hospitals, families – even if, in fact, what either party means by these slogans is quite different from the other. This campaign technique of same-sounding policies is the fruit of political professionals who tend to minimise the real differences between parties, so as to rely on the superficialities of style, personality and presentation to get their man up.
This was nowhere more evident than in the 2001 Federal Election, where the ALP cried "me too" to the Howard Government’s policy response to the increasing violation of our borders by people-smugglers.
Internal dissent to this "bipartisan" approach by the ALP was ruthlessly put down by its political managers. In the event, however, the people saw the spin for what it was and elected to stay with the Government on the grounds that it was more likely to stick to its rhetoric after the election was over. In retrospect, given the backflip on the issue within ALP ranks since the election, they were wise indeed.
But in South Australia, despite the usual homophonic policy environment, voters are presented with a real choice and, at the same time, get to render a verdict on two contrasting views of the political process.
In a sense, it’s a choice between two legacies – the Dunstan legacy of Opposition Leader Mike Rann, and the Playford legacy of Premier Rob Kerin.
Mike Rann is a trained professional politician, whose CV might be a blueprint for how to succeed in the ALP. Blessed with working class parents, he was an anti-nuclear-testing activist, has a Masters in Politics and worked as a political journalist with Aunty’s cousin, the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation, before beginning a career as a press secretary with successive ALP Leaders and Premiers Don Dunstan, Des Corcoran and John Bannon.
Naturally enough, this led to his obtaining pre-selection for a seat in the SA Parliament, to which he was elected in 1985, gaining portfolio responsibilities in the Bannon and Arnold Governments, before the ALP’s electoral disaster of 1993. He has been Leader of the Opposition since 1994 and, at the last State Election in 1997, achieved a swing of more than nine per cent, to bring the Olsen Government into a minority in the House of Assembly.
In a way, though, this impeccable ALP apprenticeship for high office has been both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it has enabled him to gain the support of the party and its factional power brokers, first for pre-selection and thence for leadership of the Parliamentary Party. He is solidly entrenched.
On the other hand, in the real world, his background is so out-of-touch with ordinary Australians that they are in danger of doubting that he really is able to understand their problems, let alone devise policies aimed at meeting them.
Rann attempts to bridge this "credibility gap" by rhetoric. He is a master of the mantra and rarely fails to mention "family", "hospitals" or "schools" – or all three – in the answer to every question he is asked. He is able to easily impress interviewers and press colleagues by giving them what they want for their evening news programs – a quick fix sound byte. Not for nothing is he known as "Media Mike".
But his media savvy and articulateness has a down side as well. That same skill, in the ears of the average South Aussie, seems a bit too smart and cosy, with slick clichés and slogans coming thick and fast at the expense of real policy.
Mike Rann is the product of a political process that emerged in South Australia with Don Dunstan. It is a process that focuses on style rather than substance, on appearances rather than realities, on polls rather than people. It is becoming increasingly the process of all major political parties, to the extent that, when a Pauline Hanson comes along, she is able to capture a large share of the vote just by not being a "professional" politician.
Up against high flyer Rann is short-term Premier Rob Kerin, as much a contrast in styles as it is possible to see in Australia today. Accidentally elevated to the Premiership on the resignation of John Olsen last October, Kerin is the beneficiary of the internecine feuding of the SA Liberals between the Olsen faction and that of former Premier (and present Deputy) Dean Brown.
Eschewing logical successor Brown on the fall of their leader, the Olsen faction threw its muscle behind the relatively unknown and unsung Kerin who, although Deputy to Olsen, was there mainly to keep Brown out of the job, rather than for any qualities he might have in himself. Or so it was thought at the time.
Born and raised in the Liberal heartland of South Australia’s Mid-North, Kerin grew up on the family farm near the village of Crystal Brook, before spending two years at the University of Adelaide studying economics. A bout of illness sent him home without a degree, but with a vision to develop a business serving the local farming community. This he did, establishing a successful agricultural business, which continues to play an important role in the district today.
At the same time, Kerin was making friends and contacts throughout the MidNorth, not only by way of his business, but also through sporting associations, in which he was active. His was a classic small town background and his entry into politics was seen, by some, as a throwback to days long gone.
But since ascending to the Premiership, this small town businessman has managed to convey a refreshingly different style, not only to his predecessor, but, significantly, to the Opposition Leader.
Whereas Olsen was, like Rann, a slick political professional and careerist, Kerin brings a much greater asset to his Premiership – that is, an easy identification with the man on the street. If Rann typifies the Dunstan legacy, then Kerin wears the mantle of another SA Premier, long-serving Tom Playford.
Besides their small-town and farming backgrounds, Kerin and Playford share other qualities – the strengths of self-effacement, humility, sincerity, industry and determination, for example. These are qualities that strike a chord in the hearts of the average Australian.
Even in their political weaknesses, there are similarities – Playford was never seen as a great orator and Kerin can be positively inarticulate, particularly in responding to questions from a hungry media "on the run".
What this all means is that the South Australian election offers unusual interest for keen students of Australia’s social evolution. Before October, the only speculation in this election seemed to be over the margin by which the slick Olsen would be clobbered by the slicker Rann.
Now, the key question seems to be – will South Aussies reflect the widespread frustration and dissatisfaction with politics today and disdain style in favour of a more substantial examination of candidates? Will cynicism or nostalgia triumph? Charisma or character?
Whose legacy will guide South Australia for the next four years – that of Don Dunstan or Tom Playford?