No premier will be watching how events unfold in New South Wales with the relaxation of coronavirus restriction than South Australia’s Steven Marshall.
Why? South Australia is due to go to the polls in mid-March next year and right now Marshall is in a world of political pain. After delivering the state Liberals their first unambiguous election win since 1993 at the 2016 election yet another defection by a member to the crossbench means Marshall now leads a minority government. He is under pressure from conservatives in party ranks, within the parliament and out, over an agenda that has seen both euthanasia and relaxed abortion laws passed. Then there’s the matter of the virus.
South Australia has had a good pandemic, so to speak, with little drama other than the embarrassment of the “pizza box strain” of Covid-19. There has been virtually nothing in the way of lockdowns, or nothing compared to Sydney or Melbourne, and little in the way of cases or deaths.
And that’s exactly what the problem is. Our Labor leader, Peter Malinauskas, has accused Marshall of outsourcing governing to Chief Health Officer Nicola Spurrier and Police Commissioner Grant Stevens, who wields enormous powers as the state’s emergency commission.
Malinauskas now has two lines of attack. He’s not only accusing Marshall of refusing to lead the state through the pandemic but using Liberal ructions to say Marshall is unable to manage his own party. Fused into one they become a powerful weapon; that Marshall is unable to manage his party and has handed over covid management to the CHO and police because he is unable to govern.
A barely coherent hotch-potch of regulations apply across the state, but life in Adelaide largely remains as usual. Masks are optional. There might be no dancing, but if they can open bars and nightclubs, restaurants and cafes — along with other businesses — trade relatively normally, particularly when compared with Sydney or Melbourne. People able to work from home are doing so, damaging the Adelaide CBD but, otherwise, the largest sign of a pandemic is draconian border restrictions that have shut the state away almost as firmly as Western Australia.
With NSW opening, Marshall has faced fresh pressure from the Adelaide business community this weekend to move to relax restrictions.
The Premier has said he will follow the pathway set down by the National Cabinet. This line may have worked for a while but now appears too vague, especially with Christmas looming and given that virtually every other premier is doing their own thing.
In the last week, Marshall has made some comments about opening up by December but these have been vague.
He will have to move soon or Malinauskas’ attack will begin to bite.
South Australia is scarcely an economic powerhouse. Business and local higher education providers will be able to provide credible cases for relaxing restrictions. Voters will want to be able to move about, to travel interstate, to see and receive family from elsewhere. They like the idea of being able to get out over Christmas and the New Year.
Which, of course, is where the trouble for Marshall is. SA has remained blessedly free from the Delta strain of coronavirus despite a couple of close calls with infected transport workers moving through the state. An open Christmas and New Year could turn this all about weeks out from the election (and health, remember, is a traditional Labor strength, and the Labor opposition ferocious over the state of local hospitals).
Marshall is a creation of the Pyne moderates. He has never really shown a spine. This is the reason for much of his internal troubles. He is no powerbroker in his own right. He has left the work to others.
Now he has to make tough decisions, to take a stand. He might do a Dominic Perrottet. He might follow Mark McGowan’s lead (South Australians are deeply parochial and refuse to take any responsibility for their economic decline). But whichever way he goes, Marshall will have to make decisions otherwise Malinauskas’ criticisms will be proven accurate.
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