Slings and Arrows: New government, old promises?

With South Australia’s new state government working through its first 100 days, Ash Whitefly looks back to Labor’s win in 2002 to ask just how much things have changed.

The ‘100 day’ countdown, a popular media invention that seeks to scrutinise, in fine detail, how the new state administration is progressing, is well underway.

The countdown focuses on the pledges that got tossed from the Party’s re-election bus, or dribbled out in TV doorstop interviews as the one-on-one fighting was being slugged out in the marginal electorates. For millennial South Australians this assessment phenomenon may be new, but for older others it means repetition of an event whose features only briefly emerge every four years, and between times are forgotten.

To refresh those memories, let’s climb aboard the SA Piping Shrike Tardis and go back to 100 days after Labor won its March 2002 struggle to get elected. It was the beginning of a long subsequent run of Labor terms. This is where time travel gets right spooky when we examine what the key issues were back then.

Here’s what the new opposition leader said in June 2002: “Almost 50 reviews have been announced, showing that after years in opposition, the [Labor] party came to power without any plans.” [And] “Broken election promises, reviews and a failure to address the hard issues summed up the government’s first 100 days.” More: “With the premier busy grabbing headlines, South Australians have been left with a rudderless government. It has no direction because of its inability to make tough decisions. … Since being delivered power by an independent, the government has announced a review almost every second day.”

The review cup runneth over

No fresh administration can jump from the starting block and start sprinting unless it fully comprehends the true nature of the running track. This is the philosophy that drips, like melting ice cream, down the suit lapels of new ministers sitting in the front row and waiting for instructions. Of course, 16 years on, everything is different. One should hesitate to compare; old issues are now so irrelevant.

Here’s a list of the 2002 matters immediately subject to review once the new team occupied parliament’s government suites. “A forum on the relationship between state government and councils. Child protection laws. Road safety laws. Management of Modbury hospital. Industry and trade spending. Major review of the health system. Price of electricity and contestability contracts. Riverland water contracts. North Terrace redevelopment.”

So yesterday.

In the public’s service

Across Adelaide’s metropolitan sprawl live vast numbers of public sector workers and their families, for whom the recent result carried much symbolism. Their spending oils the wheels of our small economy, without which it would probably grind to a halt. The machinery of state, so critical to the advancement of South Australian life, is of course so far advanced on 2002 that any comparison to those long-past days would be plain foolish.

But, at least for posterity’s sake, here’s a list of issues subject to 100-day close scrutiny once the 2002 team was able to move into parliament’s government suites. “Enhancing the public sector’s role in the community. A jobs program with an emphasis on youth. Commitments to boost school services officer numbers. Greater emphasis on regional development. An end to any further privatisations. The future funding of TAFE. An open review of all government contracts and outsourcing arrangements. Improvements in Freedom of Information. Commitments to the health sector. A state-wide audit of public infrastructure.”

So yesterday!

And, in regard to those infrastructure issues of old, Ash suggests that these recollections have now been relegated to the stuff of history — tilting bridges with crumbling bike path crossovers; collapsing high voltage electricity pylons leading to a state-wide blackout; regularly bursting suburban street water mains; and a new, $500,000 hospital digital patient records system that requires courier service delivery of paper from the suburbs to waiting doctors.

Couldn’t happen today. Surely not?

Laugh a minute

Of course, no great state can properly be declared civilised unless parliamentary procedures and habits are not in tip-top, accountable and transparent shape. Voters who weren’t paying attention back in 2002 (or were simply too young to vote) will have forgotten a list of demands by a just-elected independent MP whose decision effectively elected a government team. Labor had failed to secure a majority and feared it was opposition toast for another term. The demand, a ‘compact’ or agreement to deliver certain things, was critical to the history that followed. Of course it was plain silly, a folly of the highest order.

But for posterity’s sake, here’s the list, if only to illuminate the atmosphere at the time and to record that the new government faithfully promised to deliver in return for access to the levers of administration.

1. Introduction of optional preferential voting.

2. Significant increases in the number of parliamentary sitting days, and the hours of those days.

3. All bills to be referred to legislative committees and subject to public hearings.

4. A reform of question time procedure so that only the opposition can ask questions.

5. A mandate that only independent MPs (if any win) can be elected Speaker.

By now, Ash notes, you are falling about laughing. And, of course, very little resulted. But after every election earthquake, there’s always the possibility that this list might once again reappear on a premier’s desk, in return for collaboration on other future matters. It’s risky, of course, because the chief beneficiaries would be the people of South Australia. But you never can tell what might happen in unpredictable times…

Ash Whitefly is Executive Director of the Adelaide Whitefly Institute of Diplomatic Studies.

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