Communist Party of Australia

We acknowledge the Sovereignty of the First Nations’ Peoples.

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Issue #1514      17 August 2011

Jay Weatherill – poison chalice from the right

The Labor government in South Australia is set for a hiding at the election due in March 2014. The polls are disastrous and the right-wing machine that dominates the Party knows it has got a problem. It’s hard to see how things will improve. There are no policy U-turns in the wind and each job loss and fee increase inflicted on the community cuts deeper into support for this drier than dry neo-liberal government. The “silver bullets” that should be delivering the economic good times – uranium mining and military industries – are not delivering for anyone but wealthy shareholders. Projects are mired in controversy. No amount of media massaging was going to help the ALPs fortunes.

The ALP’s king makers – in South Australia these are the forces associated with the archconservative Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA) – bit the bullet a fortnight ago. Treasurer Jack Snelling and SDA secretary Paul Malinauskas fronted Premier Mike Rann in his office and told him it’s time to move on. The paradoxical aspect of the coup was that the right of the party was knifing a premier who had stuck firmly to the “law and order”, “fiscal responsibility” recipe that had served them well for nine years. Replacing him will be education minister Jay Weatherill – the leader of the state’s minority “left” faction.

Why would the right pass over its star performer, Attorney-General John Rau, in favour of Jay Weatherill of the opposing faction? The explanation given by the plotters was that Mr Weatherill would give the ALP the best chance of being re-elected in 2014. Maybe. Another explanation could be that the right is happy to see the popular Weatherill squander his premiership ambitions on an unwinnable election giving the party machine time in opposition to repackage itself for a comeback. ALP history is studded with such “sacrificial lamb” candidates. Victorian Premier Joan Kirner was a notable one.

Jay Weatherill’s leadership has been nobbled from the start. Rann won’t budge from the top post until October 20. He wants to bed down some pet projects like the Olympic Dam uranium mine expansion. The premier now insists he was planning to step down before the next election though it seems none of his parliamentary colleagues were aware of it. Weatherill must wait patiently in the wings. The Murdoch press is having a field day portraying Rann as a lame duck incumbent and Weatherill as a weak successor. Weatherill may not get any of the media honeymoon he might have had with a swift succession.

Rann is poisoning the well of support for the incoming premier by pointing out that the “new” ALP leadership will be dragging the old agenda forward. He insists public sector unions are “not going to get their way” under Weatherill as they fight to defeat plans for 4,100 job losses, increased fees and charges and cuts to community services. Weatherill has a reputation as an industrial peacemaker. Relations between the government and the state’s public school teachers have improved since he took charge of the education department. His predecessor, Jane Lomax-Smith, thwarted a reasonable outcome during the epic Enterprise Agreement negotiations with the Australian Education Union during her time as minister.

Weatherill is not as socially conservative as many of his colleagues. He supports same sex marriage and does not carry the same strong whiff of uranium. He is more softly spoken and doesn’t have any of the “head-kicker” reputation of the triumvirate comprised of Premier Rann, former treasurer Kevin Foley and infrastructure minister Pat Conlon.

There is no doubt Weatherill has been handed a poison chalice with his slow motion appointment as premier. This should come as no surprise. A would-be reformer in the ALP will not have the freedom to pursue a pro-people agenda. Those days are gone.

The ALP itself is tied by a thousand threads to the same capitalist interests that hatched its neo-liberal policy agenda in the first place. There is less and less wriggle room as the whole system slips deeper into crisis. No amount of internal reviewing will be able to prevent a long decline. Real change will come from a new alliance of progressive forces that still has to be built.  

Next article – Life, culture, home – A call for solidarity

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