Shift­ing SANDS

IN A CHANG­ING POLITICAL LAND­SCAPE, HAS STEVEN MAR­SHALL GOT WHAT IT TAKES TO WIN?

The Advertiser - SA Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Steven Mar­shall was a political novice when he lost to La­bor in 2014 – and with less than a year to the next elec­tion, the opin­ion polls show he’s got work to do to be­come Pre­mier. He’s older, wiser – but is he con­nect­ing? WORDS PENE­LOPE DE­BELLE MAIN PICT

Back in 2013, the new Lib­eral leader Steven Mar­shall was pic­tured on his 7.8 me­tre yacht,

Pub­lic En­emy, at the Cruis­ing Yacht Club at North Haven. He was a bit wor­ried how it might look – it’s a rac­ing boat not a lux­ury liner! – but he did it any­way.

Four years later Mar­shall is telling me sto­ries about his boy­hood in the western sub­urbs where he grew up in a La­bor heart­land. In what looks like a care­ful piece of pre-elec­tion repo­si­tion­ing, he takes me past the run­down Ethel­ton Rail­way Sta­tion where he used to catch the train to school, and Ethel­ton Pri­mary School where he and his sis­ters were stu­dents. Mar­shall’s sa­cred sites, he calls them, as we drive out west with his mother Bar­bara, and fa­ther Tony. “I used to catch two buses to school; when I went to pri­mary school I caught the bus but when I got older I bought my 10-speed Ri­cardo racer and I’d race the school bus,” he says. “It was a good school, good friends, mul­ti­cul­tural, lots of Ital­ians and Greeks, re­ally di­verse.”

There’s nothing sin­is­ter in this; it’s where he came from af­ter all. But for those of us who thought Mar­shall sprang fully formed from a nice house in Nor­wood, his back­ground comes as a sur­prise. It was all very work­ing class even if Mar­shall was obliv­i­ous.

“I wouldn’t have had a clue,” he says. “I mean I’m ab­so­lutely pos­i­tive that it was (La­bor) but politics was not some­thing we ever talked about. There was no ac­tivism.”

This new nar­ra­tive of a boy from the west who worked his way to the top casts a broader net than the old one of a busi­ness­man who turned to politics. It looks to be part of a con­sid­ered strat­egy to max­imise Mar­shall’s elec­toral ap­peal be­fore an elec­tion where the big­gest threat may not be Jay Weather­ill’s La­bor but a third force with cross-party pop­u­lar ap­peal. In a close re­sult, Nick Xenophon could emerge as king­maker.

Mar­shall is tread­ing very care­fully be­cause his party for­gave him one loss but they will not for­give two. He is more aware this time around and un­der­stands he needs to work to­wards vic­tory in par­tic­u­lar seats in­stead of try­ing to con­vince every­one he would make a bet­ter Pre­mier. It’s a dis­tinc­tion he failed to ap­pre­ci­ate be­fore the bit­ter­ness of the 2014 Lib­eral de­feat.

This time, he should have the wind fill­ing his sails as the fin­ish­ing line looms into sight. La­bor has been in power for 15 years and the state has myr­iad prob­lems – seven per cent un­em­ploy­ment, dis­as­ters in health and child pro­tec­tion, serious prob­lems with the tran­si­tion to re­new­ables dur­ing a na­tional en­ergy cri­sis. And the elec­toral im­bal­ance which helped La­bor over the line has been fixed. La­bor should be gasp­ing for air with Mar­shall’s foot on its throat yet the polls don’t seem to re­flect this, or not as much as they should.

A re­cent Galaxy poll in three mar­ginal seats showed Weather­ill was still the pre­ferred pre­mier in two of them and at least a third of vot­ers in all three didn’t think much of Mar­shall’s per­for­mance. It also showed that sup­port for Nick Xenophon was high enough to con­vert into lower house seats.

Pri­vately, some se­nior party mem­bers are wor­ried that Mar­shall still lacks the political ruth­less­ness to slam home La­bor’s flaws and wrest mo­men­tum from Xenophon. The sands

are shift­ing and for all he has learned, he may still lack the charisma to cut through.

It is hard to over-es­ti­mate the dev­as­ta­tion that los­ing the last winnable elec­tion wreaked on Mar­shall whose hard work had al­ways brought suc­cess. Up un­til polls closed on March 15, 2014, he was tipped to be the next Pre­mier and talked con­fi­dently that day about pick­ing up seats. Even when the poor re­sult was re­veal­ing it­self he pinned his hopes on a postal mir­a­cle. Over a few cru­cial days he was hope­lessly out­gunned by Jay Weather­ill who drove to Port Pirie to cut a deal with in­de­pen­dent MP Ge­off Brock over small-town Hawai­ian pizza.

He dis­putes it, but for six months Mar­shall looked like a loser. The party went to ground and Mar­shall vis­i­bly sagged as he strug­gled with how and why he failed at the sin­gle big­gest chal­lenge of his life. It was hard to watch be­cause Mar­shall, al­most 50, is by na­ture a sunny and con­ge­nial man who be­lieves in him­self and greets each day with gusto. Run­ning up against the hard­ened Weather­ill had looked like a bout be­tween a pit bull and a well-in­ten­tioned re­triever.

He says his di­ary showed the same fe­ro­cious work pace but he ad­mits to be­ing to­tally at sea about what went so wrong.

“I think what I didn’t un­der­stand then was clearly why we had lost it,” he says. “I re­ally took the time to un­pick what hap­pened and why La­bor was suc­cess­ful.”

He was ready to throw it all in and walk away.

“Ab­so­lutely,” he says. “If I didn’t have the sup­port of my party room I would not have fought on.”

He won’t say he wasn’t ready for the job but the facts speak for them­selves and he knows he is a bet­ter leader than he was three years ago. “There’s a lot to be gained from ex­pe­ri­ence, it’s very im­por­tant in politics,” he says.

He thought he was tick­ing all the boxes; he set him­self goals, even used a spread­sheet to keep track of his speeches, func­tions, fundraiser and re­gional vis­its, and marked him­self against key per­for­mance in­di­ca­tors, or work­place KPIs. But some­thing was miss­ing. The go-get­ter who left Im­manuel Col­lege to work in his fam­ily’s flour­ish­ing fur­ni­ture busi­ness en­tered par­lia­ment in 2010 and three years later was Op­po­si­tion leader. He was fast-tracked to the big league but went into the last elec­tion like a lamb to the slaugh­ter with lit­tle political ex­pe­ri­ence and a year as leader of the party.

He cried foul over the re­sult and still does. The Lib­er­als won 53 per cent of the two-party pre­ferred vote with a swing to­wards it of 1.4 per cent but the votes were not where they were needed.

“The peo­ple of South Aus­tralia def­i­nitely voted for change and we weren’t able to de­liver that,” he says now.

Hav­ing been con­vinced to stay, he per­son­ally shoul­dered some of the blame. “There wasn’t one is­sue. There was clearly a bias in the bound­aries and that’s now been borne out,” he says. “I think at the end of the day we needed to do a bet­ter job in the in­di­vid­ual seats.”

Since 2002 when the for­mer La­bor Pre­mier Mike Rann, through his ad­viser Ran­dall Ash­bourne, stitched up a deal to make a for­mer Lib­eral MP Peter Lewis the Speaker – and had Rory McEwen and Na­tional MP Kar­lene May­wald as back­ups – La­bor has out­gunned the op­po­si­tion ev­ery time. In 2014 in an­other ruth­lessly op­por­tunis­tic coup they ap­pointed a for­mer Lib­eral leader, Martin Hamil­ton-Smith to Cab­i­net. In cam­paigns, La­bor has fo­cused its politics where it mat­tered and used re­sources to shore up as few as a hun­dred votes.

This time, the Lib­er­als look to have mas­tered a les­son that’s taken them a decade to learn. As a bonus, the in­ter­nal blood feuds that di­vided and weak­ened them for two gen­er­a­tions are all but spent. Back­room changes at Lib­eral head­quar­ters in­clud­ing new per­son­nel speak of a tougher, more ex­pert ap­proach to elec­tion­eer­ing. Can­di­dates are be­ing trained and mar­ginal elec­torates will be mas­saged rather than de­liv­ered a blan­ket mes­sage. Mar­shall has also taken personal advice from the Kad­in­aborn guru of elec­tion­eer­ing, Sir Lyn­ton Crosby. While no one ex­pects the so-called Wiz­ard of Oz, who will help Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May dur­ing the cur­rent elec­tion, to trade White­hall for North Ter­race, Sir Lyn­ton’s firm, Crosby Tex­tor, has Australian op­er­a­tives who are likely to play a role in the fi­nal weeks. It’s a con­trast to last time when Crosby Tex­tor was avail­able, but weren’t used be­cause of money. Mar­shall won’t share tac­tics be­yond say­ing the party needed to un­der­stand what best prac­tice in mar­ginal seat cam­paign­ing was about.

On the personal front, he is not a killer cam­paigner. While Weather­ill looks ready to steam­roll through any­one or any­thing who stands in his way, Mar­shall’s take on the next elec­tion comes across as a bit too ... nice.

“This elec­tion, more than ever, de­spite the fact we might be hav­ing a tu­mul­tuous time in politics world­wide, any­thing other than a vote for the Lib­eral Party could lead to an­other term of hope­less La­bor ad­min­is­tra­tion,” he tells me, ex­plain­ing why a vote for a third party or In­de­pen­dent could re-elect La­bor.

The elec­tion ma­te­rial so far show­ing him looking re­laxed and casual over lunch is an at­tempt to let him en­gage with vot­ers in a way he may not have un­til now. Off camera Mar­shall is funny and ir­rev­er­ent but when the red light is on he can seem stilted and wooden. He also suf­fers from the op­po­si­tion leader’s peren­nial prob­lem – how to say some­thing mean­ing­ful in seven sec­onds with­out sound­ing re­lent­lessly neg­a­tive.

But he is show­ing a will­ing­ness to get his hands dirty even, an­nounc­ing pol­icy that has put off­side some of his Lib­eral con­stituents.

“Give me a break,” scoffed Weather­ill, cit­ing Mar­shall’s GlobeLink plan to di­vert freight traf­fic from Ade­laide Air­port away from Portrush Road and the South­east­ern free­way onto a new rail link through the truck-hat­ing Ade­laide Hills to a ded­i­cated freight air­port at Mur­ray Bridge. It an­noyed Ade­laide Air­port, whose chair is Rob Chapman, and the Freight Coun­cil of SA, but peo­ple in the seats of Hey­sen, Kavel and Daven­port will likely love it.

“I can tell you what (Globelink) is about,” Weather­ill said, shar­ing the stage with Mar­shall at a prop­erty fo­rum. “It’s all about Steven’s panic about Nick Xenophon tak­ing three seats off him in the Ade­laide Hills, so don’t talk to me about cheap elec­toral politics and us­ing pub­lic money to buy votes.”

That’s not all. Mar­shall is also op­pos­ing a high-level waste dump in SA, tak­ing the high ground over a Weather­ill pet project in a to­tal re­ver­sal of the party’s po­si­tion. Hav­ing been cru­ci­fied by state La­bor in 2002 over a Nick Minchin-led fed­eral Lib­eral pro­posal for a low-level nu­clear waste dump, the ta­bles have turned to the point where the Lib­er­als look set to at­tack La­bor over who is the most clean and green.

And with the pol­icy cri­sis in full flight, he has banned gas ex­trac­tion from frack­ing. He might call him­self a free mar­ket guy, a clas­si­cal lib­eral who be­lieves in min­i­mal gov­ern­ment in­ter­ven­tion, but he will im­pose a frack­ing ban in the po­lit­i­cally sen­si­tive south­east where the Lib­eral Party has a his­tory of trou­ble from In­de­pen­dents run­ning their own agen­das. This is so rad­i­cal it puts him at odds with Prime Min­is­ter, Mal­colm Turn­bull who at the March en­ergy cri­sis talks called on the states to lift frack­ing bans and al­low the full-scale gas ex­trac­tion. Mar­shall is ig­nor­ing him and de­fends the Ot­way Basin ban by say­ing there is no frack­ing there any­way. So why have it? “To pro­vide cer­tainty for the lo­cal com­mu­nity,” he says.

This isn’t mar­ginal seat pol­i­tick­ing, he says, it’s rep­re­sent­ing the wishes of the peo­ple through some­thing called a “so­cial li­cence”.

“It’s an is­sue of democ­racy,” he says. “The peo­ple of the south­east don’t want it. Peo­ple are elected to Par­lia­ment to rep­re­sent the

La­bor should be gasp­ing for air with his foot on its throat, yet the polls don’t re­flect this as much as they should.

in­ter­ests of their elec­torate. It’s quite clear, over­whelm­ingly so. It wasn’t clear four years ago but now it is.”

Ex­pect a bru­tal cam­paign, so much so that his mum might have to leave town to avoid the nas­ti­ness. Mar­shall is close to his fam­ily; Bar­bara, the daugh­ter of a Bro­ken Hill Coun­cil worker, and fa­ther Tony, a for­mer mer­chant sea­man, his two younger sis­ters Jenny and Ker­rin who re­cently re­cov­ered from a sec­ond bout of cancer, and his chil­dren Ge­orgie, 17, in Year 12, and Char­lie, 19.

Mar­shall’s par­ents are work­ing class but en­tre­pre­neur­ial – Tony bought his first block of flats when he was 22 – and the fam­ily lived in Semaphore then Semaphore Park in a mod­est brick home near a walk­way to the beach. His par­ents en­cour­aged their chil­dren to join ev­ery­thing, in­clud­ing the Largs Bay Sail­ing Club where Mar­shall’s yacht­ing cre­den­tials were seeded.

“My first boat was a lit­tle Hold­fast trainer, tiny, bit big­ger than a mar­garine con­tainer, called Pathfinder,” Mar­shall says. “Can you re­mem­ber how much that cost Dad? I’ve got $350 on the brain.”

“No, it wouldn’t have been that much,” dead­pans Tony.

Mar­shall re­mem­bers the west as a proud com­mu­nity and his fam­ily still has friends there, even if con­sec­u­tive prop­erty up­grades have taken them to their own de­vel­op­ment on the Hen­ley seafront, and Mar­shall to a smart town house in Nor­wood. Tony Mar­shall’s suc­cess at de­vel­op­ing mul­ti­ple blocks of flats led to a move to mak­ing kitchens and he grew into the big­gest fur­ni­ture maker in the state. When it came to high school, they could af­ford to up­grade the chil­dren to Im­manuel.

“I’d gone to Le­fevre Tech­ni­cal High School and it was in a pretty rough area and the other school to send the girls to was Port Tech and they were both pretty rough,” Tony says. “And my wife said to me ‘you can’t af­ford to not send them to a bet­ter school.’ This is the lady from Bro­ken Hill talking!”

The ban­ter says a lot about how close his fam­ily life is. One of Mar­shall’s mo­ti­va­tions for be­com­ing pre­mier is to make the state a place where young South Aus­tralians, Ge­orgie and Char­lie in par­tic­u­lar, will want to stay and work. The net an­nual loss of pop­u­la­tion of 6,400 is one of his bug­bears, even if the truth is Bar­bara wouldn’t let her grand­chil­dren leave.

“Ab­so­lutely, Mum wouldn’t let them go,” Mar­shall says.

He shares cus­tody of Ge­orgie and Char­lie with his ex-wife Sue and went with them to the Adele con­cert be­cause Barb bought them tick­ets. Mar­shall shares with me a funny and fa­therly text ex­change with Ge­orgie that morn­ing that went along the lines of: Ge­orgie: I have a casino-themed 18th next week, what should I wear? Steven: A fur coat (fol­lowed by a string of love hearts). Have a great week.

It’s typ­i­cally warm fa­ther-daugh­ter stuff. Char­lie just passed his driver’s test and Mar­shall loves to spend time with them both. He knows every­one says this, but his chil­dren re­ally are the best.

“They are ab­so­lutely great kids and they are ab­so­lutely 100 per cent my pri­or­ity but I don’t see that di­min­ishes this job, in fact I see it as the ma­jor mo­ti­va­tor,” he says. “I want them to live in South Aus­tralia. I love this place.”

He was sin­gle at the last elec­tion and looks like be­ing sin­gle at the next. He says he has not found a new part­ner, partly be­cause he doesn’t have time to look.

“It’s not a pri­or­ity for me,” he says. “This is a very de­mand­ing job. I don’t want to whinge but it is hugely de­mand­ing.”

Isn’t it just a bit sur­pris­ing that an el­i­gi­ble bach­e­lor like him is still alone? “Hmmm. I haven’t met the right per­son,” he says.

He works at a fre­netic pace, shoot­ing over to New Zealand last month be­cause he is im­pressed with how suc­cess­fully it has re­versed the trend of New Zealan­ders cross­ing the ditch for a bet­ter life in Aus­tralia. Now, many of them are re­turn­ing home and a new gen­er­a­tion is nowhere near as keen to leave clean and green is­lands of such nat­u­ral beauty. He thinks we can learn from that. The big ques­tion is whether Mar­shall, de­ter­mined though he may be, has the ruth­less­ness needed to win. The elec­toral re­dis­tri­bu­tion has solved the Lib­er­als’ in­equity prob­lem but the rise of Nick Xenophon’s SA Best, One Na­tion and Cory Bernardi has given him a whole new one. A hung re­sult could put Xenophon in the po­si­tion of de­cid­ing who will take of­fice at the next elec­tion. Win­ning still will not be easy.

“We hope lessons have been learned,” one for­mer Lib­eral MP said. “The bound­aries will cer­tainly help but in my view it’s go­ing to come down to an arm to arm wres­tle in ev­ery elec­torate.”

Mar­shall has taken coun­sel from John Howard who taught him that tim­ing is crit­i­cal and vot­ers make up their minds deep into an elec­toral cy­cle. No point in let­ting out too many poli­cies now. He points to the “2036” 20-year plan re­leased a year ago al­though this is more a state­ment of values than a pol­icy doc­u­ment. He is tak­ing Howard’s advice to keep his pow­der dry.

“Well, look, we have put out over 30 poli­cies so far but there is clearly a lot more de­tail and we will present that at a time when peo­ple are more re­cep­tive to state is­sues,” he says. “Last year you had a fed­eral elec­tion and a US elec­tion – peo­ple weren’t that in­ter­ested in a state elec­tion.”

At a rare one-on-one leader’s fo­rum last month Mar­shall bounced on stage with so much fizz the host Jessica Adam­son re­marked “Well Steven, I can see you’ve had your Weet­bix this morn­ing!” as Mar­shall tried to con­dense his ideas into an un­ex­pect­edly short talk. His en­thu­si­asm is worth bot­tling but will it be enough?

He is much more wary this time about what lies ahead. The KPIs are still be­ing en­forced, even more so be­cause he has im­posed them on oth­ers in the party to bench­mark their per­for­mance. He has passed his sev­enth an­niver­sary in par­lia­ment and four years down the track is one of the long­est-serv­ing op­po­si­tion lead­ers around the coun­try.

He has ex­pe­ri­ence on his side and the wis­dom to know that in politics, nothing is cer­tain, even af­ter votes have been cast. His big­gest worry is that while last time the bound­aries robbed him of a win, this time it could be Nick Xenophon’s SA Best and the In­de­pen­dents.

“Peo­ple voted for change last time and they didn’t get it and I think that’s the big fear for the next elec­tion,” he says. “There is a feeling that it’s now time for change in South Aus­tralia – but a vote for any­one other than the Lib­eral Party could very well de­liver an­other La­bor Gov­ern­ment.”

APRIL 22-23, 2017

Main pic­ture, Op­po­si­tion Leader Steven Mar­shall at Ethel­ton Rail­way Sta­tion; right, a young crew mem­ber on Rebel; and, be­low, par­ents Bar­bara and Tony

A 10-year-old Steven Mar­shall at Ethel­ton Pri­mary

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