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