Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Could Alexander Downer be SA's next premier?

A move from Alexander Downer to become South Australia's next Liberal premier has long been rumoured. Peter Reith looks at how the switch could work, and what the former foreign minister has to offer.

I have not asked my friend Alexander Downer if he will pursue a career in South Australian politics, nor have I expressed any views to him on what he might do, but I can imagine it would be a difficult decision.

The only reason I can see why Alexander would go into politics in South Australia is because the state desperately needs some quality leadership.

It would be a big sacrifice for him, although that is not how he would see it. The only reason for his decision would be a sense of public service and commitment to South Australia in the mould of his father and grandfather.

Alexander has nothing to prove; he earns a lot more out of politics than he would ever earn in politics; he would see less of his family; and he would be giving up a lifestyle commensurate with the extensive public service he has already given.

It says a lot about the man that he would even contemplate going into state politics, but the 2014 election is a once and only chance for South Australia to change its current trajectory and drag itself out of the slow lane.

If South Australians want a state where the next generation can find good jobs and higher living standards on a par with the rest of Australia, then they need new leadership.

Labor has been in office in South Australia since 2002. The last premier, Mike Rann, said that he stayed in office until the expansion of the massive mine Olympic Dam got the go-ahead. Mr Rann left office when he was rolled by the current Premier Jay Weatherill and the expansion was deferred.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard appointed Mr Rann as High Commissioner in London; a good job out of the country for a man embarrassed by his many failures running South Australia.

Labor has burdened the state with massive debts, huge interest repayments and projected state finances more like those in Europe rather than in many other Australian states.

The Premier has admitted that the state's finances are so bad he could not find one member of his team who was capable of managing the Treasury portfolio, so he now holds the job himself.

The future for South Australia under more Labor administrations is a state that is forever asking the rest of Australia to prop up its economy with federal subsidies because it can't stand on its own two feet. Having been in office for 12 years, "It's time" is a slogan that suits SA Labor like a well-worn glove.

The next state election is due in March 2014. If there is a decision to change the SA Liberal leader, it will probably need to be made by mid-2013.

A change of leader is a matter for the Liberal organisation and Parliamentary Party in SA; I won't comment on Isobel Redmond other than to say I know her and she is well-respected and capable. One of her problems is that even Labor people are saying their polling shows Labor would be thrashed at the next SA election if Downer were leader.

Alexander left the Federal Parliament in July 2008. As a general rule it becomes harder to go back into politics the longer you have been out in the real world. One obvious reason is that it is not easy to find a seat. In the United States, the president can appoint anyone to the executive (i.e. the Cabinet) but an Australian minister has to be a Member of the Parliament (or become one within three months of their appointment).

For most ex-politicians, once you are out, it is not so easy to get back unless your parliamentary record is above average.

Mal Brough was a good minister and so it was no surprise to me that he was preselected for the 2013 federal election. Bob Carr only became Foreign Minister because an ALP senator gave up his seat to create a vacancy.

Alexander was an exceptional foreign minister, widely respected around the world. Even the most partisan South Australian would surely give him credit for the manner in which he represented Australia as Australia's longest-serving foreign minister. He is also well-respected as one of the key players in the Howard administration.

In my time in the Cabinet, Alexander was a key player in all the big decisions. He was always one of the people that prime minister John Howard would ring when he needed a sounding board. So Alexander would be a good bet to win a preselection. But there needs to be a vacancy.

A vacancy now would allow Downer to go straight into the State Parliament and challenge the Labor Government in the Parliament, face-to-face. The alternative is to follow Campbell Newman's example and seek election when the state election is held in 2014. This latter approach is simple enough and would be just as good, if not better. It worked in Queensland and would work equally as well in SA.

Apart from what Downer could do to improve the future for SA if he were premier, I would expect he could have a particularly strong role in dealings with the Federal Government. Downer would bring to bear his experience of economics, foreign affairs and many other issues of national significance. This could be of great value whether he was dealing with Federal Labor under PM Gillard or a newly elected Tony Abbott. And beyond those issues, he would be influential in matters such as Liberal Party reform.

When you have been in politics at a senior level for a long period, it does not take much to get the adrenalin going and wonder about a return to politics. Not many switch from state to federal politics or vice versa, and not many switch and become leader of their party, but it is certainly possible in the case of Alexander Downer. There is no doubt South Australia is desperately in need of the best person that can be lured to be the next premier.

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