Jay Weatherill was a premier who spoke quietly but carried a big stick
Jay Weatherill with his former deputy and Henley High School alumnus John Rau last year. (ABC News: Nick Harmsen)
At first glance, Jay Weatherill’s path to the Premier’s office seems one of almost pre-ordained smoothness.
He was born into a political family, his father George was a long-time Labor MLC.
The younger Weatherill went to Henley High School, in the same crop as John Rau who went on to become his deputy, and Paul Caica who also served in Mr Weatherill’s cabinet.
A career in the law beckoned for Mr Weatherill, and then preselection for the seat of Cheltenham in Adelaide’s Western suburbs — solid Labor territory.
That victory came via the defeat of sitting Labor MP Murray DeLaine — an early sign of what was to come.
He won Cheltenham on his first tilt in 2002, when Labor emerged from a decade in the political wilderness under new premier Mike Rann.
Unlike many new parliamentarians, Mr Weatherill avoided a grinding apprenticeship on the backbench, rather gliding straight into the ministry.
It was a fairy tale rise to power — more Disney than Grimm.
Steven Marshall, Jay Weatherill and Nick Xenophon at the leaders’ debate ahead of the 2018 election. (ABC News: Matthew Doran)
Luck flowed with Labor and Weatherill
But Mr Weatherill’s softly spoken and unflappable exterior belied a political ruthlessness and determination which would soon shape his government.
Labor made the most of good economic times and disarray in the Liberal Party, winning the 2006 election in what was dubbed the “Rannslide”.
But by 2011, the times had truly changed.
Mike Rann’s extraordinary popularity had waned.
A midnight knock on the door came from two senior members of Labor’s powerful right faction, Peter Malinauskas — now opposition leader, and Jack Snelling. Mr Rann was offered an irresistible “invitation” to move on.
That those men of the right dispatched Mr Rann in favour of left faction leader Mr Weatherill, said something of Labor’s discipline.
But it said much more about Mr Weatherill’s ambition and skill in positioning himself as a more appealing alternative.
It was one of the few bloodless leadership coups in Australian politics.
The task for the new premier was complicated by the aftermath of the global financial crisis which had turned the rivers of GST gold into a comparative trickle.
Labor had been in power for a decade, and faced a major scandal over the mishandling of child sex abuse.
After years of infighting, the SA Liberal Party had set its house in order, picking a leader and sticking with him.
The 2014 poll loomed as a textbook unwinnable election.
Premier fights and wins unwinnable election
The campaign had barely started, when Mr Weatherill found himself in conflict with one of the senior members of his own party.
A plan had been hatched, behind Mr Weatherill’s back, to parachute party powerbroker Don Farrell — known in Labor circles as “the Godfather” — into a safe seat.
On ABC Radio, a furious Mr Weatherill threatened to quit if the plan was put into action. The plotters backed down.
Independent MP Geoff Brock and Jay Weatherill announce an agreement to form a minority government in 2014. (ABC News: Angelique Johnson)
Mr Weatherill recently remarked that people thought it was a crazy thing to do.
He insists his decision to stare down Mr Farrell was critical, suggesting it would have been “suicidal” not to do so.
“Voters would have thought I was [a] pushover … and we’d have been finished if I hadn’t done it,” he said.
Labor won the unwinnable election, but only just — stitching up a deal with independent Geoff Brock to secure power.
With car making at the end of its road, Mr Weatherill declared South Australia faced a “genteel decline”.
To avoid that fate he was going to shake the joint up.
He proposed shifting SA to eastern time to make business more competitive. Mr Weatherill lost that argument.
Then he established a royal commission to champion the idea SA could become a repository for the world’s high-level nuclear waste, and become rich doing so. He lost that argument too.
Mr Weatherill wanted the GST net broadened, so that exempt items such as fresh food would be captured. Another one lost, and he copped a smack across the chops from federal Labor colleagues for good measure.
It was however, the regular stoushes with Canberra that came to frame his position both at home and on the national stage.
In the wake of a statewide electricity blackout in 2016, Mr Weatherill and members of the Turnbull government clashed bitterly over the role of renewable energy in the debacle.
The sniping culminated in a remarkable on-camera stoush between Mr Weatherill and then-federal energy minister Josh Frydenberg.
A fighter to the end
There’s an old saying in politics, never let a good crisis go to waste, a creed Mr Weatherill apparently lived by.
Mr Weatherill’s predecessor was dubbed “Media Mike”, but would often avoid difficult press conferences. By contrast, Mr Weatherill would play a war of attrition with journalists, exhausting their patience before his own.
There was no shortage of difficult questions, from the disgraceful treatment of vulnerable people in the state-run Oakden facility, to the the failings of the eye-wateringly expensive new Royal Adelaide Hospital.
After 16 years in government, Labor had given the electorate ample reason to vote them out, which in March they duly did.
But it was not the wipe-out that a government of that age, and saddled with that much baggage, could have reasonably expected.
Much of that is due to Mr Weatherill, who, whatever the odds, never shied from an old-fashioned fight.