Perrottet’s ‘Adelaide card’ in the NSW election

For the people of South Australia, one point of interest in the upcoming NSW election concerns Dominic Perrottet’s repeated comparisons between Sydney and Adelaide. In Perrottet’s view, Sydney’s greatness is best measured against Adelaide because the South Australian capital leads the country in one respect only – dysfunctionality. His comments to this effect, which include two so far in the current election campaign, raise the question posed by Melbourne journalist MacKenzie Pennycook in her article, ‘Dom Perrottet has another weird swipe at Adelaide for literally no reason’. Mr. Perrottet, ‘what has South Australia done to you?’

Weirder still are the recent indications that Perrottet is playing this ‘Adelaide card’ as an election ploy. Most of his Adelaide comments are from 2018 when he was Deputy Leader. ‘NSW is the head office of Australia, SA is the call centre, Victoria the maintenance department and Queensland the lunch room’. The digital driving license being developed in SA is ‘pretty poor, like most things in Adelaide’, and on people newly migrating to Australia, ‘nobody wants to go and live in Adelaide, that’s just the reality’.

But he has now revived the rhetoric in election mode. In early February SA Premier Peter Malinauskas called for the traditional Sydney Test, which is played in the first week of January and too often washed out, to be moved to Adelaide. ‘He’s kidding. A five-day washed-out Test in Sydney is much better than a five-day Test in Adelaide. Why? Because at the end of it you’ve spent five days in Adelaide,’ he said, with other state and territory leaders as well as Anthony Albanese, who were present at the time, laughing along. Upon hearing this, it crossed my mind that maybe Perrottet was trashing Adelaide as a means of gaining popularity in New South Wales, as he had done with success in 2018, although this time as Premier with an election looming. Surely not, I thought. But on 24 February he tried to explain that Sydney has the best brand recognition of any Australian city, which is not really in dispute anywhere in the country anyway. With no provocation from SA, his comment was: ‘when we think of Australia, we think of this [Sydney]. We don’t think of Rundle Mall… I get in trouble for attacking Adelaide but it wouldn’t be a speech about Sydney if I didn’t’.

With this, for me, the game was up. In what strikes me as a first in Australian politics, the Premier of NSW was assuming that a disdain for Adelaide and South Australia is so widespread in his state that he was seeking to leverage it in his campaign for re-election. It is not a disdain associated with any political issue or justifiable grievance. According to Perrottet’s own comment, Adelaide is simply the inferior ‘other’ by which Sydney self-identifies. The Premier is banking on a majority of his constituents being in sympathy with this thinking, and, given his late-February recovery in the polls, it might be working for him.

True, premiers and chief ministers are giving each other the finger all the time, often for no discernible reason, and maybe these stand-offs have had an influence on state elections in the past. However, if there is a precedent for the kind of targeting of one state by another both prior and during an election campaign that we are witnessing with Perrottet and Adelaide, I need it pointed out to me.

South Australia’s historical fall from grace has become something to behold. Conceived and created as Australia’s little England, throughout the nineteenth century it was the people of Adelaide who had their noses in the air. Their crowning moment came in 1867 when for the first ever royal visit to Australia, Prince Alfred, second son of Queen Victoria, sailed around to dock in Adelaide first. He stayed for a few days before travelling to Sydney and surviving an assassination attempt. Adelaide had fewer of ‘the poor and rowdy class’ conspicuous in other Australian cities, the Prince said. Other visitors to Adelaide who described it as Australia’s most cultivated city include Anthony Trollope and Mark Twain.

As of the twenty-first century, however, how low Adelaide has sunk in the estimation of our two biggest cities. I have written elsewhere of journalists from Sydney and Melbourne, working on national platforms, who look upon an insult to Adelaide all as part of a day’s work. Politicians too, like Daniel Andrews, can be severe, but the honours go to the incumbent Premier of NSW. When Perrottet lays into Adelaide, the swing of his boot is unrestrained. In fact, if he hasn’t yet done so, he should read John Rowe’s 1972 novel, McCabe PM, which tells the story of a hardline Prime Minister from Sydney whose autocratic tendencies incrementally come to the fore, leading him to enforce his rule with brutality and martial law, and when SA and WA secede in protest, he orders city-edge bombing of Adelaide and Perth. This book should appeal to Perrottet, putting the Perth bit to one side.

Secession was recently mooted for South Australia by journalist, Andrew P. Street, and the case is strong. West Australians have always considered themselves the leading would-be secessionists but that is a mantle easily taken. WA has only ever threatened. South Australia, however, is too polite for such a thing, and there, in its Englishness, lies its enduring strength. Authors Rick Furphy and Geoff Rissole miss the mark when they describe Sydney as ‘London for Aussies who can’t handle a twenty-hour flight’. Understated Adelaide remains Australia’s most English city, rivalled only by Hobart and Melbourne. Sydney is more akin to Australia’s San Francisco. Nearly two centuries on from its creation, it is Adelaide more than any other city that continues to be characterised by traditional English values.

Dominic Perrottet, meanwhile, a religious man who believes that the people of NSW are all equal under God, faces an election on 25 March. Will the good people of NSW give him another term? I’m predicting another weird swipe at Adelaide on election eve.

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