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The courting of Geoff Brock

Books & Poetry

How independent is political kingmaker Geoff Brock? Could he support a future Liberal Government? In this extract from a new biography of the member for Frome, journalist Greg Mayfield explores the origins of Brock’s courtship with Labor.

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Questions linger about just how “independent” Geoff Brock is, but he resolutely maintains this status. The indisputable fact is that he has never been a member of a political party. On the other hand, his support for the Rann and Weatherill Labor governments has been prominent. But he contends that he could have thrown his weight behind the Marshall Liberal team at the 2014 cliffhanger election had the conservatives been in a better position to claim minority government.

Can voters see Geoff Brock helping the Liberals into power? With both major parties staking strong claims to the outcome of the 2018 state election, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Geoff could support the Liberals if they are in a position to form stable government. Again, it might depend on the deal that Geoff can extract from a would-be government to help his electorate.

He has an ability to court powerful identities on the state political stage. This flared into reality at the Blessing of the Fleet Ball at the Northern Festival Centre in Port Pirie in 2008. The ball, with its presentation of young debutantes, followed an afternoon ceremony when the statue of the Madonna was taken aboard a fishing boat on the Pirie River to enable the local Catholic bishop to bless the fishermen and their fleet.

Cr Dino Gadaleta, president of the Italian Community in Port Pirie and a key supporter of Geoff Brock, was among the leading citizens at the ball, although he was taking a break from the president’s role at the time. Cr Gadaleta chatted with special guest, state Attorney-General and Multicultural Affairs Minister Michael Atkinson, as the crowd enjoyed prawns and other seafood.

Later, as the revellers continued with their celebrations at the ball, Mr Atkinson spoke to Mr Brock. According to Michael Atkinson, Geoff Brock had said he was interested in running as a candidate for Frome for the Labor Party. Mr Atkinson reported that he had immediately responded: “No, you will run as an independent.”

As fate would have it, Geoff Brock did, indeed, run as an independent to win the seat. When asked about their conversation, Michael Atkinson said he would leave it to others to speculate on his intentions in the conversation with Geoff, but agreed that it was wise advice.

“I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to explain my thinking. It stands or falls on its own merits. I think people can make their own judgement,” he said.

Asked whether Geoff Brock had performed his role well as an independent, Atkinson, now Speaker of the House of Assembly, said: “That is a matter for people in his electorate to judge rather than me, but obviously results of the election have placed him in an important position and he has acquitted himself well as a minister.”

Brock said Atkinson may have suggested that he run as an independent, but he had already decided to take that course of action. He then pointed to a meeting that took place before the Blessing of the Fleet Ball, at which he spoke to me, then in my role as managing editor of the Recorder. Geoff said I was the first person, outside his inner circle, to be told of his plans to run as an independent, and I can confirm this conversation took place.

“Mr Atkinson may have made those comments amid a lot of background noise at the ball,” Geoff said. “If he did say I should run as an independent, it was good advice, but I had already made up my mind.” He said there had been talk during the meeting about “fast-tracking” future membership of the Labor Party for him.

“Both major political parties had preselected candidates for 2010 and these had been brought forward to the 2009 by-election. I would not have taken the preselection from either side to the detriment of either candidate. If I had run as the Labor candidate, I would not have been elected. I would never have wanted to be indebted to either side for whatever support they would have given me.

“I owed my allegiance to my small band of dedicated supporters.”

After Brock told Atkinson he was not interested in representing either party, the conversation turned to the fact that the by-election was three months away and there was a qualifying period for membership of the Labor Party.

“He broached the subject with me – no way in the world did I raise it,” Geoff said.

“He indicated that if I wanted to become a member, they could fast-track it, but, in fact, I could have already been a member of a political party well and truly before that.

“In the weeks before the ball, I was approached by both sides. I told the Liberal Party that I had not made a decision yet. Both sides said, ‘Before you make a decision, come and see us.’”

In 2014, Labor chose social worker and former shearer Marcus Connelly of Port Pirie to challenge for the seat. Connelly sagely described it as having been a learning experience, insisting he had no grudges despite the party’s inglorious support of his campaign. He finished third with 10 per cent of the vote in 2014, his preferences flowing to Geoff Brock.

Asked about his performance in his campaign, he replied: “What campaign?”

“The campaign was basically myself and union identity ‘Nipper’ Nitz. Limited support was given to me as a Labor candidate. Obviously, the party supported Mr Brock and it turned out that was a good political move because it eventually gave them government. It was a complicated situation.

“All parties put money where they are most likely to win seats and Frome didn’t come into that category for Labor. So, consequently, they didn’t support the candidate to any degree.

“That was a reasonable thing to do. But for a ‘newbie’ like me, it was difficult. If nothing else, I got to learn a lot more about the reality of politics.”

Marcus Connelly had known that he was tackling a formidable opponent. He said Geoff Brock had a good relationship with Port Pirie and that people saw him as a leader.

“Geoff was really great at maintaining that relationship. He was an excellent campaigner in the sense that he did it all the time. He was personable and made strong links with people.

“He helped people and they valued that. As an independent, he played his cards right and he got extra benefits for Port Pirie.

“I got heaps out of campaigning against Mr Brock even though it was a bit painful, difficult and sad at times when I didn’t get the support.

“I didn’t hold anything against the Labor Party – it was how they had to play the game.”

Marcus Connelly had no plans to recontest the seat at the time of his death in August 2017.

The Labor Party’s ruthless approach, which he described and understood, resulted in Labor achieving government in 2014. Former South Australian Liberal senator, Sean Edwards, said Labor got across the line to form government because the Liberals, led by Steven Marshall, “played by the rules” amid the drama of Geoff Brock’s deliberations.

He said Marshall had stayed away from Brock when the Frome MP asked to be left alone with his family during the weekend after the poll.

“Geoff Brock is a nice fellow, but it is simply not enough to be that when you are a minister. Sadly, it seems enough for him to continue to win office in an electorate of 25,000 people or thereabouts by simply turning up to the opening of a chip packet,” Sean Edwards said.

“The easiest card to play as an independent politician is to deliver government to the highest bidder in an election where there was a hung parliament. It is your moment in history to create a lasting legacy.

“Mr Brock has failed to deliver beyond two things: the underwriting of the upgrade of the Nyrstar smelter in his hometown and the gifting of a freshly minted ministry for the ‘regions’ for himself.

“Since then, the scorecard on any objective assessment on innovative relevant economic or social policy in his portfolio is unremarkable. What characteristics make him likeable don’t necessarily make for a results-driven politician. It is not his fault. He was never that, but people elected him anyway.

“Mr Brock has fallen into what many happy-go-lucky politicians have over history: he has confused movement with momentum. Incumbents who haven’t done anything wrong are always hard to beat when up for re-election. They are resourced with offices and can effectively campaign every day while being paid to do the job anyway. Competing candidates have to give up their jobs and then turn up to everything Mr Brock attends and more while not being paid to do so.”

Edwards, who continues to be a businessman with interests in a Clare winery, said the Liberal state campaign had been ‘solid’ in 2014 with the party achieving 53.4 per cent of the popular vote. He said given that Marshall was a relative newcomer with only 12 months in the leadership role, his performance was genuine and he was seen by most voters as the most credible candidate for premier on the day.

“The one thing the Liberal Party has done over many years is under-estimate the Labor Party’s bloodlust for power,” he said.

“At the Liberal Party there is a tendency to play by Queensbury Rules. Mr Brock’s plea for privacy on that all-so-important weekend following the 2014 election was respected by Mr Marshall, but ignored by Mr Weatherill. It was another example of being out-flanked by a desperate caretaker premier who never expected to be even close in the contest.

“Mr Weatherill’s bursting into Mr Brock’s home during the embargoed Brock-imposed reflection time, bearing pizza and a shiny new ministry was too much bling for Mr Brock, who was never a match for Weatherill’s closing skills.

“It was either coerce Brock or give way to the bright new Marshall plan for SA. Do or die. Mr Weatherill didn’t hesitate to strike, leaving the Queensbury rules of boxing in tatters on the floor of the Liberal Party’s campaign headquarters – again.”

This is an edited extract from Geoff Brock: The man who saved a city by Greg Mayfield, published by Wakefield Press.

Greg Mayfield is senior journalist at the Port Pirie Recorder.

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