When Mike Rann became Premier of South Australia in March 2002, he completed the set for Labor. All the state and territory governments in Australia were in the hands of the ALP, but as the Rann Government prepares to go to the polls on 20 March, the tide seems to be turning. The Liberals are already back in office in WA and the polls suggest that Labor is in trouble in Tasmania, going into their own election on the same day as South Australia. Meanwhile you’d be brave to put a lot of money on Labor being returned in Queensland next time around and frankly silly to do the same in NSW.
Of the state governments, only those in Victoria and South Australia seem relatively secure and even they are seeing signs of declining support. Most predictions suggest that Labor will win the forthcoming election in South Australia but the comfortable majority that the ALP now enjoys in the lower house is likely to disappear.
During Labor’s first term in office they led a precarious existence and were forced to rely on the support of at least one of the Independents but, at the 2006 election, Labor won a commanding majority. They currently hold 28 of the 47 lower house seats, the Liberals have 14, Independents four and Nationals one. These numbers mean that a net loss of five seats will cost Labor its overall majority but the Liberals need to hold all their current seats and win another 10 before they could form a majority government.
The scale of the swing at the 2006 election means that Labor goes into this election with substantial "election insurance". Labor holds 21 seats by margins of greater than 10 per cent (against the Liberals’ four) and of these, 19 have margins greater than 15 per cent. The numbers speak for themselves. The Opposition’s only hope rests upon winning at least three of the Independents’ seats and taking every one of the seven ALP seats that require a swing of 10 per cent or less. There is no doubt that some of these government seats will fall, but the most likely outcome (at least at this stage of the campaign) is the return of the Labor Government with either a very narrow majority, or as the largest party requiring support from the cross-benches.
Some recent polls suggest that the Liberals have closed the gap and are now running neck and neck with Labor. However, that would represent a uniform swing of slightly more than 6 per cent and would leave the Liberals still short of a majority unless every possible winning seat falls their way. A more likely scenario is that the swing will be uneven and the movement against Labor will be greater in the safe Labor seats and not quite as strong in the marginals where the Liberals need it most.
But if the result seems predictable, the campaign has been far from it. Both sides have had to deal with the unexpected, and with distractions. As an experienced government, Labor would have spent some time developing a coherent campaign strategy and timetable. What they would not have anticipated was that the trustworthiness of the Premier — once a Labor asset — might become a liability after allegations about the Premier having an affair with Michelle Chantelois first came to light in October last year. That fact, together with the associated court action and the worry that the Chantelois issue will appear unexpectedly at some point, means that Labor’s campaign is always vulnerable to ambush and is less settled and secure than it should be.
When we get to the substance of the major issues, we are on more certain ground. It has been clear for several years that the main policy differences between the major parties are in two key areas. The first one is health. Labor plans to build a new Royal Adelaide Hospital at the western end of North Terrace. The Liberals propose to construct a new football stadium on this site and re-develop the existing hospital.
The second issue is water security. Labor is currently constructing a desalination plant and pursuing Victoria in the High Court over its use of water from the Murray-Darling. The Liberals have proposed adding recycled storm water to the mains. Labor is much happier talking about the hospital than it is about water, and wants to add economic management and industrial development to the focus.
There is no doubt that the Liberals are running a better campaign this year than they did in 2002. Internal party polling has been promising and there is a growing mood of optimism in the Liberal ranks. Their campaign this time is largely based on trying to shift attention to the questions of trust, spin and what they argue is the gap between the Government’s rhetoric and the actual delivery of services.
The Government’s strategy is more on the front foot, listing a string of achievements. These are about delivering vital infrastructure and securing large investment in the state, together with associated growth in employment. Given that most of the state has come through the GFC in a better position than many expected 18 months ago, this is a good story to tell.
Unlike the outcome in the lower house, the result in the Legislative Council can be confidently predicted: no single party will have a majority. At the moment both the ALP and Liberals hold eight seats each. There are also two Independents courtesy of Nick Xenophon’s extraordinary result (20.5 per cent) in 2006, two Family First, one Green and one Independent (a former Australian Democrat). Of these, five of the Liberals, four ALP, one Family First and the Democrat-turned-Independent are up for re-election. This time, there is every chance that the Greens will win a second seat (replacing the former Democrat).
Labor and the Liberals should be confident of winning four each. Family First should be returned. Where the 11th seat goes will depend upon the flow of preferences. All parties will hope to benefit from the absence of Nick Xenophon but the large vote he secured at the last election is likely to spread across a range of candidates at this election.
Both parties will be changed in different ways by the election. Labor has no ministers in vulnerable seats so it will emerge with an experienced team. Similarly, the overall factional balance is unlikely to shift. However, there are a number of Labor MPs who will begin to fear that even if they get across the line this time, they may well lose at the next election. If this is the case then the standing of the Premier will probably be weakened. If, after this election, voters begin to reflect a changed mood, the Premier’s approval ratings drop, and opinion polls suggest a change of government in 2014, then internal party divisions that were held at bay in the last Parliament may come more to the fore in the next one.
If my analysis is correct and Labor retains office, the Liberals will spend some time celebrating the achievement of bringing the margin back from their lowest point and reflecting on the fact that government should be within reach at the next election. However, once this mood wears off, the bleak reality of another four years in Opposition will confront them. The Liberals have had four different leaders since the 2006 election: they will need to make sure that they don’t return to their history of bitter infighting if they are to present South Australians with a credible alternative government.
In sum, Labor will lose seats, and if they don’t scrape across the line with a narrow majority, it will be down to a small number of Independents to determine which party will be able to enjoy the confidence of the lower house. The most secure of those Independents is Bob Such (in Fisher), and his backing could not be assumed by either party. He has said that he’ll seek the guidance of his electorate if he finds himself as king-maker, but his record would also suggest that the largest single party would have a reasonable expectation of his support.
In some political environments such a situation would be seen as liable to lead to an early election to try to resolve the balance of the parties one way or the other. In South Australia, however, there is a long history of minority governments that have remained stable and that have lasted their full term.
Even if there is no clear outcome on election night in just over a week’s time, South Australian voters are unlikely to be asked to settle it one way or the other until 15 March 2014 which is when the next election is scheduled. And by that time we will have had (at least) two more federal elections and the whole political climate may be very different.
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