When the book is finally closed on the 2010 South Australian election, it will not go down as one of the state’s political high points. A campaign dominated by jealous husbands, dodgy interviews and some back-of-the-envelope accounting from both parties has come, mercifully, to an end. But the counting, the claims and the counter-claims will continue for a good while yet.
The Liberal push peaked sometime around Monday of last week — until which they had been a disciplined and competent outfit. But former leader Vickie Chapman started the rot when she refused to rule out challenging for the premiership in the first term of a Liberal government and shadow treasurer Steve Griffiths followed that one up by admitting on radio during an interview that his costings were "basically spin".
Not comments calculated to inspire confidence in the alternative administration of the state, to put it charitably.
After all of that, Sunday morning didn’t bring South Australians a result either. A night of swings and roundabouts left the Labor Party in pole position to form government with 23 seats confirmed in a 47 seat house. But two key seats, Hartley and Bright, remain enough in doubt to keep the state guessing and the Independents close to their phones — and that is thanks to a statewide swing of 7.8 per cent against the Labor government that gave a 51–49 edge to the Liberals on two-party-preferred votes.
Ultimately, when the smoke clears, Labor will govern. Even if Hartley and Bright both fall, the Member for Mitchell, Kris Hanna, is a safety net for Rann and Co. The seat of Mitchell is solidly left-of-centre and the Labor-turned-Green-turned-Independent Hanna would be signing a warrant for his own political execution if he backed a Liberal government, and — like most politicians — he has an acute sense of self-preservation.
The truth is that Labor will be incredibly grateful to three of its newest MPs for holding back the tide. Tom Kenyon in Newland, Tony Piccolo in Light and Leon Bignell in Mawson defied the statewide trend — the latter two to such an extent that they actually experienced swings in their favour — while occupying three of the five most marginal seats in the state. If the swing had been uniform, Kenyon, Piccolo and Bignell would today be browsing job ads. Instead, in the words of Premier Rann, they’ve become instant Labor heroes.
Rann’s government teeters precariously close to the edge. Labor holds a lead of 864 votes in Hartley and just 45 in Bright. A victory in either of these seats would push the Government above the magical 24-seat mark, but with anywhere up to 4000 postal votes yet to come, those counts are far from over. Labor insiders predict the party will lose Bright and win Hartley for the barest of governing majorities — but that is by no means a guarantee.
Under normal circumstances, incumbent MPs who lead going into postal vote counting can be fairly confident. However, the volatile nature of the campaign means that many of those votes would have been lodged during the Liberal’s high water mark, before either Vickie Chapman’s or Steve Griffiths’ brain snaps of the last few days, and so may actually favour the Opposition candidates more than usual.
Elsewhere, the big swings came in an odd assortment of places. Adelaide, on a margin of 10.5 per cent, swung 15 per cent and booted Education Minister Jane Lomax-Smith right out of Parliament. In the northern suburbs, Florey, home of South Australia’s "Bible belt", lost two-thirds of its 12 per cent margin — perhaps a reminder for the Premier that there are electoral as well as divine consequences of being seen to covet your neighbour’s wife. Minister for Transport, Energy and Infrastructure, Pat Conlon, went from a margin above 15 per cent to one below 4 per cent in Elder.
But like a football team without a good forward, the Liberals just couldn’t get it done in the crunch. Only 5.4 per cent was needed to take Mawson, but there they went backwards. Facing the same margin in Newland, they could only cobble together less than half the swing needed.
Six months ago, if the Opposition could have found a fairy godmother willing to offer them 51 per cent of the vote from a nearly 8 per cent swing, they would have taken it in a heartbeat. Yet this result is a disappointment for one simple reason — it has not delivered them power when it clearly could have. The outer suburbs are where elections are won and lost, and, as they have in so many elections in so many states in the last 15 years, Labor has proved to be the party of the outer suburbs.
Opposition Leader Isobel Redmond’s speech on Saturday night seemed to be a mixture of delight and rage; whatever she said was easily forgotten because it was hard to escape the conclusion she’d tapped the keg a good time earlier.
For his part, Rann made sure his loyal wife was smiling loyally in every photo taken during his speech. Whatever the truth of the Chantelois foolishness, Rann has clearly been wounded politically and personally by having that kind of laundry aired in public. Labor hardheads will be discussing the Premier’s fate already; after a campaign like this he may not need to be pushed very hard to leave the job.
The South Australian Liberal Party could have won this election. Recycled candidates, some late indiscipline from its front bench and inferior campaigning in the trenches of marginal seat suburbia cost them dearly. And even with those drawbacks we still don’t have a declared winner yet. Labor would be tremendously unlucky to lose both Bright and Hartley; but not so unlucky as to make it impossible. And that would leave Labor — seeking a mandate for a third term — back to negotiating with Independents all over again.
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