Will Rann Take SA Labor Down With Him?


Mike Rann has been Premier of South Australia for over nine years, and has been Leader of the South Australian Labor Party since 1994. This week he is facing the prospect of a coup within his party’s caucus, which has forced him to promise that he will step down in the next few months. He is expected to resign in December, when he surpasses John Bannon’s record as the longest-serving Labor Premier in South Australian history. The current heir apparent is Education Minister Jay Weatherill.

Out of the Labor governments elected in all six states between 1995 and 2002, South Australia’s is the only one which has not had a change of leadership. Queensland is on to its second premier and Tasmania is onto its fourth. Labor governments in Western Australia and Victoria were defeated after a single change of leadership. New South Wales Labor had four leaders during its 16 years in power.

A change of leadership is not unusual for a Labor government, but the evidence in other states suggests that, regardless of a change of leader, Labor is likely to lose the next South Australian election in 2014.

Rann became Leader of the Opposition in 1994, a year after Labor had lost government in a massive landslide, holding on to less than a quarter of seats in the Assembly. Despite their massive majority, the Liberal government was racked by serious factional infighting. Dean Brown was replaced as Premier by John Olsen in 1996, and at the 1997 election Labor came very close to winning. Olsen resigned in 2001 and was replaced by Rob Kerin.

The 2002 election produced a hung parliament, with the Liberal Party winning a majority of the two-party-preferred vote. Labor came within one seat of a majority, and formed a government with the support of independent Liberal Peter Lewis.

Like Labor governments across Australia in the early 2000s, Rann’s first narrow victory led to a landslide victory at the 2006 election. This was the same pattern followed by Labor governments in New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, Tasmania, the ACT and the Northern Territory. Following the election of the Rudd government in 2007, this trend changed. Labor lost power in Western Australia in 2008 and experienced close calls in Queensland and the Northern Territory in the first two years of the Rudd government.

In March 2010, Rann was re-elected with a smaller majority, losing two seats and seeing the National Party minister in the government lose her seat to the Liberal Party. The seat results did not reflect the swing in votes, with Labor suffering an 8.4 per cent swing. The opposition Liberal Party won 51.6 per cent of the two-party-preferred vote, but thanks to Labor effectively concentrating its votes in marginal seats, this did not translate into a majority.

A dying government often lasts one term too long, and ends up losing much bigger at the next election. The Victorian Labor government narrowly lost power in 2010 but the party has remained largely intact and will be in a strong position at the next election. By contrast, the NSW Labor government avoided defeat in 2007, and ended up being decimated at the recent state election. It now holds less than a quarter of seats.

Since holding on in 2010, SA Labor has dipped in the polls, falling to 46 per cent of the two-party vote in the latest Newspoll. While there is still over two and a half years until the next election in 2014, the prospects for Labor holding on are not great. The record of Labor governments winning re-election under new leaders since Labor won power federally suggests the Liberals will win in 2014.

South Australia’s unusual electoral laws will also make things harder for SA Labor.
South Australia isn’t the only jurisdiction where governments have won power without a majority of the two-party-preferred vote. Governments won re-election at the 1990 and 1998 federal elections when a majority of voters preferred the opposition. It is a consequence of the single-member-electorate system used for most Australian elections. The system has a tendency to produce massive lopsided majorities which aren’t reflected in voting figures. It is also possible for parties to lose close elections despite winning more votes, as votes can pile up in safe electorates where they don’t result in more seats being won.

Most electoral commissions around Australia completely ignore any impact on partisan politics when redrawing boundaries. In South Australia, however, the electoral commission is required to draw boundaries that produce a "fair" result.

They do this by drawing a map that ensures that a party that wins a majority of the two-party vote will win a majority of seats. This produces a "fair" result if you assume that all electorates swing by the same amount. The last election, however, demonstrates clearly that this doesn’t work. Patterns of voting at one election don’t change uniformly in all parts of the state. If the swing in 2010 had been uniform across the state, the Liberal Party would be in government now.

Since the last state election produced such a distorted result, the upcoming redistribution will need to radically redraw electoral boundaries in order to retrospectively produce a theoretically "fair" outcome. This will make it even harder for the Labor government to win re-election in 2014, as they will need to gain a number of seats to hold their current position.

If the polls follow the pattern of other Labor governments around the country, it will likely be too much for Labor to gain those seats in 2014.


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