Australia's States Are Turning Blue

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On Saturday, South Australia and Tasmania go to the polls.

Elections in Australia’s smaller states and territories aren’t often thought to hold too much national significance. Aside from the perennial arguments over whether they’re fought on state or national issues, the chief importance of the polls is for the residents of those states themselves, who rely on state governments for key services like health, education and emergency services.

In fact, the main issues in both Tasmania and South Australia this year remain largely local in scope. In Tasmania, forestry has again loomed as a controversial issue, underpinning a broader debate about the island state’s economic and social stagnation. In South Australia, a rather dirty election campaign has not managed to rise to any great heights of policy focus. The announcement of a drone base for the Air Force and continuing disquiet about South Australia’s slowly collapsing manufacturing base are about as substantial as it gets.

The real issue at play this year seems to be incumbency. A key reason that the Coalition is expected to seize power in both Adelaide and Hobart is the long tenure of Labor in office. In South Australia, Jay Weatherill’s government is part of a Labor reign that stretches all the way back to 2002. In Tasmania, Labor has been in office even longer: there has been a Labor premier since 1998.

In recent years, we’ve seen a string of long-serving state governments handed stinging defeats by voters. In Queensland, the Bligh government was humbled by Campbell Newman’s LNP in the largest defeat in Australian history. In New South Wales, a landslide also overtook Labor under Kristina Keneally. In 2010, the Victorian Labor government of John Brumby was expected to hang on, but ended up losing by a seat. When the mood for change is on, even relatively popular governments and leaders can be swept from office.

The polls in both Tasmania and South Australia are pretty clear. In the Apple Isle, the Liberal Party enjoys a huge lead over its left-of-centre opponents. The latest polling puts the Liberals on around 47 per cent, with Labor on 24 and the Greens 18. Election analyst Kevin Bonham is predicting an absolute majority of 14 seats in the 25 seat Parliament for a new Liberal government under Will Hodgman. Labor is likely to be reduced to just six seats, with the Greens holding four and the Palmer United Party a possibility to elect a state member.

In South Australia, there is less polling to work with, but the most recent state-wide polls by Galaxy and Newspoll both showed the Liberals ahead, roughly 54-46 on two-party preferred basis. Despite Labor’s effective marginal seat campaign last election, you’d expect that these figures, if repeated across the state, would lead to a comfortable Liberal victory for Opposition Leader Stephen Marshall.

As Flinders University’s Haydon Manning points out in a solid analysis, South Australia’s economy has been faltering in recent months, and, like many states and territories, the budget is in the red. Labor’s campaign has also been lacklustre.

If both Tasmania and South Australia do turn blue, the transition from the wall-to-wall Labor governments of 2008 will be nearly complete. With Liberal-National governments in all the big states and in Canberra, we’re at the opposite end of the cycle from the years when Kevin Rudd could host an almost exclusively Labor COAG conference. As a result, the cycle is about to begin again. In Victoria, Daniel Andrews is a good chance to unseat the struggling first-term government of Denis Napthine later this year. This would continue Victoria’s modern tradition as the mot left-leaning state in the Commonwealth.

Whatever we think causes this natural cycle of Australian state and federal politics, the fact remain that the states and territories are important. They deliver most of the public services across all levels of government that ordinary citizens rely on. They also retain critical regulatory powers in all sorts of economic and social spheres, from business trading hours to road transport to urban planning. The states are also the agencies the Commonwealth generally turns to when it needs to deliver country-wide public policy reforms, like national disability insurance or schools funding reforms.

As a result, conservative governments in most of the states and territories will have a subtle but important impact on Australian public policy and administration. We’re likely to see a further retreat from principles like universalism and equity, and a further embrace of the private sector in the provision of services and the development of capital cities. Federal-state relations will also be affected. Prime Minister Tony Abbott is also likely to find receptive audiences for some of his national policies.

Environmental policy offers a good example. The conservative state governments have shown themselves to be particularly hostile to renewable energy subsidies, and zealous in their efforts to deregulate so-called “green tape”. The Liberal-National government of Queensland, for instance, has now rolled back essentially all support for solar power. Premier Campbell Newman is singing from the same hymn book as Abbott on issues like abolishing the carbon tax and encouraging the go-ahead of the Abbott Point coal port. All of this matters, because state jurisdictions are still the key regulatory agencies for many aspects of mining and energy.

In South Australia and Tasmania, the election of conservative governments will likely see similar developments. We’ll see further hostility to environmental protections and green industries. That’s good news for logging in Tasmania, and bad news for wind power in South Australia. Mining companies everywhere can expect to see a more favourable political environment.

On one issue, however, the states and Canberra inevitably part ways: money. No matter which party holds power in the states and territories, state governments have a natural conflict of interest with the Commonwealth over the way that tax revenue is distributed. States like Tasmania benefit from generous GST revenues, for instance, while Western Australia sees far less of the consumption tax revenue generated within its borders. State premiers also have a natural political tendency to bash the federal government, no matter who happens to hold office.

Whatever the longer term trends, the results on Saturday will certainly be handy for Tony Abbott. Just as Canberra-bashing is a time-honoured tactic for state premiers, prime ministers love nothing better than to argue that state political developments are the result of federal factors. Expect the Coalition and its media cheer-leaders to hail Liberal victories on Sunday as a further repudiation of Labor policies, including that dastardly carbon tax.

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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