Jostling in a nether world

23 Feb 2006

The campaign has finally begun. Geoff Anderson and Haydon Manning report on the opening salvos

SOUTH AUSTRALIANS will vote in the state’s first fixed term election on 18 March. Although the date has been known for over four years, that didn’t stop the usual speculation over timing, with the media wanting to know precisely when the writs would be issued and the Liberal opposition jostling to take advantage of the hiatus. The result was a nether world of quasi-campaigning stretching back to mid January. The clamour only ceased when Mike Rann - the nation’s most popular premier, according to Newspoll - visited Government House on 20 February to seek the dissolution of parliament and the issuing of writs for the 47 seats in the House of Assembly and half of the 22 seats in the Legislative Council

It’s been a particularly strange few weeks. Liberal leader, Rob Kerin, chose to launch his party’s campaign a fortnight ago, believing this would somehow get the jump on his opponents. The Advertiser, South Australia’s only daily newspaper, was clearly anxious to see the excitement of the campaign begin, and entered the fray with an editorial accusing the premier of being “a man of talk, not action” who was force-feeding the state with populist and media driven politics. The following day’s editorial issued an “invitation” to the premier to join Rob Kerin in a public debate (a feature of South Australian campaigning three decades ago) where questions would be taken from the floor. According to the paper, “Mr Rann is not prepared to shed his slick political skin to participate in democracy in the raw.” Despite denials from the Advertiser that it had decided to campaign against the government and an assessment by the editor that both major parties were “particularly pathetic”, it’s hard to avoid the impression that the paper believes the government is a bit too far ahead.

The first two days of the campaign have provided some evidence that this is indeed the case, with little doubt that (so far) the Advertiser is Rob Kerin’s best friend. When the premier announced his campaign theme against the backdrop of the statue of Adelaide’s designer, Colonel Light, on a hill known as “Light’s Vision”, the headline was “Rann’s Light Vision” and the editorial demanded, in terms more reminiscent of a day-night cricket match, “C’mon Premier, show us your ideas”.

There is every indication that the trend towards presidential campaigning in Australian elections, state and federal, will be maintained if not taken to new heights by Labor. Day one saw its slogan revealed as “Rann Gets Results” under a photo of the premier that owed more to West Wing than the State Administration Centre.

Labor currently holds only 22 seats in the 47 seat House of Assembly and governs in coalition with South Australia’s only National Party MP and an independent Liberal, both of whom are members of cabinet, with the support of two other Liberal independents, the present and the former Speaker. To feel comfortable as a majority government Labor needs to win at least two additional seats.

For the Liberals the task is much harder - perhaps even impossible if the majority of the four centre-right independents are reelected, as they cannot be counted on to support the formation of a Liberal government. Of the four, Peter Lewis, the member for the rural seat of Hammond who put Labor into government in return for the Speaker’s chair, is almost certain to lose his seat. He has already lost the speakership after failing to substantiate allegations of paedophilia against a government minister and a former senior Liberal member. Recent polls suggest that fellow independent Rory McEwen, the Member for Mt Gambier in the state’s southeast who sits in Rann’s cabinet, could be in for a fight. It also appears that the vote may be close in Karlene Maywald’s National Party seat of Chaffey in the Riverland. Both are seats that the Liberals believe they can win back. During the phoney campaign, Maywald received the support of Queensland Senator Barnaby Joyce. Although this generated publicity it also highlighted her anomalous position inside a Labor cabinet and forced her to commit to supporting “a conservative government first and foremost” if the election resulted in the Nationals holding the balance of power. The last of the independents is Bob Such, Member for Fisher in the city’s south and the current Speaker, who appears assured of holding his seat.

Labor also looks likely to make gains in the Legislative Council, particularly if the high primary vote suggested by recent polls holds up. But it will not win control of the council, for even if the Liberals suffered a catastrophic reversal Labor does not have enough candidates on its ticket to deliver a majority in the chamber. The real interest in the Legislative Council will be whether the Democrats’ demise federally has infected their homeland state or whether Natasha Stott Despoja’s profile can be translated into local votes. As two of their three council seats are up for grabs they are likely to lose influence whatever the result. The high profile No Pokies member of the council, Nick Xenophon, the darling of the media, may find that preference deals by the major parties leave him stranded. Family First, whose success in winning a seat in the council in the 2002 election was something of a forerunner of the impact it made in the 2004 federal election, is running a strong campaign aided by a presence in all of the lower house contests. If we include the Greens then there are four high profile candidates or minor parties fighting for probably a maximum of two seats. We shall know more when nominations close and the major parties determine their preferences.

At this juncture the polls are unanimous in predicting that that government will be returned in a ‘Rannslide’. We are more cautious but nevertheless believe that Labor will win with a comfortable majority of four to five seats. •

Geoff Anderson and Haydon Manning teach in the School of Political Studies at Flinders University

For more detail on individual electorates see Poll Bludger’s South Australian Pendulum and the Antony Green’s analysis on the ABC state election website.

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