Unexpected stability in South Australia

17 Jun 2002

Against expectations, Mike Rann’s Labor government is functioning smoothly, according to Haydon Manning

OVER the last decade and a half South Australians have enjoyed only four years of government by a party able to command a clear majority on the floor of parliament, and the outcome of the February 2002 state election altered nothing in this regard. As a consequence of a remarkably Machiavellian deal struck between former Liberal MP, Peter Lewis, and Labor leader, Mike Rann, Labor took office but few at the outset expected anything other than a period of unstable government.

Yet, at the time of writing the first 100 days of the Rann Labor Government is about to pass and stability is the order of the day, courtesy of an extremely cautious government but also one which has shrewdly courted another independent and ex-Liberal, Bob Such. Thus, Labor governs with a buffer of two independents - Peter Lewis as Speaker of the lower house and under constant testing fire from the Liberal opposition, and Bob Such, whose small “l” liberal credentials fit comfortably, it seems, with Rann’s vision and his cabinet’s caution.

The campaign and the result

The 2002 SA election result represents further expression of contemporary voter disdain toward the major parties. Labor formed government on the foundation of a mere 36 per cent primary vote, its lowest since 1941. The centrepiece of the Lewis-Rann deal (a “compact” modelled closely on that struck between Victorian Premier, Steve Bracks, and the three Victorian independents) is the promise of a constitutional convention aimed at promoting significant parliamentary reform (more on this in a moment).

The main issues of the campaign were, as one would expect, health, education, law and order and, from time to time, the environment. For voters a swirl of statistics surrounded the various promises and the majority, who are not accountants, could well be excused for turning off.

Labor’s low primary vote is explained partly by a campaign strategy which focused too much on anti-privatisation. As commentators pointed out, what is left to privatise? Moreover, the legacy of the collapse of the State Bank and the need to relieve the debt was well recognised - and, arguably, privatisation of electricity was grudgingly accepted by SA voters as not so much an “ideological” good as a necessary bad in terms of reducing the state’s high level of government debt. Rann was certainly more attuned with voters on the question of electricity pricing; here his proposal to institute a new regulatory regime under the auspices of an Essential Services Commission was both good policy and a vote winner.

The campaign of the Liberal leader, Rob Kerin, sought to appeal to a populist anti-politician mood, and while it would probably befuddle professional campaign managers, it was generally thought to have worked well. His TV advertisements opened with the words: “People joke, ‘Trouble with elections is that whoever you vote for you always end up with a politician’” and promised a “no nonsense” approach. Just what this might mean in practice is anyone’s guess, but the message helped to sharpen a contrast between the slick Rann and the plain-spoken Kerin.

The most notable feature of the results for the House of Assembly and the Legislative Council was the Liberals’ failure to win sufficient seats to govern after winning the majority of the both the primary and two-party-preferred vote. This is a particular irony for students of SA politics given that after the 1989 State election the Electoral Act was amended to redraw boundaries after each election with the intent of “ensuring” that the party with a two party preferred majority would win sufficient seats to govern! Also notable is the sharp decline of the Democrat vote in both houses, a result which ranks with those of the late 1970s and early 1980s and has fuelled a range of opinion as to its source. Others can debate its relationship to Stott-Despoja’s leadership, but it is worth noting the competition the Democrats face for the protest vote from other parties and independents contributed to the decline, especially in the Legislative Council.

Not foreseen at the campaign’s opening was the role the new party, Family First, would play in both delivering a healthy preference flow to the Liberals and in securing an upper house seat. With links to the Assemblies of God church and a very well financed campaign - plus ample foot soldiers at polling booths - this party has stamped its mark and may well increase its presence at the next state election.

Labor in government
It is far too early to judge the Rann government except to note that Premier Mike Rann, Deputy Premier and Treasurer Kevin Foley and Environment Minister John Hill have presented a competent face for the government. It will be interesting to report in six months on Lea Stevens (Health, Assisting the Premier in Social Inclusion ) and Jane Lomax-Smith (Tourism, Employment, Training and Further Education ) as both hold, in terms of the media attention they attract, difficult ministries, are inexperienced and likely targets of concerted opposition attack.

The Constitutional Convention, the big event in SA politics for 2003, is currently being planned. The convention represents a key plank of the deal struck between Rann and Lewis and sees Lewis prominent in the planning process. In making the deal with Rann, Lewis stated he was keen to see parliamentary reform and believed the Liberals could not be trusted to deliver. Others will argue it was Labor’s offer of the House speakership (and the income it accrues) that was the key; whatever the case, the outcome now sees a process of citizen involvement in what is likely to be important parliamentary reform. Based on the principles of “deliberative democracy” the convention will attract considerable national attention, in particular with regard to the key issues it will consider, namely, reduction of the number of MPs, changes to parliamentary procedure, no ministers in the upper house and possible abolition of the upper house. Estimated to cost $570,000, the process will involving a series of meetings with citizens chosen randomly from the electoral role with the aim of constituting a final convention of around 300 citizens who will deliberate, debate and discuss - with advice from “experts” - then vote in what is expected to be a binding manner with regard to government presenting issues at a future referendum.

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