Politics Opinion

The SA State Election shouldn’t even be close (but it is)

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SA Labor Leader Peter Malinauskas looks set to take over the role of Premier from Steven Marshall in 2022 (Image by Dan Jensen)

Polls suggest South Australia's Liberal Government could be defeated after just one term in the upcoming State Election. Andrew P Street examines the reasons why.

YOU COULD BE FORGIVEN for not knowing that South Australia goes to the polls on Saturday for a State Election, since SA is the perpetually forgotten middle child of the Federation Family.

There it sits, looking coquettishly toward the east in the hopes that someone in the media might notice there’s something other than a smoky void between Victoria and WA. Yet it’s a forlorn hope since approximately 90 per cent of the Australian media is ex-Adelaide and all have erected a mighty blind spot over their memory of their home state. 

Just ask such august A-town alumni as Andrew Bolt, Annabel Crabb, Clementine Ford, The Guardian’s Greg Jericho, or Kochie to pick Adelaide on a map and they’ll all deny it even exists; although it’s worth noting that you can easily trick them into showing their South Australian roots by asking that reflexive Adelaide question: “So, where’d you go to school?”

In fact, the only ex-pats that honour their roots are Shaun Micallef and myself — he through obscure jokes on Mad As Hell about Klemzig, and me because I re-patted myself by moving back when I had a child because, much like the noble salmon, all South Australians must return to their home waters to spawn and then die.

Anyway, my point is that there’s a State Election coming up and that you may well not have registered this information. And you should, because it’s going to be fascinating.

By any reasonable assumption, the Liberal Government of SA Premier Steven Marshall should have an easy return to power. It’s rare for a government to only get one term, even in a naturally Labor state like SA, and so far no pandemic-era state government hasn’t been comfortably returned in Australia. 

And yet the polling suggests that Labor, under leader and thirst trap Peter Malinauskas, is slightly but consistently ahead of a Government who has seemed unable to handle the business of running a state. 

Why? Well, let me explain...

We don’t talk about COVID, no, no, no

South Australia did shockingly well in terms of keeping the spread of COVID-19 under control for two years, with only a handful of lockdowns and community support for things like social distancing and widespread mask use.

And yet this triumph is not being celebrated by the Government that achieved it, for two reasons.

One is that Marshall was very quick to make the state’s Chief Public Health Officer, Professor Nicola Spurrier, the face of the pandemic. It was either a reassuringly non-partisan way of showing he was prioritising the medical science or a way of putting a warm body between himself and blame if everything went to hell. Or, more likely, both.

The other reason COVID policy isn’t getting much play in the campaign is that the moment Marshall decided to sideline Spurrier and reassert himself as Boss of the Virus in November 2021 was also the moment that virus cases, hospitalisations and deaths shot abruptly up.

He wasn’t alone – only WA’s Mark McGowan was game to be The Premier That Ruined Christmas by keeping borders shut – but it did mean that two years of well-advised caution were swapped for “eh, maybe it’ll all be fine”. And as judgements go, that’s not a great example to take to an Election. 

Speaking of judgement...

Can you handle the scandal?

The 2018 Marshall victory over the exhausted Labor Government of Jay Weatherill wasn’t exactly comprehensive. Once the counting concluded, the Liberals had a majority of three seats, which was whittled into minority once three MPs were forced to leave the Party amid scandals.

Of these, two were regarding criminal misuse of entitlements and one – Sam Duluk – after allegations of drunkenly slapping a colleague’s behind after gatecrashing the crossbench Christmas drinks in 2019, back when phrases like “crossbench Christmas drinks” still had meaning. 

He was subsequently found not guilty, but still failed to be welcomed back into the Party. And to make matters worse, last year, MP Dan Cregan quit the Liberals and was installed by Labor and the crossbench as the new Speaker of the House, in another minority government embarrassment. 

On top of this was the scandal regarding the decision by State Attorney General, Planning Minister and then-Deputy Premier Vickie Chapman to veto a timber port operation on Kangaroo Island, followed by the subsequent revelation that Chapman rented out a holiday property she owned on KI and therefore potentially had both a real and perceived conflict of interest. That led to a recommendation that Chapman be found in contempt of parliament and a shock vote of no confidence

That being said, none of these scandals really galvanised the state since there was that whole “pandemic” thing, which was kind of a distraction from the petty machinations of government. But it has meant that several Liberal electorates have unhelpful former Liberal candidates running as Independents and potentially splitting the vote. 

Ex-Liberals Cregan and Fraser Ellis are likely to be returned as Independents, while controversial ex-Liberal Troy Bell will unambiguously return in Mount Gambier. And Bell and Cregan have been public about how their support of Marshall will be very, very conditional indeed. 

Bad ideas done badly

The Marshall Government secured the Australian Space Agency’s home in Adelaide. This made sense, since it appears to exist largely for the benefit of the defence industry which is still a major employer in the state and is also inadvertently responsible for the existence of The Mark of Cain. War! What is it good for? Grinding industrial rock, say it again!

But that aside, it’s hard to point to many successes during the last four years, aside from attempting to privatise SA Pathology just before it became the state’s PCR test saviour and privatising the passenger train network in such a way that it appears to now cost taxpayers more under the private owners than it did when it was in public hands

Oh, and a crisis of ambulance ramping in our hospitals which has been implicated in another two deaths in the last 24 hours and shows no sign of abating — and which is a significant part of Labor’s election campaign.

Speaking of which…

The insipid Liberal campaign

Since COVID can’t be mentioned and the achievements of the Government are questionable and few, the campaign is largely about Labor being an economic risk and Marshall being the man to keep the state on track — despite SA having the lowest economic post-lockdown recovery in the country and the worst employment figures. 

In fact, the strategy appears to be similar to the apparent federal one of attempting to convince the public that the Government might have sucked at their job, but Labor would totally have sucked more — honest.

It doesn’t help that the person Marshall is crediting with the state’s not-as-bad-as-the-others-would-have-gotten-it economic situation, Treasurer Rob Lucas, is quitting at the Election and Marshall has declined to announce who would replace him. Possibly because he’s not sure who’ll still have a seat and/or be a member of the Party by the end of March.

And finally, there’s another force weighing Marshall down...

The feds!

It’s said that people vote differently at state and federal elections, which has always seemed unlikely to me since few people have a clear sense of what is a state responsibility, what’s a federal one and what the hell local councils are for.

And Prime Minister Scott Morrison did pop down to SA to help bring his magic to Marshall, the man who he memorably nicknamed quokka for his supposedly indelible smile, before getting the hell out of Adelaide before voters could ask him about outstanding bushfire recovery funding.

But with Morrison seemingly on the national nose, it’s entirely possible that transactional-minded swing voters will be asking themselves: “If Anthony Albanese wins the Election, who’s going to be better placed to lobby for SA’s interests — Mali or The Marsupial?”

It might not sway a large number of voters, but in this Election, it probably doesn’t have to.

Even so, chances are South Australia won’t know the outcome for several days, maybe weeks. With COVID-19 on the rise in the state, pre-polling and postal votes have been predictably high and counting of those ballots won’t begin until the Monday after the Election. 

And if Marshall somehow hangs on, that will bring Morrison small comfort for his own much harder battle. But if he doesn’t... say, what animal is the opposite of a quokka? 

Andrew P Street is an Adelaide-based, Sydney-built journalist, columnist, author, editor and broadcaster. You can follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewPStreet.

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