Politics Analysis

There's more to the SA Labor Election victory than you think

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Labor's Peter Malinauskas delivers his speech after winning the South Australian 2022 State Election (Screenshot via YouTube)

Labor's victory in the SA State Election was won not just from a vote against the Liberals, but on a strategy based around the interests of the people, writes Dr Victoria Fielding.

SOUTH AUSTRALIA flies under the political radar in Australian media. The South Australian Election struggled to get on the national media agenda, competing with a looming federal poll, as well as a flood disaster, ongoing COVID crisis and Russia’s Ukrainian invasion.

That’s why it was unsurprising that South Australian Labor’s shock victory was met with shallow analysis, such as on ABC’s Insiders where commentators discussed the implications of Labor’s victory for the Federal Election.

As a South Australian who has been involved as a volunteer campaigning for Labor during this Election, I saw there was much more to this result than voters taking a swipe at Prime Minister Scott Morrison via the State Liberal Party. To say this was why Labor won would be simplistic and downplays the impact of Labor’s stunningly effective campaign, coupled with the Liberals’ lack of strategy.

To understand what happened in South Australia, you need to go back to the last time Labor lost government to the Liberals in 2018.

Labor had been in power before the March 2018 Election for four terms – 16 years. Premier Mike Rann (2002–2011) and Premier Jay Weatherill (2011–2018) were both popular leaders who led stable and progressive governments.

After winning narrowly in 2014 and after a redistribution that reduced Labor’s margin even further, the 2018 Election was characterised by a media narrative that suggested Labor was a tired government and it was time for a change.

I made the point on Twitter at the time that just because a government has been in power for a long time, doesn’t mean they don’t deserve another term. I could see then that this narrative had become a foregone conclusion for Labor. It told voters it was the Liberals’ turn at government, whether Labor deserved to be kicked out or not.

As Opposition Leader, Liberal Steven Marshall modelled himself on a long Liberal tradition of being negative. Marshall seemed to believe it was his job to criticise everything the Labor Government did. He said “No” for the sake of it in a superficial opposition strategy reminiscent of Tony Abbott’s “Mr No” era.

This meant that come 2018, Marshall’s Liberals did not need to campaign on a positive agenda of change, nor present any concrete plans about what they would do in government.

In place of a positive message, the Liberal campaign, just like Federal Liberals and in every other state, was not an argument about why Liberals wanted to be in power, but instead was an argument against Labor being in power.

You have to go back even further in history to understand the ideological foundation of this anti-Labor message. It is worth remembering that the Liberal Party formed specifically to oppose the Labor Party. On behalf of employers, the Liberals formed to oppose organised labour. There is a vibe about Liberals that they are entitled to government — they are born to rule. This was very much the crux of the Liberal argument that won them government in 2018.

Just like the Labor Party’s narrative foundation has never changed from its original goal to collectively organise government that served the interests of the people, the Liberals’ narrative has always been about opposing Labor governments by – and this is important – opposing the whole idea of government itself.

So, back to the 2018 Election. Marshall won this Election with a campaign opposing the Labor Government. The basic crux of his message was some slippery motherhood promise to reduce taxes and make the economy better.

This is the same thing Liberal governments always promise. And then when the Liberals won, they went about doing the same thing Liberals always do when they win government — cutting public services, cancelling Labor policies and privatising public assets.

Here are two examples, but there are many more. One of the first things the Liberals did was to cancel Labor’s plan to build a virtual renewable energy plant that would have provided Tesla batteries to low-income households for free. Marshall also privatised the tram and train network, despite promising not to privatise anything in the election campaign.

While doing all this cutting and slashing, the Marshall Government was also, predictably, not delivering their promised “better economy”. The Liberal Government also did not reduce debt. They did have COVID-19 to contend with, but this is a great example of why we do indeed need government in our lives – in good times and bad – whether Liberals want to believe that or not.

All this time, while the public was getting to know this disappointing new Liberal Government that had no plan, the Labor Opposition was going about winning back government. As someone who is involved in various Labor forums as a volunteer, I saw how South Australian Labor used their first time in opposition for 14 years to reset their narrative under new leader, Peter Malinauskas.

Labor went straight to work sending Malinauskas and other MPs out on a “listening tour” of local electorates, where they listened to complaints about what Labor had not done effectively while last in government and also where the Liberals were going wrong.

Over the past four years, Labor also worked hard to release and campaign for positive policies that set them up as a “reforming” government, as opposed to the “do nothing” Liberals. There are too many policies to list here, but they include opposing privatisation and buying back privatised trams and trains, building a green hydrogen industry to improve manufacturing costs and reduce carbon emissions, and making preschool available for all three-year-olds.

More recently, Labor has responded to the ambulance ramping and call-out delay crisis by promising investment in more ambulance staff and infrastructure, as well as mental health funding to free up hospital beds. These policies were accompanied by community campaigns in concert with unions to build public support for these reforms.

Labor also began their marginal seat campaigns two years out from the Election by pre-selecting early and pre-selecting well. Vibrant and enthusiastic young women campaigned for the four most marginal seats — Elder, King, Newland and Adelaide. All four of these candidates have successfully flipped these seats with a hard-working army of volunteers. Indeed, each now has a margin of over 5%, turning the seat from marginally Liberal to safe Labor.

In Liberal seats with larger margins where Labor has not traditionally campaigned hard, Labor also pre-selected early and supported candidates to campaign over many months to try to get a groundswell of support for change. Former local mayor Erin Thompson turned around an 8.1% margin in Davenport with a 12% swing.

Sarah Andrews at the time of writing looks to have won Gibson with a 13.6% swing. Cressida O’Hanlon is still in with a chance of beating Premier Marshall in his blue-ribbon Dunstan seat with a swing of 8%. And Catherine Hutchesson is ahead in the seat of Waite, held by Liberals for over 50 years, with a swing of 12.9%.

It is noteworthy that should one of these previously safe Liberal seats go to Labor, half of Labor’s MPs in government will be women. A stunning achievement for the state of South Australia

Also important to Labor’s victory is the popularity of leader Peter Malinauskas. Peter is young, energetic and personable. He has charisma which endears him to people. I was volunteering at a booth on Saturday and a family marched up to a poster with Peter’s face on it and asked, “How do we vote for that guy?” He is a leader who is not scared of prosecuting the argument for big ideas and championing the role of government to make a real difference in people’s lives.

About six weeks ago, the Liberals suddenly were jolted awake by polls that suggested they might be in trouble. Having coasted for the past two years, perhaps believing incumbent COVID-19 era governments were untouchable, they faced public backlash over the decision to throw open the borders right when the Omicron wave hit, but before the public had a chance to insulate themselves with boosters.

When they realised Labor had snuck up on them, their knee-jerk negativity returned in the form of yet another predictable panic-button move by the Liberals — a fear campaign smearing Labor as “over-spenders” and “bad at managing money”. This campaign felt like tired old white noise, despite it being aired all over the media, social media and plastered all over election booths.

The South Australian public seems to have a newfound understanding after a horrid three years of bushfire, pandemic and flood, that government debt is the least of their problems and in fact, government investment is good for the community. People want a strong public sector; they want ambulances to turn up quickly when called. They know you can’t have a strong economy without good government.

There is no doubt that some people voted to give Morrison a whack. It will be interesting to see if the swing continues at the federal poll. But the South Australian Labor campaign was far more than just a federal preview. It represented a clash of different ideas about the role of government in our lives. Which, if you’re watching closely, is exactly what we will see from Anthony Albanese and Scott Morrison. It certainly will be interesting to see which the public choose.

Dr Victoria Fielding is an Independent Australia columnist. You can follow Victoria on Twitter @Vic_Rollison.

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