A state by-election will be held in South Australia tomorrow in the electorate of Fisher, a naturally Liberal-leaning seat which has been in independent hands since 2000, and looks a strong chance of remaining so after tomorrow. The electorate encompasses suburbs around the Happy Valley Reservoir on the inland edge of southern Adelaide, including O’Halloran Hill to its west and Aberfoyle Park to its east, and extends eastwards into lightly populated Adelaide Hills territory from Coromandel East south to Clarendon. The seat has been vacated by the death on October 11 of Bob Such, who came to the seat as a Liberal in 1989, but quit the party in 2000 and retained the seat as an independent thereafter.
Fisher was created with the redistribution that followed the electoral reform of 1970 and held for the Liberals for its first 15 years by Stan Evans. The redistribution ahead of the 1985 election markedly changed its complexion by moving it into the suburbs of Adelaide, turning it from a safe Liberal to a marginal seat. This caused Evans to take his business to neighbouring Davenport where he challenged future Premier Dean Brown first for Liberal preselection, and then successfully at the election as an independent Liberal candidate. Fisher meanwhile was won for Labor by Philip Tyler, who was unseated at the following election in 1989 by Bob Such.
After strengthening his grip on the seat in the 1993 landslide, Such became Employment and Training Minister in the new government, but was dumped when John Olsen deposed Dean Brown as leader in November 1996. In early 2002 he quit the Liberal Party citing general disillusionment over the Olsen government’s style, but he was said to have been particularly put out by a lack of party support when challenged for preselection by former federal Kingston MP Susan Jeanes, who went on to win the Liberal endorsement in his absence. Such easily prevailed at the March 2002 election with 34.6% of the primary vote against 30.9% for Jeanes, a gap that widened to 13.1% after Labor preferences. In what may have proved a costly mistake, the Liberals had issued a punitive preference ticket which put Such behind Labor.
When the election left the three independents holding the balance of power, Such won favour with his constituents by issuing questionnaires seeking advice on how he should handle the situation. Given that Hammond MP Peter Lewis had decided to back Labor, voters overwhelmingly favoured Such lining up behind the Rann government for the sake of stability. The Kerin government was ultimately brought down by Such’s decision to abstain from a confidence motion when parliament resumed in March 2002, obviating the need for Peter Lewis to exercise his casting vote as the newly appointed Speaker.
Rann proved keenly sensitive to the importance of good relations with Such during the government’s first term, sending him on a trade mission to Paris shortly after the election and eventually securing him the Deputy Speaker’s position. In April 2005 he went one better, replacing fellow independent Peter Lewis in the Speaker’s chair when Lewis resigned pending a no-confidence motion. Like Lewis, Such had long coveted the job as a Liberal MP, having accepted Labor’s nomination when the Olsen government lost its majority at the 1997 election. When the prospect was raised of Lewis being removed from parliament altogether, Such declared he would not back a change of government if the Liberals recovered Lewis’s seat at a by-election. Such nonetheless lost the position after Labor secured a clear majority at the 2006 election, when he was succeeded by Playford MP Jack Snelling.
Together with fellow independent Geoff Brock, member for the Port Pirie-based seat of Frome, Such’s re-election at the March 2014 election resulted in a hung parliament with Labor on 23 seats and the Liberals on 22. Less than a week after polling day, with the outcome of the election still unresolved, Such announced he was taking leave to receive treatment for what proved to be a brain tumour. This left Brock with little choice but to support Labor to remain in government, notwithstanding the blow to their legitimacy caused by the Liberals’ 53-47 win on the statewide two-party vote.
Any prospect that a win for the Liberals in a Fisher by-election might cause the matter to be revisited was negated when former Liberal leader Martin Hamilton-Smith quit the party to take up a position in the ministry. Furthermore, a poll published in The Advertiser on Tuesday suggested that the Liberals face in a formidable challenge from independent candidate Daniel Woodyatt, who was on 30% of the primary vote against 34% for the Liberals and 21% for Labor, suggesting he would win the seat on Labor preferences.
My more in-depth view of the by-election’s political context can be found in today’s Crikey. The candidates in ballot paper order:
Heidi Harris (Liberal). Harris is a former hotel manager and staffer to Liberal front-bencher Duncan McFetridge, member for the Glenelg-based seat of Morphett, who ran unsuccessfully in Elder at the 2002 election. She also ran for preselection in Fisher before the March election, but was defeated by Sam Duluk, who had the backing of Iain Evans and the Right faction. According to InDaily, Such’s desire to keep the seat out of the faction’s hands, a product of emnities going back to the time of his departure from the Liberal Party in 2000, motivated him to seek another term at a time when he might otherwise have retired. This partly explained Harris’s victory in the preselection ahead of the Right-backed Helen Ronson, described as a local community worker.
Jeanie Walker (Independent Australian Democrats). Walker has used the three words South Australia’s electoral legislation allows independents to identify their cause to signal her association with a party that no longer even has registration in South Australia.
Nat Cook (Labor). Cook is the executive director of the Sammy D Foundation, which encourages youth to reach their maximum life potential.
Rob de Jonge (Independent).
Bob Couch (Stop Population Growth Now).
Dan Woodyatt (Independent Continue Such’s Legacy). Woodyatt is a 35-year-old lawyer at the Crown Solicitor’s office. While he carries a certain amount of baggage as a former active ALP member, he has crucially received the public endorsement of Such’s wife, a point smartly emphasised by his self-description on the ballot paper.
Malwina Wyra (Greens).
Dan Golding (Independent Honest True Local).