One week into the official campaign period for the South Australian election, no indications have emerged to discourage the conventional wisdom that Mike Rann’s Labor government will easily secure a second term. Labor has had a clear two-party preferred lead in all published polling since it came to office (barring one aberrant Newspoll result from late 2004), and if anything this has widened as the election has approached.
How very different things might have been if independent Hammond MP Peter Lewis had done as he said he would during the 2002 election campaign and backed the Liberals to remain in government. Liberal leader Rob Kerin’s affable and non-confrontational style proved such a hit in his short period as Premier that he nearly salvaged victory for an accident-prone eight-year government, but these very same qualities have proved disastrous in opposition. Kerin’s colleagues grew increasingly exasperated by his lack of killer instinct as Labor cemented the opinion poll lead it opened up during its honeymoon period, and he suffered further self-inflicted damage through his hands-off approach to factional wars surrounding the Unley preselection and Stephen Baker’s removal as the party’s state treasurer. A successful leadership challenge would have been inevitable under normal circumstances, but such was the certainty of an impending election defeat that none of the credible alternatives wanted the job.
The comical coup attempt in November from Waite MP Martin Hamilton-Smith (which he was compelled to withdraw after failing to attract the eight supporters needed to call a spill) remains hard to explain. It was reported that figures in the state party’s Right faction (including federal heavies Alexander Downer and Nick Minchin) goaded him on in the hope that he would "open the way" for their favoured candidate, Iain Evans. It’s hard to see how this would have come off given that Evans is clearly intent on keeping his powder dry until after the election. The best theory I can come up with is that the party powerbrokers were rattled by the scale of the defeat that Kerin seemed to be leading them towards, encouraging the line of political logic exquisitely articulated by Sir Humphrey Appleby in Yes, Minister "something must be done, this is something, therefore we must do it". Writing in the Sunday Mail on the weekend, Channel Seven political reporter Mike Smithson noted that Evans has been "virtually nowhere to be seen" in the first week of the campaign, with most of the weight being carried by upper house leader and Shadow Treasurer Rob Lucas.
The Prime Minister’s first and apparently final campaign visit last week proved of little help, as he proved understandably unwilling to endorse the opposition’s line that talk of a strong economy is Rann government hype a point refuted last week by Richard Blandy, a former economics adviser to Dean Brown’s Liberal government and current Flinders University economics professor. Even more puzzling is the party’s promise to cut 4000 public service jobs and its ready admission that this will boost the unemployment rate in the short term. This might be interpreted as a defeatist gesture pitched not at swinging voters in marginal seats, but rather at traditional Liberal voters who might be persuaded to stay on board through a pitch towards small government and low taxes. It might also add credibility to their capacity to fund coming election promises. By contrast, Labor has the luxury of being able to stand on its outwardly impressive economic record and the highest leadership approval ratings in the land, prompting the campaign slogan "Rann gets results". While this appears to have a fair weight of evidence behind it, few have been persuaded by their claim to credit for the $6 billion Air Warfare Destroyer project bestowed upon the state by the federal government. All the same, Labor clearly has a saleable message and is putting it across through an impressively slick presidential-style campaign.
In view of all this, the seats to watch at this stage are all on the Liberal side of the pendulum. The Liberals hold seven seats by margins of less than 6 per cent Hartley (2.1 per cent), Stuart (2.3 per cent), Light (2.6 per cent), Mawson (3.5 per cent), Morialta (3.6 per cent), Bright (4.6 per cent) and Newland (5.5 per cent). The last two are in as much danger as the first four due to the retirement of sitting members Wayne Matthew and Dorothy Kotz. Changing demographics mean that Labor cannot rest on its laurels in either of its two most marginal seats, Norwood (0.5 per cent) and Adelaide (1.1 per cent), but both appear to be off the radar at this stage. Putting the bottom end of the Mackerras pendulum to one side, and leaving aside seats currently held by independents (a subject for another time), local factors mark the following as roughies:
Kavel (Liberal 12.8%): Outside of the Poll Bludger’s election guide and Flinders University academic Haydon Manning’s summary in the Sunday Mail, there has been surprisingly little talk of what could potentially be the most sensational single result to emerge from the election: a lower house seat for Family First. There seems every reason to believe this might happen, because their candidate in Kavel came within 2.9 per cent of winning the seat as an independent in 2002. That candidate is Tom Playford, Baptist pastor and son of the legendary Liberal Premier of the same name, who held the office from 1938 to 1965. Playford the Younger polled 18.7 per cent of the primary vote in 2002, ahead of Labor (18.0 per cent) and the Democrats (9.1 per cent). At the penultimate count, Playford led Labor 28.1 per cent to 24.5 per cent, with the Liberals’ Mark Goldsworthy on 47.4 per cent. Enough preferences leaked to Goldsworthy after Labor’s exclusion to put him over the line, although Playford was reportedly in the lead at the close of counting on election night. There are two reasons to advise caution over his prospects of going one better this time around. Firstly, Goldsworthy was making his debut at the 2002 election, at which he replaced recently ousted Premier John Olsen. This time he will enjoy the benefits of incumbency, although it remains to be seen if this will cancel out what is likely to be a statewide drop in the Liberal vote. Secondly, the likelihood of an overall higher vote for Labor means he faces a bigger hurdle to win second place.
Finniss (Liberal 15.9%): Held by retiring former Premier Dean Brown, Finniss is well beyond Labor’s reach but it offers the National Party its best chance of extending an empire that is currently limited to Karlene Maywald’s seat of Chaffey. Their candidate is Alexandrina mayor Kym McHugh, who considered standing for the Liberal preselection that went to Kangaroo Island mayor Michael Pengilly. McHugh was ultimately persuaded to stand for the Nationals by Maywald, who along with Queensland Nationals Senator Barnaby Joyce has been energetically campaigning on behalf of McHugh and other party candidates in Flinders and MacKillop.
Unley (Liberal 9.1%): Although well outside the range of a reasonable uniform swing, Unley bears watching due to a combination of factors: a new Liberal candidate without the advantages of incumbency, the messy circumstances surrounding the downfall of his predecessor Mark Brindal, and the appeal of Labor’s candidate, Unley mayor Michael Keenan, who was head-hunted by Mike Rann and installed without a preselection vote.
After a few more days of consideration, the Poll Bludger will append his election guide with predicted outcomes for all 47 seats.