The Labor government that faces re-election in South Australia on March 17 has been one of extraordinary longevity, winning four successive four-year terms starting in 2002. However, this has been owed more to electoral good fortune than genuine popularity, as three of the four wins were achieved with minority shares of the two-party vote. A sweeping redistribution tilted the balance to the Liberals, prompting an unsuccessful Supreme Court challenge from the ALP. But with victory seemingly beckoning for the Liberals at last, a new menace has emerged in the shape of Nick Xenophon, who has quit the Senate to lead an assault on the lower house by his SA Best party, in the strongest challenge to Australia's two-party hegemony at least since Pauline Hanson's One Nation won eleven seats in Queensland in 1998.
Before Xenophon's intervention, the election loomed as a rematch of 2014, when Jay Weatherill led Labor to his first election after succeeding Mike Rann in October 2011, and the Liberals were led by parliamentary neophyte Steven Marshall. Despite deterioriating approval ratings, both appear to have had a secure hold on their positions through the past term. Three-way polling on preferred premier has found both well behind Nick Xenophon, who must first succeed in his assault on the eastern Adelaide seat of Hartley, which Vincent Tarzia gained for the Liberals in 2014.
Labor is currently one seat short of a majority in the 47-seat lower house seat, but has been secure in power with the support of three of the five independents. The party held a majority in its own right for a time after the Fisher by-election in December 2014, but this was lost when Florey MP Frances Bedford quit the party in March 2017. The government also strengthened its position after the election by luring former Liberal leader Martin Hamilton-Smith into quitting his party and accepting a position in cabinet. The Liberals have since lost two further members to the cross bench, with the resignations of Morphett MP Duncan McFetridge in May 2017 and Mount Gambier MP Troy Bell in August 2017. Hamilton-Smith is retiring at the election, but the other four independents are recontesting their seats.
Also up for election is half the twenty-two member Legislative Council, under a reformed voting system that abolishes group voting tickets. After near-identical results at the 2010 and 2014 elections, the chamber currently has eight members apiece from Labor and Liberal, two from the Greens, two from Australian Conservatives (formerly Family First), one from the Dignity Party (formerly Dignity for Disabled), and one from Advance SA, a party founded by John Darley after his split from Nick Xenophon's party last August.
Labor in government
Labor was led to power in 2002 by Mike Rann, who came to the leadership in the wake of the traumatic defeat of 1993, and secured his claim by reducing the Liberals to minority government in 1997. However, Labor managed only the slightest of swings at the election in March 2002, facing a Liberal Party that recovered strongly after Rob Kerin replaced John Olsen as Premier the previous October. A gain of two seats left Labor one short of a majority, and while this was three seats more than the Liberals, there was an all-conservative cross bench consisting of a National, two Liberals-turned-independents, and an independent who ran after failing to win Liberal preselection. However, one of the independents, Hammond MP Peter Lewis, was persuaded to support Labor.
No such ambiguity surrounded Labor's re-election in 2006, when the party gained five seats from the Liberals from a 7.7% swing, emphatically achieving the two-party preferred majority that eluded it in 2002. This formed part of a pattern common through the Howard years, in which state Labor governments that had scraped into power were re-elected in landslides when seeking second terms. It was equally typical that the pendulum swung back after Labor came to power federally, leaving Mike Rann lucky to survive with his majority intact in 2010. Remarkably, the Liberals were only able to convert an 8.4% swing and a clear two-party majority into two seats gained from Labor, who copped huge swings in safe seats but held firm in the Adelaide marginals.
Rann emerged from the election bruised in more ways than one, and was told by party powerbrokers in early 2011 that he was expected to resign by October. However, Rann appeared increasingly resistant to the idea as the year progressed, and it took an explicit threat of a challenge for him to announce in early August that he would indeed bow out at that time. The leadership then passed without contest to Jay Weatherill, despite his alignment with the minority Left faction. A poll conducted in June had found Weatherill with a clear lead over Mike Rann as preferred premier, with the likeliest leadership contender from the Right, John Rau, a distant third. Jay Weatherill enjoyed strong (albeit declining) opinion poll ratings in his first year in office, but was rated little chance of holding back the tide at the election due on March 2014.
Once again though, the federal electoral cycle yielded a reversal of fortune, with Tony Abbott's government quickly developing into a liability for the Liberals after its election in September 2013. Facing the inexperienced Steven Marshall, Weatherill campaigned well enough to limit the statewide swing against Labor to 1.4%, and the tally of seats lost to the Liberals to three. While this was enough to deprive Labor of a majority, it still left the Liberals a seat short of Labor, despite their winning an emphatic 53.0% of the two-party preferred vote. The two seats held by independents were naturally conservative, but the Liberals' position was weakened when one of them, former Liberal MP Bob Such, took medical leave immediately after the election due to what proved to be a brain tumour. This left the other independent, Frome MP Geoff Brock, little choice but to back Labor, since supporting the Liberals would have produced only parliamentary deadlock. Labor sealed the deal by giving Brock a cabinet post as Minister for Regional Development and Local Government.
Labor handsomely consolidated its position in the year after the election, first by luring former Liberal leader Martin Hamilton-Smith into quitting his party and accepting a cabinet post in April, then with its extraordinary nine-vote win in the by-election for Fisher, held in December after the death of Bob Such. However, the government's electoral position was undermined by a redistribution that tipped the balance back to the Liberals, and its political standing was damaged by sweeping power blackouts in September 2016 and February 2017.
Liberal in opposition
Steven Marshall faces his second election not only as Opposition Leader, but also as the sitting member for the marginal seat of Dunstan, which he won from Labor in 2011. Marshall is the party's fifth leader since the demise of the two-term Liberal government in 2002, which came to power with Dean Brown's unprecedented landslide in December 1993, then fell to earth when it lost its majority in 1997. This came a year after Brown was dumped as leader in favour of John Olsen, who would in turn resign six months out from the March 2002 election after he was found to have misled a judicial inquiry. Rob Kerin led the party to the election, and was felt by his colleagues to have been robbed of a famous victory by the perfidy of Liberal-turned-independent MP Peter Lewis, who supported Labor to form government after promising not to do so during the campaign.
Rob Kerin remained in the leadership for the first term in opposition, but resigned after the party lost five seats at the 2006 election. There followed a period of leadership instability in which the party burned through Iain Evans and Martin Hamilton-Smith, who respectively led the party for one year and two. It appeared to be third time lucky when Isobel Redmond emerged as a compromise candidate in April 2009, establishing an ascendancy over Mike Rann in the polls by the time of the March 2010 election. However, the Liberals failed to convert their vote share into the required seats, and Redmond's standing soon deteriorated following gaffes, discontent about her lack of aggressiveness, and a perceived deterioration in her enthusiasm for the job. A leadership challenge from Martin Hamilton-Smith in October 2012 fell one vote short of succeeding, and she stood aside the following February.
Steven Marshall then came to the leadership without opposition, Hamilton-Smith having agreed to give him a clean run. A vote for deputy reignited a long-standing rivalry between Vickie Chapman and Iain Evans, with Chapman prevailing on this occasion by ten votes to eight. Then came yet another election result that gave the Liberals cause to feel they had been unfairly denied, the blame in this case being levelled at electoral boundaries commissioners who failed to redraw the map to the party's favour after the 2010 result. Marshall was accordingly spared serious leadership speculation after the defeat, outside of increasingly far-fetched suggestions that Alexander Downer might be parachuted in. Opinion polls credited Marshall with strong approval ratings at least until the end of 2014, but they have badly deteriorated since.
The Nick Xenophon challenge
The potential of Nick Xenophon's SA Best party at the election may be limited only by the number of candidates it plans to field, which at the time of writing looks likely to be about half of them. The party's candidates will stand an excellent chance in any seat where they are able to outpoll one or other major party, whose voters will overwhelmingly place them higher than the candidate of the rival major party. In that circumstance, the more strongly performing major party candidate will be in serious trouble unless their own primary vote approaches 50%, which will be difficult to achieve in circumstances where approaching a quarter of the vote has gone to SA Best. Such a result would be consistent with the Nick Xenophon Team's performance at the 2016 federal election, at which it won three Senate seats with 21.7% of the vote, and scored 21.3% across the state in the House of Representatives, where it fielded candidates in all eleven seats.
|Strongest Nick Xenophon Team seats by 2016 Senate vote|
The strongest support for the Nick Xenophon Team was recorded in the seat of Mayo, encompassing the Adelaide Hills region and the Fleurieu Peninsula, where Rebekha Sharkie achieved the party's only lower house success at the expense of Liberal incumbent Jamie Briggs. As illustrated by the table on the left, the party did particularly well in the corresponding state seats of Morialta, Kavel, Heysen, Finniss and Mawson. The Australian Democrats were also particularly strong in this area in their heyday, coming close to unseating Alexander Downer in Mayo when they reduced Labor to third place in 1998. The Nick Xenophon Team also outpolled Labor in the regional seats of Grey and Barker, respectively coming within 2.0% and 4.7% of unseating the Liberal incumbents. This is reflected by the results in the adjoining table for the Riverland seat of Chaffey, which is in Barker, and Giles and Stuart, in Grey. Rather lower on the list is the Liberal-held seat of Hartley in eastern Adelaide, which will be contested by Xenophon himself.
Xenophon's political career began in the Legislative Council in 1997, when he was elected on a “No Pokies” ticket with 2.4% of the vote. Quickly establishing a penchant for television-ready publicity stunts, Xenophon's vote ballooned to 20.3% when he faced re-election in 2006, which was easily sufficient to elect his running mate Ann Bressington, and very nearly enough to elect the third candidate, John Darley. Darley took Xenophon's seat after he was elected to the Senate in 2007 with 14.8% of the vote, his support perhaps dented by a public falling out with Bressington during the campaign. Further electoral triumphs followed the establishment of the Nick Xenophon Team in mid-2013, starting with his re-election to the Senate with 24.9% of the vote at the federal election in September 2013, which failed to secure the party a second seat as it had dealt itself out of preference arrangements. John Darley was re-elected to the Legislative Council in 2014, in the first success for the party without Xenophon's presence on the ballot paper, though he too has since become estranged from Xenophon.
Redistribution and reform
Electoral boundaries have been a particularly vexed issue in South Australia, with the Liberals failing to convert two-party majorities into election victories on four occasions over the past three decades: in 1989, 2002, 2010 and 2014. The first of these inspired the enactment of a now-repealed “electoral fairness” clause, which was ratified at a referendum in February 1991 with 76.7% support. This required that the redistributions to be conducted after each election were to achieve, “as far as practicable”, a parliamentary majority for the party that won the two-party vote. After the wildly uneven swings that caused the Liberals to fall short in 2010, the redistribution commissioners deemed that this wasn't very practicable at all, and made little effort to tilt the balance back to the Liberals. The Liberals were duly enraged when they were again consigned to opposition after the 2014 election, despite an even bigger win on the two-party vote.
The latest redistribution has been very different from the last, with a large number of Adelaide electorates dramatically redrawn, in many important cases favourably for the Liberals. Four seats won by Labor in 2014 now have notional Liberal margins, with only one seat going the other way. This time it was Labor's turn to cry foul, their specific complaint being the extent to which fewer voters had been allocated to safe Liberal rural seats, at the expense of metropolitan representation. Through this means, and in defiance of broader demographic trends, the commissioners effectively created a new and notionally Liberal non-metropolitan seat by drawing Mawson out of Adelaide's southern outskirts and into the Fleurieu Peninsula and Kangaroo Island.
While the imbalances fell within the prescribed 10% tolerance, Labor pleaded that numerical equality of voters should have been an overriding objective, and not subordinated to other considerations laid out in the legislation, notably electoral fairness. This was given short shrift by the Supreme Court, the full bench of which unanimously dismissed Labor's appeal. The government then introduced a bill to eliminate the 10% tolerance, and instead require that equality of voters be the “paramount principle”. This would have required a referendum, since the Dunstan government entrenched the relevant section when it abolished rural vote weighting in 1976. When the bill met decisive opposition from upper house cross-bencher John Darley, Labor fell in behind a Greens proposal to simply remove the fairness clause, which found the required support from minor parties and independents offended by its presumption of elections as two-party contests.