This month’s State Election has all the makings of a close contest.
This month’s State Election has all the makings of a close contest. Having dislodged Mike Rann and Kevin Foley, Jay Weatherill promised a new era of political civility. The decide and consult days of the past were over, he declared. A more inclusive and less aggressive style of government would be ushered in. To break with the divisions of the past, the Liberal Party offered its own new fresh face, a relative newcomer to the Liberal machine, Steven Marshall. Marshall had the advantage of being untainted by past divisions within his adopted Party. He has been able to unite warring tribes for the task of winning the State Election. Much more is known about Weatherill than Marshall. The electorate seems to have warmed to him, winning back some of the support lost to Labor at the end of the Rann/Foley era. Steven Marshall, on the other hand, comes to the role of Opposition Leader with little form, untainted by the longstanding wet/dry tribal divisions that have destabilised the Liberal Party. Labor has had its own tribal problems. After imploding at a national level, the recent Farrell/O’Brien pre-selection deal threatened to wreak havoc on Labor just as it prepared to go to election. The Premier’s only real choice was to demand Farrell stand down. He did, going much further than anyone expected by threatening to resign if Farrell persisted. All of this was ugly political theatre, playing out as it did on primetime ABC radio. Decisive action resolved it in Weatherill’s favor. Amidst all of this has been an unfolding calamity – the collapse of the Australian automotive industry. Closure announcements by Ford, GMH and then Toyota would affect tens of thousands of jobs and hundreds of businesses around the nation. With the Federal Government’s automotive policy decision-making processes paralysed by its commitment to waiting for the results of a Productivity Commission inquiry into the industry, the industry made its own decisions. They proved to be political fuel for Labor. Weatherill was bold in his criticism of the Federal Government’s apparent failure to do enough to keep the industry alive. He hammered what he viewed as the inadequacy of its GMH closure assistance package. With his Federal counterparts insisting they could not have done anything to save the industry, Steven Marshall has been seen at times to be defending the indefensible and not offering hope. The Premier’s jobs package in response to the collapse of Holden set the bar high for the State Liberal Opposition. Labor announced that it would invest $60m to tackle the crisis and sought $333m from the Federal Government. To regain some lost ground in responding to the crisis Steven Marshall needs to broker a deal with the Abbott Government to deliver a substantial assistance package over the coming weeks. While long-term governments face an uphill battle to be re-elected, oppositions are unlikely to be elected in a landslide if they don’t capture the imaginations of the public with sound and forward looking policy. The Jay4SA campaign got off to a flying start with the release of a 200-page policy manifesto, placing pressure on the Liberal Party to release policy detail earlier rather than later in the campaign. Steven Marshall’s most significant policy announcement to date, from a political point of view, has been the Liberal Party’s public sector workforce reduction target. To overcome fears that the Liberals would cut in excess of 10,000 jobs from the state public sector, Marshall set a cap of 5170 (around 1000 more than Labor planned to cut). While this has taken some of the heat out of the public sector job cuts debate, Labor is arguing that voters can expect more widespread cuts in practice, particularly as a consequence of a Liberal Government appointing the Productivity Commission to advise it on how to achieve savings. The problem for the Opposition in advocating this is that the Productivity Commission has a clear preference for privatisation and outsourcing, policies that are deeply unpopular these days. Steven Marshall and the Liberals are likely to win the State Election. They have the benefit of campaigning against a long-term government that only in the most extraordinary circumstances is likely to be re-elected. Only major blunders by the Liberal Party can change the outcome along with an exceptionally well-run campaign by Jay Weatherill and his party machine. One other factor might also be influential over weeks to come. The Federal Government has received its 900- page report from the Commission of Audit. A softening up process is already underway by the Coalition in the lead up to its release. If the report concludes, as many expect it will, that a substantial amount of our remaining public sector assets should be privatised and core elements of universal health care removed, the South Australian Liberals will very likely be damaged by association. Steven Marshall must be hoping that the Federal Government delay release of the Commission of Audit until after the State Election campaign. Jay Weatherill will have a field day if it is released before the election. It is shaping up to be a fascinating election, one that may well be closer than the polls suggest. Associate Professor John Spoehr is the Executive Director of the Australian Workplace Innovation and Workplace Centre at the University of Adelaide.