Labor’s Historic Victory

After correctly predicting a close State Election last issue, John Spoehr writes that State Labor is the master of the marginal seat after its fourth consecutive election win.

After correctly predicting a close State Election last issue, John Spoehr writes that State Labor is the master of the marginal seat after its fourth consecutive election win. Labor has pulled off an extraordinary victory in South Australia. The foundations for this were laid with a change of leadership and style. Policy substance followed this, preferring sustained public sector infrastructure investment rather than the blind pursuit of a AAA credit rating as an end in itself. An assertive response to the collapse of General Motors Holden (GMH) and a call for greater Federal Government assistance for the recovery, showed a strength that had not always been on display. Written off by most commentators as having no chance of winning, Labor has once again proved to be masters of the marginals. This was an election the Liberals could have won but they were out-campaigned. Labor displayed greater hunger for victory in the seats that mattered. From the outset the Liberals had an underlying vulnerability that would ultimately be their downfall – their despoiled heartland, Frome held by Independent Geoff Brock and Fisher held by Independent Bob Such. They also failed in seats where they had a chance, underestimating the power of incumbency and the doggedness of some of their opponents. The popular Stephanie Key in Ashford and the likeable Paul Caica in Colton proved to be Labor heroes. With the Liberals securing 22 seats and Labor 23, responsibility for forming a government fell to Bob Such and Geoff Brock to decide. Untimely illness made it impossible for Bob Such to engage in deal making, forcing Brock to face a diffi cult but clear choice. Only Labor could govern with his support. The alternative was a fresh election, an annoyance that only the Liberals would have tolerated. That time of festivals, Mad March, would have been truly mad if South Australians were forced to go to the polls again. In the end Geoff Brock saved a festival weary state from that horrifying prospect. Brock made South Australian political history by enabling Labor to form government for a fourth consecutive term. He was rewarded with the role of Minister for Regional Development, a position that will help him deliver some important outcomes for regional South Australia. Had Bob Such been in good health, he was likely to have brokered a deal with Labor. He may well do so when he recovers. Concerns about the Liberal Party’s lack of any coherent industry policy and fears they might cut hard into the public sector are at the heart of this. So to is the historic rift between he and the conservative wing of the Liberal Party. That reality is not likely to change over the months to come, giving Labor the advantage of having two independents that are likely to support rather than oppose them in crucial votes in the House of Assembly. While the end to the State Election has been spectacular it was hardly a captivating affair. There were too many distractions. Labor got off to an assertive start with the release of its comprehensive policy package, which the Liberals never really countered. Jay Weatherill campaigned solidly and assertively. The less experienced Steven Marshall was a genuine contender but he appeared rattled at times by the ferocious demands that modern electioneering places on candidates. He was also not helped by many of the policies of his Federal colleagues. Tony Abbott’s presence on the SA Liberal campaign trail is likely to have unsettled rather than reassured swinging voters. Many were worried about the implications of national policies for their jobs and working conditions, particularly the push to abolish leave loading. Many auto industry workers would have been disappointed at the lack of any decisive early action from the Federal Government to rescue GMH and Toyota from closure. In the back of some voters’ minds were fears that a Liberal State Government would be drawn to cut public sector jobs more deeply than they promised – think of Queensland. Failing to release final election costings would not have helped the SA Liberals in the last few days of the campaign. Neither did the last minute stumble by Stephen Marshall, imploring those South Australians seeking change to vote Labor. None of this helped but the main problem facing the Liberal Party was probably its inability to master the marginals. In the end Labor ran a superior marginal seat campaign, one that enabled it to retain vulnerable seats and prevent the Liberal Party from being able to form a government. The superior electoral strategy of Labor has been on display for well over a decade. Labor has learned how to target its resources in marginal seats with great effect. It did cross the line in the seat of Elder by releasing racist campaign material targeting Liberal candidate Carolyn Habib. That was Labor’s campaign lowlight. Labor’s victory has conferred great political authority upon Jay Weatherill. He has forged a new, more assertive identity for himself and despite the closeness of the election he should be emboldened by the result. While many things can happen over the next four years, Labor is now in a position to win a further term in office if the Liberals fight over the spoils of defeat. The bigger problem might be the impact of Federal policies on their future prospects. Over coming months the Coalition will release its Commission of Audit report. Like former Prime Minister John Hewson’s now infamous ‘Fightback’ package delivered during the 1993 Federal Election, the Commission of Audit is likely to be a major political liability for the Liberal Party both nationally and in South Australia. The Liberals will be devastated by their loss. Many thought they would win and few realised it would be so close. As it so often does, retribution may well follow in the wake of defeat. Old rivalries might resurface as a challenge to the authority of the Liberal leadership. No doubt pain will be felt. Politicians are human, all too human. Loss of hope, unfulfilled dreams and the prospect of four more years in opposition weigh heavily and generate unhelpful desperation. As the euphoria of victory subsides, the monumental challenges of governing South Australia during turbulent times face the new Labor Government. In the meantime Labor has made history. They have proven to be the masters of the marginals. Associate Professor John Spoehr is the Executive Director of the Australian Workplace Innovation and Social Research Centre at the University of Adelaide Image Jay Weatherill – Photo: Matthew Burns

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