Will Nick Xenophon bring on an orange revolution?

The upcoming state election is difficult to predict thanks to the return of Nick Xenophon to state politics, as his party will play a role in the formation of a new government.

For those fascinated by politics, 2018 is going to be an interesting year. The March
state election campaign will be anything but conventional and it may well be followed by an early federal election. The outcome of the South Australian election is incredibly difficult to predict with Nick Xenophon and his SA-BEST Party in position to play a decisive role in the formation of a new state government.

Imagine for a moment that SA-BEST were not contenders. It would be a relatively predictable contest between the two major parties. The party in government normally has the upper hand unless they have been around for a very long period of time, are fatally damaged by scandal or preside during a period of economic downturn and spiraling unemployment.

In South Australia, unemployment is relatively low by national and historical standards (notwithstanding stubbornly high underemployment). Recovery from the GFC, a lower Australian dollar, high levels of investment in infrastructure projects and job acceleration funding to companies all put downward pressure on unemployment.

Meanwhile, the state government’s response to the closure of the automotive industry has been widely regarded as substantial and well targeted. The radical energy policy intervention by the state government to prevent future power blackouts greatly improved its standing.

Labor does have to contend with the ‘it’s time’ factor, a legacy of having been in power for a long period of time. Yes, some voters have decided they want a change and will remain impervious to Labor’s overtures. But this is not likely to be the decisive factor that it might have been now that SA-BEST is set to become a third force.

It has been anything but smooth sailing for Labor in government, damaged as it has been by crises in the education and aged-care sectors. Rising power prices have been a political wrecking ball, but not just for the state government.

Jay Weatherill may have snatched victory from the jaws of defeat when he took on Josh Frydenberg and the federal government for kicking the state when it was down. He ended up expressing the collective anger of South Australians. A year on from the carnage that left the state in darkness, policymakers around the world are looking to South Australia for energy policy inspiration. The state opposition has been blindsided by this. They really have no choice but to admit that privatisation of the electricity industry in South Australia has been a failure along with national energy policy settings.

Normally a government that has been in power for over a decade must come to terms with the ‘it’s time’ factor. What makes this less likely in March 2018 is the X-factor. Opposition leader Steven Marshall cannot rely on Labor to lose and will have to display all the skills of a world-class chess player if the Liberal party is to find a way of forming government with SA-BEST. This will be more than a challenge. The Liberal party faces head-on contests with SA-BEST that will be difficult to recover from. Marshall has said he won’t be doing any deals, but we all know he will.

Labor is not about to hand over the reins without a fight. The election will be a contest between a more animated and aggressive Jay Weatherill, a hungry and more seasoned opposition leader and an enigmatic Nick Xenophon riding on a wave of popular support.

While many South Australians appear to be enamoured of the pragmatic and charismatic Nick Xenophon, SA-BEST will be under pressure to deliver policy detail and clarity. If they do as well as some predict, the SA-BEST leader will be demanding influential seats at the cabinet table. It is hard to pigeonhole Nick Xenophon, let alone his team. This is a diverse group of people united for the time being by the prospect of influence. They will be a challenging coalition for Nick Xenophon to shepherd.

In the end, the March state election will be determined by unpredictable preference flows which might work in Labor’s favor if the Liberals end up in too many electoral dog fights with SA-BEST. Small target politics will not win the state election for Liberal or Labor. Policy boldness will be required on a scale we haven’t seen for many years.

John Spoehr is director of the Australian Industrial Transformation Institute at Flinders University

@JohnSpoehr

Adelaide In-depth

Get the latest stories, insights and exclusive giveaways delivered straight to your inbox every week.