“Mad March” has come early. In the run-up to the annual Adelaide Festival and fringe extravaganza, the city is overflowing with all manner of performers, circus acts and comedians. And then, of course, we have the looming 17 March state election. With official campaigning under way, what was always going to be a historic election has just got a little more bizarre.
Nick Xenophon’s SA-BEST team has just released one of the most eye-popping, “so-bad-it’s-good-but-is-it-actually-just-plain-awful?” campaign ads anyone can remember. A bizarre fusion of Bollywood, slapstick and a pastiche of the low-rent car-sales commercials that litter Australian television, the ad has left viewers and commentators agog.
Liberal campaign mastermind Lynton Crosby once argued that one way to shift a campaign debate away from something awkward was to throw a “dead cat” onto the table. Suddenly, everyone’s talking about the dead cat, and the original problems are forgotten. Xenophon’s ad is less a dead cat than an all-singing, all-dancing feline carnival, though what it distracted us from is not altogether clear.
Campaign gimmicks aside, this could prove to be a groundbreaking election. Not since One Nation’s unexpectedly strong showing in Queensland in 1998 have we seen such a significant third-party challenge. What’s significant this time is that this would be the first centrist party to engineer an electoral breakthrough in a lower house. If the Xenophon surge keeps up, then this might be a harbinger of wider change in the Australian polity.
The numbers are delicately poised. In the forty-seven-seat House of Assembly, the sixteen-year-old Labor government holds twenty-three seats, the Liberals nineteen, and independents four. Traditionally, SA elections are a relatively straightforward Labor–Liberal contest, with Labor generally winning over voters (especially in the crucial marginal seats) with a strong public-sector infrastructure message. The Liberals have generally tried to fight Labor on that terrain, combined with promises to cut spending and taxes. Indeed, at the soporific 2010 election, they tried to co-opt Labor’s agenda by using a so-called small-target strategy, the only noticeable difference being whether or not the two parties would build a new hospital.
The differences are much greater this time, and the Xenophon effect is wreaking much extra havoc.
At the official campaign launches, shots were fired from all sides. Labor’s strategy is built around a new phase in its infrastructure plans, with a $2 billion slate of projects to keep momentum in the construction industry. This is bolstered by new spending plans in education — a policy area traditionally owned by Labor. The third key strand is premier Jay Weatherill’s much-touted energy plan for South Australia, with its rollout of batteries and panels to 50,000 homes, garnished with the charisma of the redoubtable Elon Musk. This seems to be Weatherill’s key policy strength, buttressed by a fresh announcement to commit the state to 75 per cent renewables by 2025.
The premier is gambling that his energy and infrastructure push will overshadow problems in other portfolios, including education and welfare. Allegations of abuse in child protection and mental health services have proved damaging, with the closure of the Oakden nursing facility among the high-profile cases. Embattled former minister Leesa Vlahos, criticised for her handling of the crisis, unexpectedly quit state politics just weeks before the election, having caught the blame for a longer-standing and broader lack of government accountability. While her departure might help Labor, a potentially damaging report on the allegations will be released just before the election.
The sheer longevity of the Labor government provides the Liberals with plenty of ammunition. In 2016, Liberal leader Steven Marshall unfurled his 2036 agenda as part of a concerted effort to convey what the Liberals stand for — a long-missing ingredient in their armoury. And the state electoral commission’s boundary redistribution could be helpful to the Liberals, with four Labor seats now notionally on the Liberal side of the ledger.
Soon after Labor’s launch, Marshall outlined his plans for his first hundred days in office, designed to convey a sense of purpose and enabling him to re-announce some of the 2036 policies, including cuts to payroll tax and emergency services levies, and the creation of a state productivity commission. The latter is a shrewd move (albeit first announced quite some time ago) but offers little in the way of immediate political dividends and perhaps masks a lack of strategic economic thinking in the Liberal ranks. Marshall also suffers a credibility problem: despite Weatherill’s ups and downs, the opposition leader hasn’t rated as preferred premier in any poll since 2014.
While the Xenophon insurgency poses crucial strategic and tactical dilemmas for both major parties, the challenge for the Liberals is the more acute. For Labor, the strategy has been to describe SA-BEST as a variant of the Liberals, an argument helped by the fact that Xenophon’s ranks feature some former Liberals. Labor is also targeting Xenophon on issues such as cuts to penalty rates, which he supported as a senator.
Of the six-plus seats that SA-BEST could pick up at the election, five are Liberal-held. Marshall, rattled by the threat, has alleged that Xenophon has “done a deal” with Labor. Xenophon, desperate to stress his party’s independence, has instigated legal proceedings in response, and has also publicly contemplated similar actions against Weatherill over his retailing of “rumours” that some SA-BEST candidates were ready to jump ship as soon as the election is over.
To date, the Xenophon campaign has been driven mostly by a steady unveiling of new candidates. They currently number thirty-six, many more than the leader initially indicated. But the game changer was Xenophon’s decision to run for the lower-house seat of Hartley, currently held by Liberal Vincent Tarzia, which is also being contested by former Labor minister Grace Portolesi. By targeting the lower house so explicitly, Xenophon has clearly signalled a wish to be kingmaker rather than simply to hold the balance of power. Across the state, SA-BEST’s poll figures have jumped from a steady 20 per cent to a remarkable 30 per cent, peaking in divisions around the Adelaide Hills. In theory, the fledgling party could form government in its own right.
The Xenophon campaign is adding much-needed energy and overdue scrutiny to the election. Like his zany ad, Xenophon has a knack for finding the political limelight. He is also offering a shrewd dose of “pragmatism,” recalibrating his famous no-pokies policy (perhaps controversially) to a “fewer pokies” position. Yet the surge, combined with the pledge to run candidates in both major-party leaders’ seats, is also taking a toll on the SA-BEST campaign.
Some of its latest recruits — including the candidate for Marshall’s seat of Dunstan — have made a shaky start, and the team lacks the machinery crucial to running a professional political operation. That “amateurism” can be a strength, of course, but it is also a weakness. Xenophon dropped candidate Rhys Adams after he published a social media post making light of domestic violence. Perhaps more importantly, he himself looks exhausted, and that fatigue seems to be leading to mistakes. The major parties seized on his mistaken reference to the state health budget (he said $3.6 billion, but it is closer to $5.9 billion), which gave his pledge to hold a royal commission into the state’s health system a sense of having been developed on the run.
Part of the problem is that SA-BEST is caught between two potential roles. Xenophon has built a successful career out of filling a “watchdog” role, yet his re-entry to state politics rests partly on the idea that he is a potential premier. This has meant a new level of scrutiny from the media, and the major parties are clearly hoping that the honeymoon will soon be over. Both the Liberals and Labor are pushing the line that SA-BEST is something of a policy vacuum, and it’s certainly true that it has advanced no clear, overarching economic policy. With this additional media attention, Xenophon is under greater pressure to offer a coherent package of policies and keep his new army of candidates on message.
The Xenophon effect is also making its impact felt elsewhere. Other minor parties are being squeezed out, with the Greens’ poll numbers dropping from a long-term 10 per cent to about 6 per cent. Former Greens senator Robert Simms, hoping to emulate Adam Bandt in the seat of Adelaide, has focused attention on key issues like housing. Simms floated the idea of a new tax on vacant CBD land to fund mobile housing for Adelaide’s homeless population.
Cory Bernardi’s new Australian Conservatives party, recently merged with Family First, has struggled for airtime. Ambitiously, Bernardi is running more than thirty candidates for the lower house, which should give them useful state election funding regardless of the fact that they are unlikely to secure any seats.
Overall, the mood of this festival-time election is discordant. Labor’s formidable electoral machine is facing the “It’s Time” factor, the Liberals are still struggling under Marshall, and the serious challenge from the fringe means that all the usual bets are off. ●