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A preference for the unknown in South Australia

15 March 2018

A close result seems increasingly likely this Saturday, and that means preferences will again be vital

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Momentum problem? SA premier Jay Weatherill at TAFE SA in Adelaide last Sunday. David Mariu/AAP Image

Momentum problem? SA premier Jay Weatherill at TAFE SA in Adelaide last Sunday. David Mariu/AAP Image


Reflecting on the tactics that political parties must use to court the elusive swinging voter, former SA premier Mike Rann once observed that individual opinion-poll results were much less important than “momentum.” In the final week of this election campaign, it is far from clear where the momentum lies.

For the incumbent Labor government, the past few weeks must be making their sixteen years in office feel like a lifetime. The latest blow was the release of a report by the Independent Commissioner Against Corruption on abuse at the Oakden mental health facility. The findings were damning, with former minister Leesa Vlahos singled out for strong criticism. Although the government escaped a finding of maladministration, it lost a few days to the heat of the coverage. Premier Jay Weatherill was quick to say that he was “deeply sorry” over the abuse suffered.

Liberal leader Steven Marshall, meanwhile, seems quietly confident about this, his second face-off with the street-savvy Labor electoral machine. Crucially, he has avoided any gaffes, like his infamous election-eve recommendation that electors “vote Labor” in 2014. Despite some preselection problems, he has also led a much more unified team this time. Yet his party’s “strong plan for real change” message hasn’t delivered anything like a knockout blow to the government.

Marshall attempted to build momentum on the back of the Oakden report by voting early, an unusual move for a party leader (though increasingly common among voters). Overall, his hope is to capitalise on a backlash against Labor and the decline in poll figures for Nick Xenophon’s SA-BEST.

After SA-BEST’s high point — the widely publicised December Newspoll, which had the party on a remarkable 32 per cent of the statewide primary vote — subsequent polls have put the figure at around 20 per cent. More worryingly for Xenophon, voting patterns in the 2016 federal election suggest that his party’s vote in its key target seats — Heysen, Chaffey, Finniss and Kavel, for example — might be hovering around 30 per cent. The latest polls also suggest that Xenophon himself may struggle to win Hartley, the seat he is contesting.

The other indicator, possibly as reliable as the polls, is the betting market. At least three betting agencies have Labor set to form government. While it is far from clear how much money is riding on the outcome, the odds seem to be based partly on the assumption that Xenophon would at least lend confidence and supply to Labor if it emerged with the most seats.

Given the tightness of the polls and a potential three-way split in the vote, preference flows will play a vital role. In its bid to signal equal distance from the major parties, SA-BEST lodged an open ticket with the Electoral Commission. Labor shrewdly opted to preference SA-BEST in half of the state’s seats and the Liberals in the others. In key seats such as Heysen, Colton and Mawson, Labor preferences might see the SA-BEST candidate steal the seat from the Liberal challenger. In Hartley, Xenophon’s desired seat, Labor has issued a split ticket.

Labor’s other key preference deal is with Cory Bernardi’s newly formed Australian Conservatives. In three marginal Labor seats, Lee, Light and Newland, it will harvest Conservative preferences to shore up vulnerable MPs like transport minister Stephen Mullighan. In return, Labor is preferencing the Australian Conservatives third on its ticket, below the Greens, in the Legislative Council contests. If SA-BEST does as well as expected in the upper house, probably at the expense of the Greens and Dignity for Disability, then this will give a crucial boost to the Australian Conservatives, who will be looking to grab the final spots.

In the backwash of the Oakden report, and given the likelihood that a vital group of voters will only make up their minds on election day, the campaign seems ready for a final flourish. Housing, something of a sleeper issue, is currently receiving attention, with Labor pledging to extend its housing stimulus and Xenophon promising to use his influence to see industrial land in Adelaide’s south freed up for residential use, partly to draw attention to suburbs Labor “takes for granted.”

In the final week, no one party seems to have hit full momentum in what has proved to be a scratchy, stop-start campaign. Voters seem confused, indifferent or reluctant to support the key parties. The final result might well reflect the contradictory impulses of South Australians, who seem to value Weatherill’s leadership yet are tired of Labor’s policy legacy, are suspicious of the Liberals, and are flirting with the new challenger, SA-BEST. ●

Revised: Preference flow in upper house corrected on 15 March 2018.

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Fourteen-year-old student Judith Aragon releases a balloon at Ortiz Middle School, New Mexico, at a 14 March commemoration for victims of the Parkland school shooting. Gabriela Campos/Santa Fe New Mexican via AP

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