Inside Story

Heading south

South Australia’s Liberals have been creating national headlines for all the wrong reasons

Rob Manwaring 22 October 2021 1177 words

Storms ahead: premier Steven Marshall and his deputy, Vickie Chapman, on their way to the first sitting of parliament after the 2018 state election. David Mariuz/AAP Image

South Australian premier Steven Marshall should be sitting pretty. When he and his Liberal colleagues ousted the sixteen-year-old Rann–Weatherill Labor government in 2018, he finally achieved what had eluded the three previous leaders of his state party. That gives him the major benefit of incumbency as he heads towards a state election in March next year.

Marshall has in his favour the fact that South Australians (like their counterparts in most states) are generally reluctant to throw out first-term governments. Bucking that trend usually involves significant missteps, as Campbell Newman showed in Queensland between 2012 and 2015. Indeed, you have to go back to 1982 to find South Australia’s last one-term government — the Liberals under David Tonkin, who lost to Labor under John Bannon. In what may prove to be another irony, the one-term government before that one was headed by Marshall’s political hero, the Liberal moderate Steele Hall, who served as premier from 1968 to 1970.

Marshall and the Liberals have also generally had a “good” pandemic. South Australia has avoided any significant outbreaks, and community transmission is now close to zero. The state’s last lockdown, in July, lasted just seven days. South Australians have generally supported Marshall’s quick closing of the borders to the outbreak states, and his government has been ably assisted by a well-regarded chief public health officer and a well-regarded police commissioner.

So far so good. So why are the wheels coming off?

First, there’s the fact that South Australia recently hit the national headlines — a rare occurrence — for all the wrong reasons. Prompting references to a banana republic, a parliamentary “coup” orchestrated by independent crossbenchers replaced Liberal speaker Josh Teague with independent MP Dan Cregan, a former Liberal. The Legislative Council is currently considering a bill to change South Australia’s constitution to ensure that the speaker will always be “independent.” (The bill, which has already been passed by the House of Assembly, requires the speaker to sever all party ties.)

Cregan, a first-term MP, hails from the Liberals’ conservative wing. He lives in the affluent seat of Kavel, in the Adelaide Hills, which overlaps with the federal seat of Mayo, held by Centre Alliance MP Rebekha Sharkie. His tumultuous journey to the speakership embodies much of the plight of the South Australian Liberals.

Cregan surprised Marshall earlier this month by indicating that he might step down after one term, potentially returning to the law. Marshall persuaded him to stay on, only for him to resign from the Liberals to become an independent shortly afterwards. Cregan says he was increasingly dismayed by the government’s lack of a plan to deal with population growth in the Hills.

Marshall’s troubles have been brewing for some time. At the 2018 election, his party won twenty-five seats to Labor’s nineteen in the forty-seven-seat chamber. After a series of scandals, intrigues and Liberal Party missteps, six independent MPs now sit in the lower house, four of them disaffected or disgraced Liberals. Sam Duluk was suspended and faced criminal charges after alleged inappropriate behaviour at a Christmas function in 2019. Fraser Ellis was caught up in the scandal over country allowances that wreaked political havoc for Marshall in 2020, with three ministers and the Legislative Council president eventually resigning. Ex-Liberal Troy Bell had won Mount Gambier in 2018 as an independent after being charged with theft and dishonesty.

If we pull back and take a wider view of Marshall’s troubles it’s possible to identify two key underlying problems for the centre right of politics: factional and political fragmentation, and, crucially, an ideological crisis. Tribalism and factional discord have arguably been the defining traits of the state Liberals. Broadly split into two camps — the moderates and the conservatives — they have a long history of backstabbing and factional tension. The party’s two most prominent leaders, Marshall and his attorney-general Vickie Chapman, lead the moderate faction, but the conservatives have no clear leadership. Stephan Knoll, once the rising star of the conservative wing, is quitting SA politics after his own scandals.

The conservatives are rattled by the dominance of the moderates. Chapman, arguably the party’s strongest proponent of social liberalism, has led the charge with major victories — the decriminalisation of abortion, and assisted dying/ euthanasia legislation — that no Labor attorney-general has sought or achieved. The conservatives, flailing in the face of this shift to moderate liberalism, have turned to recruiting members from the state’s Pentecostal churches to shore up factional support. Marshall seems ill-equipped to manage these divisions.

These issues reflect a wider crisis of centre-right politics. Ironically, the situation in South Australia is the reverse of the situation in Canberra. Since the bungled leadership of Malcolm Turnbull, Liberal moderates seem to have very little clout at the federal level, and very few policy wins.

Two South Australians exemplify the political vacuum at the heart of modern-day moderate liberalism. The often amusing Christopher Pyne — who joked about his privileged reputation during his farewell speech by mentioning that he once had to get his own lemon for a gin and tonic — left no tangible policy legacy. The more low-key Simon Birmingham has played a key role in a government that has overseen robodebt, the carpark grant scandal and the repeal of the medevac bill, and that has failed to introduce an integrity commission.

Moreover, the moderates have not been able to shift the Coalition’s needle on climate policy. The conservatives, meanwhile, have wielded significant veto power. The hollowness of moderate liberalism is exemplified by Simon Birmingham’s voting record (which is, of course, shaped by having to maintain party discipline), which includes voting against a carbon price, against a rise in the Youth Allowance and against a constitutionally enshrined First Nations voice.

These examples raise the question of what moderate liberalism is actually for. The British liberal thinker T.H. Green drew an important distinction between positive and negative freedom. Rather than just freedom from government control, liberals need to foster an enabling state that helps people to achieve their potential. The voting records of many Liberal moderates show no awareness of the distinction.

In a new collection of essays, Riding the Populist Wave, political scientists Tim Bale and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser examine the crisis of the mainstream right in Europe. At its heart is the growing fragmentation of party systems, which in turn reflects new social cleavages and shifts in values.

The parallel with Australia is striking. But here — nationally, in South Australia, and in other states and territories — the key symptom of the crisis is not the rise of new populist challengers (as in Europe) but the growing fragmentation and fraying of the liberal and conservative traditions. It is striking, for example, that Cory Bernardi was unable to revitalise conservatism by joining forces with another South Australian creation, Family First.

Though Steven Marshall’s problems in South Australia are driven by longstanding factional rivalries, they also reflect a wider crisis on the centre right. How that will play out when South Australians next vote is no doubt uppermost in the premier’s mind. •