Liberal stoush goes beyond factional differences in South Australia

Opposition leader Isobel Redmond has hung on… for now. AAP/Angela Harper

It would be tempting to think of Tuesday’s battle for the South Australian Liberal Party leadership between incumbent Isobel Redmond and Martin Hamilton-Smith as yet another chapter in a long story of a party bedevilled by disagreements and feuds for the best part of 50 years.

For a party that dominated South Australian politics through the middle of the 20th century, the years since the mid-1960s have seen disappointment, division and failure. The Liberals have won just four of the 15 elections held since Sir Tom Playford’s final win in the early 1960s. Since then, time and again, the factional battle between the conservative and moderate sides of the party have left the Liberals squabbling among themselves, unable to convince South Australian voters that they are a credible alternative government.

At face value, a result in favour of incumbent Isobel Redmond by one vote does little to make a case that the factional divisions have now been closed.

This time, however, there are signs that the divide might be less along old factional lines, and more about questions of performance and policy. The timing and the nature of the challenge suggest that this leadership spill was different.

First, this challenge came when the Liberals are well ahead in the polls (the latest Newspoll shows a Liberal lead of 57:43 on two party preferred terms). A leadership battle when the Liberals are in a winning position is unusual, but the recent poll needs some explanation.

Although the overall lead for the Liberals is substantial, there have been informal comments from the pollsters that there was a significant softening of support in the final few weeks of the survey period. And the electoral geography of South Australia is such that the Liberals need to be well ahead in the metropolitan seats. At the last election the party won the two-party preferred vote across the state, but failed to win enough of the critical suburban marginals. So, while a lead of 57:43 indicates a a commanding position, there is no guarantee the lead will hold, nor that it will be concentrated in the right seats.

Second, Hamilton-Smith’s frustration with the existing leadership was driven principally by concerns over Isobel Redmond’s performance. Over the past few months Redmond has given several indications that she has considered stepping away from the leadership. In August she speculated in public about a possible move to the senate. Then, in past weeks, she chose not to deny reports that she discussed a handover of the leadership to the former foreign minister, Alexander Downer. The Queensland model of an Opposition leader coming from outside the Parliament might have held some attraction for some, but in South Australia the speculation following these disclosures played into the hands of those who thought that Isobel Redmond lacked a hunger for the job.

Compounding this was a sense that the Liberals were doing little more than reacting to the new Weatherill government. Rather than aggressively marking out policy initiatives of their own, the focus seemed to be more on low-key critiques of the government. There can be no question that some responsibility for this must rest with the high turnover of staff in the Liberal leaders’ office — but this also reflects on Redmond’s performance.

Last, there were several gaffes. The worst of these was Redmond’s comment in September that an incoming Liberal government would look to reduce public service numbers by 25,000 employees. This came on the same day that there demonstrations on the streets of Brisbane protesting against the cuts introduced by the Newman government. She quickly realised the extent of the problem and called a press conference later that day to withdraw the statement, but the damage was done.

The sum of these factors outweighed the traditional factional divide in the party. It also had the unprecedented effect of uniting key powerbrokers in supporting change. There are reports that federal MPs and senators including moderates Christopher Pyne and Simon Birmingham, together with conservatives Corey Bernardi and former Senator Nick Minchin had all lent their support to the challenge.

And yet despite all this, the state parliamentary party chose (narrowly) to stick with Isobel Redmond. At the same time, it replaced her deputy (Mitch Williams) with first-term MP Steven Marshall who had stood on a joint ticket with Hamilton-Smith, but ended up being elected unopposed to the deputy’s position.

All this suggests that there may well be further twists in this battle. We know the numbers in the parliamentary party moved back towards Redmond just before the ballot was held. Whether this was a result of a deal to accommodate Marshall as deputy or simply a reflection of uncertainty is less clear.

Either way, there can be no doubt that those who held concerns about Redmond’s performance will be watching the polls very closely in the next few months. Any dip in support, or any further political slips, will inevitably see fresh questions over the leadership emerge. The narrow victory for Redmond has made it hard to see Martin Hamilton-Smith launching another challenge, but it will do nothing to stop the speculation about whether the party’s salvation lies in the hands of Alexander Downer.