South Australian election: Labor set to slide out of office

After over a decade in office, it appears time’s up for the Jay Weatherill-led Labor state government in South Australia. AAP/Alan Porritt

South Australian voters look set to hand power to the Liberal Party when they go to the polls on March 15. An assessment of the electorate’s mood and opinion polls over the past 12 months point to a comfortable Liberal win. However, Labor’s recent history of better campaigning in marginal seats means a minority government could be possible.

The Liberals need six seats to govern in their own right. They could also count on the support of at least two of the three independents, assuming these MPs retain their seats.

A crisp campaign message from Labor is hard to detect. Premier Jay Weatherill’s efforts to warn of a slash-and-burn Liberal government are unconvincing. This has allowed inexperienced opposition leader Steven Marshall to capitalise on the “it’s time” factor after 12 years and three terms of a South Australian Labor government.

With just over a week to go in the campaign, Weatherill is struggling to portray the Liberal Party as unelectable. A hallmark of the past four elections is that former premier Mike Rann hammered home Labor’s daily scripted message. If Rann were advising Labor’s campaign in 2014, we would see much more negativity with a focus on Marshall’s inexperience.

The rhetorical battle

Marshall entered parliament at the last election with the support of the moderate faction of federal MP Christopher Pyne. His rise to the leadership has more to do with his outsider status putting him above the bitter internal strife that has hampered the Liberals in opposition.

The tone and temper of this campaign suggests Weatherill and Marshall are not cut from the mould of the spin doctors. They appear reluctant to religiously follow their campaign strategists’ demand to punch home the simplistic grabs picked up by radio and television.

Weatherill pushed his scripted notes aside as he spoke eloquently and with passion at two recent business-sponsored functions. Yet he didn’t point out the danger of electing a Liberal government, nor highlight his opposition’s reputation for internal problems. In recent days he has changed toward a more negative attack on Marshall but his accusations appear shrill.

Labor was gifted evidence of Marshall struggling with his brief when he stumbled badly during his first campaign press conference. Meanwhile, the Liberals are benefiting from a constant stream of bureaucratic leaks, which tend to flummox Weatherill when they are sprung during media interviews.

Weatherill tries to paint Marshall as a “lackey” to prime minister Tony Abbott, or as a clone of Queensland premier Campbell Newman, with an austerity plan he refuses to articulate. However, his attacks fail to resonate because Abbott has not been in office long enough to be used as a bogeyman.

Likewise, all Marshall has promised are the classic, largely uncosted campaign platitudes of cutting red tape for business and lower state taxes.

As for the supposed cuts to public service jobs, the Liberals’ policy is to cap job cuts at 5170: the same position Weatherill took at last year’s budget. This is hardly grounds for a fear campaign. Still, Labor keeps pressing ahead, hoping its efforts to demonise the mild-mannered Marshall will at some point attract swinging voters.

A faltering economy

The biggest problem for Labor lies with disappointed South Australian voters. The Rann government weaved a narrative around regaining the AAA credit rating and ushering in a mining boom, which has since come undone. South Australia is falling behind other mainland states on all main economic measures in a reminder of the dark days of the 1990s.

Rann and his treasurer, Kevin Foley, taught the public to recognise that the AAA rating represented judgement on government budgetary discipline. This garnered the sort of voter respect Labor needed after presiding over the State Bank collapse in the 1990s, when they were wiped from office.

Despite declining GST revenues and mounting state debt, Weatherill argues this is not the time for the government to cut back on infrastructure spending. So, voters do have a choice in this respect: Marshall promises to get the budget back into surplus while attacking the debt blow-out; Labor pitches to an abiding South Australian sensibility that government must play a strong role in stimulating the local economy.

Opposition leader Steven Marshall’s outsider status has helped to put him above the bitter internal strife that has hampered the Liberals in opposition. AAP/Ben MacMahon

Labor’s support for large infrastructure projects was largely based on the reasonable assumption BHP Billiton’s Olympic Dam expansion would boost the state economy enough so the borrowings would not overly burden the budget.

When The Advertiser, Adelaide’s major daily newspaper, ran a front-page headline a few weeks ago pointing to South Australia’s debt reaching A$1 billion, many voters would have begun to consider it worth listening to the opposition’s pitch on unsustainable debt levels.

Weatherill’s missteps

Adding to the picture of an embattled government were the many reports probing Weatherill’s handling of a sex abuse case in a primary school while education minister. A royal commission cleared him of any failings, but a certain resentment surrounded his preparedness to protect his senior advisers. Stories about computer hard drives being erased added to a murky picture.

Many voters have a direct interest in the management of schools, and this affair hurt the government badly.

Finally, Weatherill kicked a remarkable own goal on the cusp of the campaign. He appeared on live radio and denied senator and factional warlord Don Farrell’s request for preselection in a safe state Labor seat. His language to denounce Farrell’s so-called “faceless man” status was unwarranted and harsh.

This was a monumental campaigning mistake on Weatherill’s part. The whiff of internal Labor Party division is new in South Australia. Questions of unity have been the Liberals’ Achilles heel for decades. Liberal campaign strategists, led by former federal heavyweights Alexander Downer and Nick Minchin, would never have expected to produce an advertisement attacking Labor’s leadership chaos – at least until Marshall’s leadership.

For Labor, which holds 11 seats with margins under 5% and seven under 3%, seeking a fourth term was always going to be a tough ask. With little own goals and leaks bedevilling the campaign, time on the opposition benches awaits.

Further reading: South Australian and Tasmanian election polls analysis