State of the states: South Australia

South Australia voters could be about to repeat the 1990s banishment of federal Labor MPs. Image from shutterstock.com

STATE OF THE STATES: a snapshot of the key issues affecting each state and territory in the lead up to Saturday’s election.


With just days to polling and deepening voter scepticism towards Kevin Rudd and his party, it is looking increasingly likely that Labor will face a landslide defeat, possibly of record proportions.

The betting markets predict Labor will retain six of the 11 South Australian seats, but I am not so certain. South Australian Labor candidates will not be immune from the national mood.

Over the past 40 years, voters have expelled the incumbent government only four times. But when it does happen, it tends to be unequivocal; delivering a landslide to the incoming government. In Labor’s case, defeat tends to be greater than experienced when the Coalition loses office. In 1975 and 1996, for example, about one-fifth of Labor seats fell to the Coalition, with negative swings of 6.5% and 6.1% respectively. It took the party at least three elections to regain government.

It’s always difficult to assess the electoral mood in any community. But subtle indicators suggest South Australia voters could be about to repeat the 1990s banishment of Labor members when, over two elections in 1993 and 1996, the party lost four seats.

Only the healthy margins built up over the last two elections stand in the way of probable defeat for sitting members in Hindmarsh (6.1%) and Adelaide (7.5%). Seats such as Wakefield (10.5%) and Makin (12%) could fall if swings against Labor MPs occupying safe seats follow the pattern of the last state election.

Key issues

Voter concern over policy differences between the major parties typically influences decisions on polling day more than assessment of the party leaders. However, few South Australian-specific policy issues have arisen during the election campaign.

In the recent past, the politics of water, particularly around the Murray River, was the prominent South Australian policy concern at national elections. But as voters worry less about water, and how the Eastern states seek to “rip off” down-river South Australia, attention has turned to government assistance to local automotive manufacturing. This is a significant local issue but is not likely to shift votes significantly in either direction.

While Rudd promises to spend more to underpin automotive manufacturing than the Coalition, his government’s decision to remove fringe benefit tax exemptions for employer-provided or salary-sacrificed cars sent a profoundly mixed message to a state where subsidies to automotive manufacturing are expected. This will probably cost Labor votes across the state rather than in Wakefield, the seat hosting car manufacturer General Motors-Holden.

Labor’s pledge to boost the car industry may lesson the swing against it. AAP Image/Julian Smith

In Wakefield, many voters are expected to assess which party in government will offer more subsidies and that may lessen the swing against Labor. It’s difficult to predict how big this swing will be, but it’s worth looking back to when South Australians last felt immense disappointed about the state of their state to assess the possibilities.

In the 1990s, South Australia earned the odium of the “rust belt” state. Declining investment in manufacturing meant that unemployment grew faster than the national average and with no apparent substitute industry, people left the state heading east, particularly to Queensland.

This was coupled with the collapse of the State Bank in 1991. Local business confidence shattered and voters turned on incumbent state and national Labor governments.

Confidence is once again shattered due, in large part, to BHP Billiton’s decision last August to postpone the expansion of its multi-mineral ore mine, Olympic Dam. Expectation surrounding the go-ahead for the largest mine in the world had buoyed local hopes and arguably helped state Labor’s re-election in 2010. By blunting this optimism, there is a sense that South Australia is, yet again, trapped alongside Tasmania as a mendicant state within the federation.

The sense of disappointment pervades politics in South Australia. This may prompt swinging voters, and even a proportion of rusted-on Labor voters, to express their frustration on polling day. Notwithstanding reservations about an Abbott-led government, many will vote for the Liberal Party in the House of Representatives, rendering greater-than-expected swings against the those Labor MPs sitting on “safe” margins.


Snapshot of South Australia


State Labor

Growing disenchantment with the state Labor government led by premier Jay Weatherill may also play a part in swinging some voters away from national Labor.

A recent Royal Commission found that when Weatherill was education minister, his ministerial staff failed to report matters relating to child sex abuse in schools. Question marks over the Premier’s administration of education have soiled his government, as has his refusal to dismiss his current chief of staff who was criticised by the Royal Commissioner’s findings, and conjecture surrounding possible cover ups.

September 7 represents the first opportunity ahead of the March 2014 state election for many to vote against the Labor Party. The impact of this local dimension cannot be discounted.

Battlegrounds

South Australia contributes 11 seats to the House of Representatives. In 2007, Labor took three seats from the Liberals to currently hold six.

During the Howard era, the Liberals dominated most of these seats (holding all but two or three, in different terms) and it is not too hard to see a landslide in 2013 producing something similar again.

Labor-held seats such as Hindmarsh (6.1%), Adelaide (7.5%), Makin (12.1%) and Wakefield (10.5%) could well fall, and Hindmarsh probably will. However, reportedly poor performance by Liberal candidates in Adelaide and Wakefield may save Labor from further losses.

Nick Xenophon is incredibly popular among SA voters. AAP Image/Tim Dornin

The Senate contest in South Australia is focused on whether Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young will be elected for a second term and on how well independent Senator Nick Xenophon might poll. Xenophon’s profile is high and, importantly, he rarely faces criticism in local media which suggests he may manage a primary vote much higher than the 14% gained in 2007.

At the 2006 state election, Xenophon was returned to the upper house with a huge boost when 19% saw his running mate also elected. A year later, when running for the Senate, he almost made quota on his primary vote.

However, as a consequence of unfavourable preference allocations from most other parties, it is unlikely that Xenophon’s running mate will be elected. Should he reach about 20%, a wild card result may follow, with the election of Family First candidate Bob Day at the expense of a third Liberal.

While it is difficult to predict just how many votes the plethora of minor parties will take from major parties, the most likely outcome is for Labor and Liberal to take two with Xenophon and the Greens. As in others states, the Senate race is now the most interesting dimension to this election.


This is the fifth article in our State of the states series. Stay tuned for the other instalments in the lead up to Saturday’s election.

Part one: Tasmania

Part two: Northern Territory

Part three: Western Australia

Part four: Victoria

Part six: Australian Capital Territory

Part seven: Queensland

Part eight: New South Wales

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