State of the states: South Australia’s economy is the laggard of a nation in transition

South Australia is proving to be a key point of interest for the electoral contest – not least because of the rise of Nick Xenophon’s new party. AAP/Julian Smith

Ahead of polling day on July 2, our State of the states series takes stock of the key issues, seats and policies affecting the vote in each of Australia’s states and territories.


Not for the first time, there is something incongruous about South Australian politics.

The 2013 federal election saw a change of government, yet only one seat changed hands in SA (Hindmarsh). Skip forward three years and the Turnbull government looks set to be returned – albeit by a whisker. Yet SA is proving to be a key point of interest for the electoral contest, not least because of the X-factor – the Nick Xenophon effect.

Polling suggests Nick Xenophon Team (NXT) candidates in SA lower house seats could attract more than 20% of first preferences. This would bring a range of seats into play, and ultimately could be a wrecking ball against the major parties.

Key seats

On election night, the results in three key SA seats will be worth keeping an eye out for.

In Hindmarsh, Liberal incumbent Matt Williams has to hold off a challenge from Steve Georganas, who held the seat from 2004 to 2013. If Labor fancies any chance of returning to office, then this is a key target.

Unexpectedly, the normally safe Liberal seat of Mayo is in play. NXT candidate Rebekha Sharkie is a former staffer to the incumbent MP – the SA Liberals’ falling star, Jamie Briggs. A large NXT vote could see Briggs lose his seat.

In Boothby, retiring Liberal MP Andrew Southcott is hoping to hand over the reins to conservative newspaper columnist Nicolle Flint. The NXT vote in Boothby is unclear; Labor candidate Mark Ward might sense a slim chance of stealing the seat, held on a 7.1% margin.

While the lower house tends to dominate attention, the Senate race looks fascinating. Simon Birmingham has taken top spot for the Liberals, pushing Cory Bernardi into second place – a shrewd move given Bernardi’s polarising politics.

Penny Wong will lead Labor’s charge to increase its numbers, although the reappearance of factional powerbroker Don Farrell may push Anne McEwen out of the Senate.

The Greens will hope for an improved vote, although Sarah Hanson-Young hardly helped matters with a car-crash interview on superannuation. Robert Simms is a smart, new brand of Green, and will aim to take the last Senate spot from Family First’s Bob Day.

The NXT team is aiming for an incredible four Senate seats, but three looks more likely.

Key state issues

At the last election, Australian Election Study data showed the most important issue for Australian voters is the management of the economy, followed by health care and then education. There is no reason to think this has changed.

For the past few years, the SA economy has been the laggard of a wider economy in transition. Its unemployment rate is the highest of any Australian state or territory.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has found some common cause with SA Premier Jay Weatherill in trying to shape a “new economy” in the state. The end of the mining boom and the death of the car industry has placed added pressure on the defence industry to prop up the state’s fortunes.

A few local issues are playing out that might have an impact at the ballot box. The delays in opening the new Royal Adelaide Hospital and the state government’s troubled Transforming Health agenda has brought health care issues into focus.

Finally, there remains a desire for a fresh wave of infrastructure building.

Policy proposals

Lucky South Australians have been inundated during the campaign with regular visits from both Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten. It’s a measure of how important the state has become that the Liberals have launched a plan for SA. Both major parties are targeting the state on a range of issues.

Given the previous Abbott government’s bungled handling of the submarine deal, the Liberals are pushing hard to reassure South Australians that jobs will follow on from this, along with other defence announcements. All sides are claiming a victory on this issue – including the ubiquitous Xenophon.

A key flashpoint remains the troubled Arrium steelworks in Whyalla. While the Liberals quickly ruled out direct assistance to Arrium, it fast-tracked a project for steel for the Tarcoola rail upgrade to bring in more business. Labor outlined a six-point plan, which includes providing assistance to local steel producers.

Elsewhere, the Liberals’ plan – inevitably linked to the “jobs-and-growth” slogan – targets jobs created through the National Disability Insurance Scheme, and infrastructure through the North/South Corridor and the Tonsley redevelopment.

Strikingly, federal Labor leader Bill Shorten has brought class back into politics, and is seeking appeal on grounds of fairness. Shorten is playing to Labor’s traditional strengths and hoping national commitments on “Gonski” levels of funding for education, reinvigorating TAFE, and strong support for Medicare will resonate in SA.

No parties, except the Greens, are going near the “nuclear” issue until the state government’s consultation process is over.


Catch up on others in the series.

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