Learning lessons from SA .’s brutal election results

While COVID and local issues played a big part in the shocking state’s election result, divisions between moderates and conservatives of the Liberal Party sound a warning to Morrison’s government, writes Rob Manwaring

In the end, the results came in much faster than expected. Due to COVID and the general trend to vote by mail, the results of the South Australian state elections were not expected until at least the middle of next week.

But about an hour and a half after polls closed, the results indicated a brutal one-term loss to the Liberal government of Steven Marshall.

This was expected to be a very tight election – most likely resulting in a pending parliament, with both parties depending on key independents. After all, this is a common pattern in South Australia.

When we entered the election, the picture was delicately balanced. Marshall’s Liberals had 20 seats in the 47-seat chamber, while Peter Malinauskas’s Labor party had 19 seats, with six independents on the bench.

The Marshall minority government was supported by a number of those independents, including former Liberal and current Speaker of the House Dan Cregan in Kavel’s seat.

However, the latest polls and bets indicated that a change of government was possible, perhaps by a solid margin. By the end of Saturday night, the magnitude of the loss was clear: Labor had already gained enough support to win 25 seats, 24 of which needed to form a majority government.

According to the ABC, nine seats are still in doubt. In what would be a truly remarkable outcome, Labor is forecast to finish with 28 seats, the Liberals cut to 14, with a cross-bank of five.

Two key factors determined the election results. First, as ABC election analyst Antony Green put it, Nick Xenophon has had “more of an impact on this election than the last.” By 2018, a resurgent SA Best, led by Xenophon, had gained strong support in key seats, with 15-20% of the vote in many marginals. What happened in South Australia this year is that a much larger proportion of those voters decided to support the Malinauskas challenge, demonstrating a loss of confidence in Marshall’s government.

Steven Marshall’s Liberals have been assigned to one term in office after a brutal defeat in the 2022 SA election.
Matt Turner/AAP

Second, the Liberals lost ground in those key suburban seats, especially those around Adelaide. The key fringe seats, including the ultra-marginal Newland, King and Elder and Adelaide itself, all quickly fell into Labour’s hands.

This pattern reflects a well-known structural problem for liberals in South Australia, where their support base is disproportionate in rural and regional areas. However, the move to Labor this time was enough to take Davenport and possibly Gibson, which had previously been held by Liberals by relatively strong margins.

What went wrong with Marshall?

In his touching poem, The Mistake, the poet James Fenton reflects on the torments of hindsight. Given the surprising magnitude of Labor’s victory, we must beware of simplistic judgments about the outcome. But there are a number of factors that shaped the removal of Marshall’s government.

First off, the Marshall campaign doesn’t bite. The overall theme focused on a strong economy, but lacked memorable economic and fiscal policy commitments.

In 2018, Marshall had a series of policies around land taxes, payroll taxes, deregulation of shopping hours and lowering the cost of living through tax cuts, such as the levy on emergency services. It didn’t help that Marshall couldn’t keep some of these promises.

This time, the liberals’ spending promises were modest and the overall macroeconomic strategy was less clear.

By contrast, Labor took advantage of a public need for more substantial spending on infrastructure, critical in the health field. South Australia has long occupied South Australia with the issue of the hospital disaster and it has been an ongoing pressure point for the Liberals. Labor was able to use the issue to build its campaign around new public funding in this area.

Labor took advantage of the ongoing issue of hospital disasters in its election campaign with great success.
AAP/Ben MacMahon

The politics of COVID was also a likely factor. It was the first time since the pandemic that an incumbent government was overthrown in an election. But what is clear is that voters are comfortable with ambitious spending policy agendas – and new forms of stimulus. COVID has changed electoral dynamics and the Marshall administration has paid a price for handling the pandemic fairly well.

Consequences for the federal elections

Will South Australia’s result affect the upcoming federal election? Only indirectly. Australians tend to treat state and federal elections separately, and distinctive local and national factors determine the results of each.

But indirectly, the failure of the Marshall government is actually a story about the fragmentation of the right in Australian politics. The absence of a strong Nationals presence in the state arguably unbalances ideological differences within the Liberal party.

The liberals’ fraying and Marshall’s inability to control faction balance and infighting reflects a more general national trend for independents to challenge in “non-Labor” seats.

Ironically, given that the Marshall government has implemented successful and progressive social reforms, not least the decriminalization of abortion and the introduction of euthanasia legislation, this reflects the structural failure of moderate liberalism in the country.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, a much more conservative leader, and an electoral drag in South Australia, faces a greater challenge to reconcile these fragmented politics.

Towards the end of his poem, Fenton urges the main character to “claim this fault”. Given the outgoing prime minister’s positive assessment of his sole term in office, it may take a new generation to learn lessons from this devastating loss.

Rob Manwaring, Associate Professor, Politics and Public Policy, Flinders University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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