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Notes on the South Australian election

By Graham Young - posted Friday, 15 February 2002


While it is difficult to be definitive about an election result half a continent away there are some conclusions about the South Australian election result that can be drawn looking in from Queensland.

The electorate seems to be confirming its indifference to the major parties. Neither the Liberal Party nor the Labor Party managed more than 40 per cent of the primary vote. This is in line with the trend. The vote for the major parties has been in decline for at least 20 years. A paper by Scott Bennett of the Commonwealth’s Parliamentary Library measures the average vote for the major parties in South Australia in state elections during the 1990s at 80.8 per cent. The count of the vote so far in South Australia for this election puts this figure at 77.9 per cent.

The consequence of this indifference is that individual party candidates have achieved results that vary significantly from the norm, depending on the strength of their campaign, and the personal capital that they brought with them.

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Three independents also did particularly well and won. This was in seats that have previously been held by the Liberal Party. Each of the three was the incumbent and is an ex-Liberal Party member who either defected after winning the seat as a Liberal (Bob Such and Peter Lewis) or after losing a Liberal Party pre-selection to another candidate (Rory McEwen). Two other incumbent independents lost. They were originally ALP members. That the Liberal Party was unable to prevail over their independents while the ALP did, suggests that the trend affects middle-to-upper demographics most strongly.

This increasing disaffection of voters with major political parties also seems to have played a part in the success and campaign strategies of Liberal, Labor and Democrats.

Both the Liberal and Labor campaigns were fairly unsubstantial in policy terms. The Labor Party tried to differentiate its product on the basis of its policy on privatisation. In some ways this was not a strong pitch. There is virtually nothing left to privatise in South Australia and much of what was privatised was sold to pay off massive debts incurred by the last Labor Government. As an advisor to the Bannon Government, the debt is partly a problem for current Labor leader Mike Rann. However, this is balanced by the fact that Premier John Olsen broke a promise during his term in office when he privatised the Electricity Trust of South Australia. Perhaps the Labor pitch was about asking voters to punish the Libs for past sins rather than rewarding the Labor Party for future virtues.

The Liberal Party didn’t really seem to try with policy. Rather, it ran a positive personality-based campaign with a strongly implied negative aimed squarely at Mike Rann. They played up the "good bloke" qualities of Kerin and stressed that he was not a professional politician like his opponent (despite the fact that he had been an MLA for 8 years and deputy to Olsen). Also implied was that he wouldn’t be like John Olsen either. So in an election where independents did well on their personal branding, the Liberal Party down-played its institutional brand and relied on a personal one instead.

The Liberals got away with this line. While Kerin is by definition a professional politician he looks and talks like the farmer that is his other trade. In a world where "professional" is often synonymous with "polished" his rough-hewn presentation inoculated him against much of the public distrust of politicians. This tends to be confirmed by the vote in his own seat where he experienced a two-party preferred swing of 8.7 per cent to him, against the statewide trend.

The anti-major party mood also accounted for the Democrats’ low vote. While they are relying heavily on personal branding in the person of Natasha Stott Despoja, she is letting them down by behaving like every other politician. Her World Economic Forum trip can only be described as a junket, and it is displays of conspicuous consumption that more than anything make average Australians resent their elected representatives.

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Stott Despoja cannot walk away from a bad result in the same way that John Howard or Simon Crean can. Because they are a party of the cross benches, the Democrats do not have a strong institutional position. They don’t have an automatic right to be interviewed on important issues and have to work at gaining coverage. As a result they tend to rely on the few charismatic politicians that they have to break through the media scrum with little regard for what level of government they come from. As easily the most visible Democrat politician their federal leader needs to be involved in campaigns, no matter what the level of government.

At the same time as the Democrats have been trading on Stott Despoja’s personal appeal they have also had an identity crisis. When offered the chance to debate the Greens and One Nation during the Federal Election they responded that they were not a minor party and would have no part of it. Yet many of their voters choose them precisely because they are not a major party – they are the party political equivalent of an Independent.

In the end the electors probably won’t be unhappy whichever party becomes the government, (although there seems little doubt that it will be Mike Rann's Labor Party) so long as it is a minority government. Apart from a belief that the major parties are much like each other, one of the reasons for the move towards independents is an allied belief that the safer politicians feel in their position the more likely they are to have their own interests at heart rather than the electorate’s.

With the major parties becoming even less tolerant of dissent than they used to be, politicians who are, or behave like, independents, are likely to continue to do better than the rest. In this, South Australia is just following the trend.

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About the Author

Graham Young is chief editor and the publisher of On Line Opinion. He is executive director of the Australian Institute for Progress, an Australian think tank based in Brisbane, and the publisher of On Line Opinion.

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