Masters of the Marginals: Can SA Labor do the impossible?

Labor have been masters of the marginals and great crafters of minority governments in South Australia.

Mike Rann led SA Labor back to power in 2002, forming a minority government that proved stable and capable of dominating the Liberal opposition. Ultimately, Rann and his team translated this into a majority government, winning two more terms before their political fortunes ran out. Time was against them, as the authority of the leadership team of Rann and Foley eroded and the prospect of electoral defeat stared Labor in the face.

The Labor machine swung into action. In an extraordinary political accommodation, leaders from Labor’s right faction, backed the ‘left’s’ Jay Weatherill. His ambitions for the top job were well known. He appeared to be an antidote to certain political annihilation. Few seriously entertained the prospect he could lead SA Labor to victory but most probably thought he could contain the losses.

History seemed to repeat itself at the 2014 state election when Labor snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. It was the Liberal’s election to lose and they did the unthinkable – they failed to counter Labor’s masterful grasp of what it takes to win marginal seats. As if mesmerised by this tactical supremacy, a rattled Steven Marshall infamously implored voters to vote Labor on the eve of the election. His slip of the tongue in front of the cameras haunts him to this day. He won’t make the same mistake again and the Liberals surely have learnt a few lessons about marginal seat campaigning from Labor.

In any case, the political terrain the two major parties will fight each other on has been transformed by the Electoral Commission’s electoral boundary changes. The Liberals are the great beneficiary of this painful process. A redrawing of electoral boundaries makes the Labor-held seats of Colton, Newland, Elder and Mawson winnable for the Liberals. The challenge for the Liberals is not so much winning them but avoiding losing them.

Twelve months out from the state election you would have to be a brave person to back Labor for another term in office. Steven Marshall and the Liberal Party are the overwhelming favourites. They are on the front foot, announcing major projects if they win, selling the message that it is time for a change. They have the great benefit of favourable boundary reform, restlessness in the electorate about jobs, power prices and reliability. Marshall has matured since 2014, is less accident prone and hungrier for the top job. He has refreshed his team a little but lacks the wholesale generational change that might give him and the Liberals more of an advantage.

What is lacking – and it is a problem on both sides of politics – is the ability to make fundamental policy shifts at a time when they are urgently needed. State governments can’t deliver all that we need in our complicated federal system but they can do much more than they are doing right now. Mainstream politics has been straight-jacketed by trying to make failed privatisations work when they cannot, relying too much on economic El Dorados rather than accelerating the growth of our successful knowledge-intensive industries. And so much more could be said. The great strength of Labor in South Australia over the past decade has been its willingness to invest in major social and physical infrastructure projects, a commitment it needs to refresh to boost jobs growth.

Political parties capable of taking risks will be rewarded for offering alternatives to the dogmatic assault on the role of government initiated so long ago in Thatcher’s Britain and Reagan’s America. To ignore the great damage done by 30 years of neo-liberalism is to invite an even more destructive response – the rise of right wing nationalism, intolerance and ultimately great civil strife. This is of course what is unfolding in the United States under Donald Trump.

We are no stranger to the rise of the extreme right. Growing alienation and frustration creates conditions for this wherever it prevails. The challenge for political parties in Australia is to recognise and respond to this in tangible ways through fundamental policy shifts and action that recognises past failures and offers more secure and rewarding futures in the face of unsettling change. This will be one of the battlegrounds for hearts and minds at the next state election.

Barack Obama captured the imaginations of a nation when he offered them hope – “the audacity of hope”. This and much more delivered him the Presidency. To have any chance of winning the next state election Premier Weatherill and his team need to offer South Australians the audacity of change, fundamental change to the role that government plays in the 21st century.

The first test in this great challenge is the willingness of the state government to drive radical electricity industry reforms, leading the state and the nation towards a much more reliable, sustainable and affordable system. The second is to put in place an ambitious new economic and jobs program that involves bringing forward a series of major infrastructure projects capable of generating sufficient jobs to help offset those that will be lost when Holden closes on October 20.

So political pundits beware. Stranger things have happened than SA Labor winning against the odds. These are extraordinary times. Extraordinary measures can change minds.

John Spoehr is Director of the Australian Industrial Transformation Institute at Flinders University

@JohnSpoehr

Adelaide In-depth

Get the latest stories, insights and exclusive giveaways delivered straight to your inbox every week.

X