THE HAND OF FATE may well have been poised to strike South Australia’s Liberals from the moment 2014 began; whether destined or not, it’s been a horror year for the Liberal Party in the Festival State: knowing the electoral boundaries were fixed, it ran a poor state election campaign led by a lacklustre neophyte and paid the price. Now — after nine more months of abject humiliation — come signs the lot of the SA Liberals could yet grow far worse.
It’s difficult to know which is preferable or, I might say, less undesirable: losing an election in a catastrophic landslide resulting in a near-wipeout, or losing by the merest sliver in terms of votes and seats as part of the kind of year the Liberal Party in South Australia has endured this year.
Frankly, I’d choose the wipeout — at least from there, the only way is up.
Yet to be absolutely brutal, unless it finds some way to fix up its act in record time, the SA Liberals — having tasted the bitterest of political nectar in 2014, starting with a state election loss by a hair’s breadth — are likely to have experienced both of these unpalatable scenarios by the time the votes are counted on election night in March 2018.
In short, the SA Liberals teeter on the precipice of a nuclear abyss: the clock, rather euphemistically on this New Year’s Eve, reads one minute to midnight.
I’ve been reading the results of the final quarterly Newspoll of voter sentiment in South Australia for 2014, published in The Australian today, and to say they don’t exactly make for happy reading for the Liberals is an understatement.
Newspoll now shows the ALP leading the Liberals on primary votes and attracting a 6% swing after preferences based on the March state election result; Premier Jay Weatherill now leads Liberal leader Steven Marshall by almost 20 points on the “preferred Premier” measure, and Marshall himself is now attracting the sort of uninspiring personal approval numbers that in any other circumstances would invite a leadership challenge.
We’ll come back to that last point a little further in.
The only real surprise in the Newspoll numbers is that they aren’t worse for the Liberals. Then again, however, a uniform 6% swing to Labor at another state election would see it swept to a fifth term with 28 of the 47 lower house seats in South Australia — plus their by-election gain of Fisher if they could hold it, and plus “Independent” Geoff Brock (assuming he remained supportive).
God only knows what would happen at an election to Liberal turncoat Martin Hamilton-Smith (and on one level, who cares) but even without him 30 seats is a smashing election win, and that is where Labor in the Festival State is now tracking.
2014 has been a terrible year for the Liberal Party in South Australia.
Its tepid state election campaign (my scathing election-night analysis of which may be accessed here) already seems to have laid the foundations for another embarrassing defeat in 2018.
I know it has been fashionable to blame the Abbott government for the misadventures of the SA Liberals this year, and to some extent — with its botched federal budget and the incendiary remarks that the SA-based shipbuilding industry couldn’t be trusted “to build a canoe” by sacked Defence minister David Johnston — there may be a modicum of merit in such a view.
But the South Australian division of the Liberal Party boasts one outright state election win in 30 years; in nine elections it has won once (1993), limped into minority government after squandering a record parliamentary majority (1997), and lost the remaining seven in 1982, 1985, 1989, 2002, 2006, 2010, and this year.
With this sort of track record, looking in their own back yard might be a better idea than lashing out to sidestep responsibility: irrespective of how credible the selected scapegoat might appear, or how plausible the latest explanation as to why the SA Liberals are not responsible for their own misfortunes might sound.
Most observers of Australian politics know that South Australia’s Liberals are perhaps the most divided, faction-riven, internally conflicted political outfit in the country; its traditions of internecine blood feuding and personality-based tribal hatreds date back decades.
Every time the party makes a “fresh start” — the leadership of Isobel Redmond before the 2010 election, for example, or Marshall (for what it was worth) heading into the election in March — the old guard of its past warfare finds some way to cruel proceedings. Under Redmond, it was serial agitator Vickie Chapman failing to rule out a leadership challenge if Redmond won in 2010. This time, in a dreadful look, Chapman fought alongside Marshall as his deputy.
It’s an old story that has destroyed a plethora of Liberal leaders: for the bulk of those 30 years of mostly awful election losses, elements within the SA Liberals have been content to fight and bicker and undermine whomever happens to be at the helm. It’s hardly a recipe to inspire public confidence, let alone garner votes.
Make no mistake, when it comes to leadership prospects, the SA Liberals are bereft.
Marshall ought to be a dead man walking, and in any other circumstances, he would be; the loss of an unloseable state election in March — followed up by the loss to Labor three weeks ago of a safe Liberal seat vacant after the death of an Independent — should, in the ordinary course of events, see his papers stamped and his departure from his plush North Terrace offices all but formalised.
Marshall survives for the abhorrent reason that there is literally nobody left who is suitable to replace him; the SA Liberals’ best and most credible alternative, former leader Martin Hamilton-Smith — the bastard — defecated all over his party en route to defecting to a highly paid ministerial sinecure as a member of Weatherill’s Labor Cabinet.
Redmond, it was universally acknowledged, had reached her political use-by date after herself falling short at the 2010 state election; Chapman would love the role, of course, but the shenanigans that have characterised her time in Parliament are such that to make her leader would be to reward exactly the kind of behaviour this troubled division of the party needs to stamp out at all costs. Chapman is a waste of an ultra-safe state seat, and the sooner she relinquishes it in favour of someone with more to offer, the better.
Former leader Iain Evans — alone of the abundance of has-beens in the SA Liberals’ ranks — is doing what Redmond, Chapman, and perhaps a number of others ought to be doing, and leaving Parliament altogether: the date for the by-election in his safe-ish seat of Davenport is set down for 31 January, one month from today.
Yet even this — something that should have happened months ago, as we discussed in June — is a path fraught with political risk; to lose Fisher to Labor a few weeks ago was bad enough, but to lose a traditional Liberal stronghold like Davenport as well would be an unmitigated disaster.
And if a defeat in that seat should come to pass next month, it closes the door to any prospect of renewal during the present term of Parliament, meaning Redmond’s safe seat of Heysen and the veritable Liberal citadel of Bragg — occupied by Chapman — cannot be used to vault much-needed top-shelf talent into the party’s parliamentary ranks.
Whichever way you cut it, the SA Liberals are in a mess.
Yet a clue to just how badly they have failed to capitalise on opportunity lies in the fact that of the nine state elections I listed out earlier, including seven outright defeats, all but one of those elections saw the Liberal Party win more than 50% of the statewide vote on the two-party measure.
This year’s embarrassment, achieved with a tick more than 53% after preferences, was probably the worst result of all of them.
But it raises a pivotal question: in full and clear knowledge that the electoral boundaries are, to put it bluntly, rigged — and despite the fact a redistribution occurs every term to try to ensure “fair” boundaries exist — why are the Liberals’ election strategies in individual electorates so deficient?
Even with the 53% they scored in March, the SA Liberals needed a further uniform swing of 1.5% to snare the final two seats required to form a majority government, and any electoral system requiring in effect 55% of the two-party vote to seal victory is not “fair:” it is rigged, and no amount of explanation can hide the fact. It may be deliberate or it may be the product of defective methodology. Either way, it is flawed.
I put it thus because with so many years of electoral data to support the fact it faces barriers to winning office over and above a straight majority of the vote, the SA Liberal Party should have devised the strategies to overcome these hurdles by now.
It isn’t as if it has lacked support, given the only election won by Labor in 30 years with a majority of the two-party vote was the thumping win by Mike Rann in 2006.
But Labor in South Australia has every chance to consolidate its grip on government there; now armed with the parliamentary majority it initially relied on alleged Independents and traitors to secure, the prospect of Weatherill hitting hit straps and riding the beaten Marshall into the Adelaide dirt looms as a nightmare scenario for the Liberals that may very well materialise sooner than they think.
A loss in Davenport next month would do the trick. Were it to occur, the SA Liberals would be confronting a scenario akin to the political equivalent of nuclear Armageddon.
I haven’t even touched on the impact (if any) the Abbott government might or might not exert over the state Liberals’ fortunes over the next few years, or the further report from The Australian suggesting the Liberals could lose three of the six federal seats they hold in South Australia at the next federal election, including two — Boothby and Sturt — they have held for decades. I don’t have to. The state Liberals are in a disastrous state as it is. They don’t need any help from outside to notch up that dubious achievement.
There is the suggestion that the Liberals’ state director, Geoff Greene — one of several Liberal Party executives who has been circulated through a merry-go-round of different state divisions, a practice that has seen the orchestrators of some of the party’s worst defeats recycled and rebadged in new roles elsewhere in the country, and which must stop — is about to be given the boot.
I’m very much in favour of this, and I think too often those charged with the stewardship of the party’s fortunes have been allowed to survive or be sent somewhere to start “afresh” when the campaigns they have been responsible for have ended in ignominy; it’s a gravy train that sees few if any of them ever held to account for presiding over electoral beltings, and as good as these individuals may be as people, they should be held to account. Kicking Greene off the cart would at least signal the SA Liberals are serious when it comes to yet another fresh start.
But this is a state division in need of a root and branch overhaul — rebuilt from the ground up, not merely sacking a single staffer — and circumstance, electoral configuration and sheer incompetence have all conspired to ensure such a reconstruction job is next to impossible to complete in a timely and adequate fashion.
In the final analysis, the services of former Foreign minister Alexander Downer — championed in this column as the rightful claimant of the SA Liberal leadership prior to the March election — should have been pursued at all costs; with a decade of experience in government and another decade in Parliament beforehand, along with virtually unrivalled networks and a deep contact book, Downer would almost certainly be Premier of South Australia today had he stood, and his party would have had the opportunity to rebuild from a position of relative strength.
Instead, the heavyweight in Downer was substituted for the lightweight first-term MP Marshall, and the SA Liberals have paid one hell of a price for such an experimental indulgence.
For South Australia’s Liberals, it’s a minute to midnight. The portents for the new year are not good.
*Lots of links today. Just “because.” South Australia is home to some of my favourite places in Australia. I just wish its conservative forces could get their shit together.