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As the Liberals claim the popular vote in every state, a fight-to-the-death campaign by SA Labor may yet get them over the line. By Max Opray.

SA and Tas elections see ALP lose more of their faithful

South Australian Liberal leader Steven Marshall lodges his vote in Adelaide, March 15.
Credit: AAPIMAGE

In the early evening of March 15, the humble surrounds of the West Adelaide Football Club function space resembled a near-empty hospital waiting room: a scattered collection of worried faces, bracing themselves for bad news. 

As hard as it was to believe, this cold, dead space was Labor’s South Australian election night party.

On the big screen – surprisingly tuned to Murdoch’s Sky News – the party faithful watched on as carnage unfolded over in Tasmania, their interstate Labor brethren copping an absolute hiding at the ballot box.

The worm had turned quickly for Labor. It was just 2008 when the party held every high office in the land, a nationwide sea of red. From that high-water mark, Western Australia was the first to fall, followed by the eastern seaboard states and finally the federal government.

Less than six years after the party had it all, Tasmania and South Australia were the last Labor states standing, and for months opinion polls predicted they, too, would perish. It seemed fitting that both elections were scheduled for the same day: an emphatic double execution to end the age of Labor.

The Ides of March

Ominously, the respective state election campaigns were practically reruns of the federal one six months earlier. 

For SA, it was the familiar sight of Labor scare tactics on conservative cuts up against a Liberal scare campaign on ballooning state debt.

In Tasmania the federal parallels were even clearer, with a united Liberal team battling a first female premier in Lara Giddings, who had her hands full precariously balancing a minority government partnership with the Greens.   

Perhaps most significantly, both governments had been in power a long time: 12 years in SA, 16 years in Tasmania. It’s rare in Australian politics for a government to be re-elected for a fourth term, let alone a fifth.

So, there were plenty of reasons for the true believers in West Adelaide that night to be feeling less than optimistic about their chances.  As bleak as Labor’s prospects were, however, the party faithful weren’t resigned to defeat, a fact belied by the tension in the room. 

That morning, a Newspoll had showed the Liberal lead narrowing to a 52.3 per cent to 47.7 per cent margin.

It was still commanding and would translate into an easy win in any ordinary election, but South Australian Labor are no ordinary campaigners.

In the previous state ballot in 2010 Labor eked out just 48.4 per cent of the two-party-preferred vote, yet somehow wrangled its  way to victory. And Labor didn’t just scrape home either: the rank underdog got up by 26 seats to 18 in one of the great marginal seat campaigns in Australian political history.

Eleven of those seats were held by margins of 5 per cent or fewer, so the party room knew full well a win in the 2014 rematch would be an even tougher ask.

The non-result no-one expected

As the SA results started to pour in, the two-party-preferred results were as bad for Labor as projected. Those praying for pollster margins of error slumped in their seats.

However, the Liberals’ vast hoard of votes was piling up in all the wrong places. Somehow, it was happening again. 

As the night went on and the room filled up, the climate of fear turned first into one of disbelief, then buzzing excitement.

One by one, marginal Labor incumbents were projected to hang on by the skin of their teeth, each hold greeted with an increasingly mighty roar. 

With the room jam-packed, the noise reached a deafening crescendo at Premier Jay Weatherill’s entrance, a primal cry that campaign minders gently coaxed into a “Jay for SA!” chant.

They were still a long way from victory, yet the premier had a triumphant air about him as he praised the campaign team in a rousing speech. Stepping down from the podium, he admitted to The Saturday Paper there was one key person he’d forgotten to thank: Tony Abbott.

“He was really helpful. He came to town and reminded everyone that over the last six months cuts to Medicare, cuts to penalty rates, cuts to public hospital funding, cuts to school funding have all been threatened or delivered in South Australia,” he said.

“People want strong independent representation, I think they are very frightened of wall-to-wall Liberal governments, so his presence was quite welcome.”

Labor’s entire campaign had centred not so much on Weatherill versus Liberal Opposition Leader Steven Marshall, but local Labor versus the Abbott government.

The strategy was an obvious one – SA had already suffered plenty from the purse-tightening in Canberra, with the refusal to grant further support to Holden threatening to create a Detroit-esque situation in Adelaide’s northern suburbs.

Weatherill was framed as the great protector, sticking up for Holden workers, schools and hospitals against the federal cuts. The question was asked of voters: would Marshall do the same?

According to South Australian senator Penny Wong, Marshall simply chose not to answer.    

“The approach Jay and the team took was to be prepared to say to South Australians that this is who we are and this is what we stand for, which stood in stark contrast to the small-target strategy Steven Marshall ran, which was really a copy of the Abbott campaign,” she said.

“I think South Australians are pretty weary of Tony Abbott. Whilst they were choosing between Weatherill and Marshall, there’s no doubt the concern about Abbott’s agenda and his approach on cuts did feed into this campaign.”

Hunger Games

While Labor’s front-of-house politicians were busy painting the result as blowback against Abbott, the sheer numbers told a different story. 

There was a swing to the Liberals of more than 3 per cent, and Labor would require the support of independents to form government. 

In one of the most historically pro-Labor states in the country, was this really what a protest vote against the Abbott government would look like?

Party insiders thought the prime minister was a factor, but put the result more down to Labor’s relentless campaigning in marginal seats, compared with  the less-targeted Liberal approach. Even ground-level volunteers recognised the victory for what it was, the jubilant function room a cacophony of boasts about the party’s sandbagging efforts.

For the second election in a row, SA Labor was celebrating despite the mood of the electorate, not because of it. 

Independent senator Nick Xenophon – whose state-level “X-Team” party was heavily targeted by negative Labor advertising – summed it up best when asked to compare the approach of the main parties on the ABC’s Insiders program: “The ALP fought this campaign as though they were in a political version of the Hunger Games – it was a fight to the death – and the Libs fought this as though it was a game of lawn bowls,” he said.

South Australian Liberal senator Simon Birmingham pointed the finger at an electoral boundary set-up that he said benefited Labor.

Nevertheless, he conceded something had gone wrong with his party’s campaign at the micro level.

“Ultimately, we have to face the reality that, organisationally, marginal seats campaigning has not necessarily made the difference that it should in those key seats, and that is a problem for us,” he said.

The final countdown

With an unusually high number of absentee votes, about one-third of the electorate was still to be counted following election night, with the final numbers to be locked in by this Sunday.

It is mathematically possible – albeit highly unlikely – that either party can secure a 24-seat majority, but the most likely result is Labor winning 23 seats to the Liberal Party’s 22.

That leaves independents Geoff Brock and Bob Such as kingmakers. The pair represent conservative electorates that would prefer a Marshall government, however the Liberals waged bitter campaigns in both seats that have pushed Brock and Such firmly in Labor’s direction.

In Tasmania, the result is less murky. Will Hodgman will be the Apple Isle’s first Liberal premier since Tony Rundle was given the boot in 1998, with the conservatives likely to secure 14 seats to Labor’s six, as the Greens drop down to three seats in the state’s proportional Hare-Clark electoral system. 

Whichever way SA falls, Labor will have to face up to the fact that the Liberals have won the popular vote in every state across the nation.

The only part of the country still backing them is a tiny speck of a territory: the public-servant-dominated ACT. 

However, there is another level of government based out of Canberra that would fall to Labor if an election were held today. The worm turns quickly.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 22, 2014 as "Labor's last stand". Subscribe here.

Max Opray
is an Adelaide-based freelance journalist.

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