State governments so far have been rewarded for their efforts to keep COVID-19 at bay but in South Australia, where borders have been reopened while the government is engulfed in controversy, pundits are predicting no such niceties.
- The SA state election will be held on March 19, some 17 weeks after its borders were reopened to COVID-19
- Growing numbers of independents in the House of Assembly have created the very real possibility of a hung parliament in 2022
- Pundits believe the Liberal Party’s performance after 16 years in opposition will have proven largely disappointing to voters
Despite having managed COVID-19 with distinction for nearly two years, Premier Steven Marshall’s Cabinet has been rocked by controversy — his former deputy premier was yesterday suspended from parliament — leaving the first-term government exposed ahead of the March 2022 election.
University of Adelaide politics and international relations Emeritus Professor Clem Macintyre said that while re-elected governments in Queensland, the ACT, and Western Australia had all benefited from the COVID-19 pandemic, in SA a “hung parliament was a real possibility”.
“Incumbency seems to be an advantage during a time of public health emergency, but I don’t think there’s any prospect that the SA electors will reward the Steven Marshall government in the way that WA did with [Premier] Mark McGowan’s re-election, and there’s a couple of reasons for that,” he said.
One was because SA’s Labor opposition had played a “fairly astute hand” during the pandemic by largely supporting the government’s public health response — particularly its key players in Police Commissioner Grant Stevens and Chief Public Health Officer Nicola Spurrier — and instead focused its attacks on other government policies.
“And while voters would be grateful for the fact that SA has been largely protected from the virus, on the other hand I think they would also be looking around them and saying ‘has the government delivered on the things it was going to?'” Dr Macintyre said.
Battered by controversy
The Lower House on Tuesday voted to find Attorney-General Vickie Chapman guilty of deliberately misleading parliament after a parliamentary inquiry found she had a conflict of interest while exercising her power as planning minister to refuse a port on Kangaroo Island.
She will now face an investigation by the ombudsman, and has resigned from her role as deputy premier and planning minister, delegating her powers as AG to another minister.
It is the latest in a string of scandals to engulf government MPs after information was leaked about the expense claims of several country ministers in 2020, resulting in the resignation of several cabinet ministers and an investigation by the corruption watchdog.
Adjunct Professor Haydon Manning from Flinders University College of Business, Government and Law said Labor would “hammer” the government over these issues ahead of the election.
Disunity strikes again
After winning government for the first time in 16 years at the 2018 election, the Liberal Party is now a minority government with three of its former MPs having turned independents, reducing its numbers in the House of Assembly from 25 to 22.
This included Narungga MP Fraser Ellis, who suspended his Liberal membership while facing trial over the expenses scandal; Waite MP Sam Duluk, who was expelled from the party following poor behaviour while drunk at a Christmas party; and Kavel MP Dan Cregan who recently quit the party to leverage for better public transport in the Adelaide Hills before seizing the speakership.
“There’s 40 years of history about a divided state Liberal Party internally fighting each other and you sort of look at that full picture and think ‘Labor are a genuine chance’,” Dr Manning said.
But both major parties will have to contend with six independents in order to win the 24 seats required to form government, including another former Liberal embroiled in his own controversy, Mount Gambier MP Troy Bell.
Other independents include Frome MP Geoff Brock and former Labor MP for Florey, Frances Bedford.
Four independents looking strong
Dr Macintyre believed four of those six independents had a good chance of retaining their seats — Cregan, Bell, Bedford, and Ellis.
But he said Mr Duluk, despite performing strongly for his electorate, was unlikely to receive any preferences from Labor or Liberal, and Mr Brock had suffered from electoral boundary redistributions that had seen his supporter base in Port Pirie transferred to the Stuart electorate.
He has since announced he will contest Stuart but is pitted against newly appointed Deputy Premier Dan van Holst Pellakaan “who will be hard to unseat”.
“Things might change between now and then, of course, but there’s every chance it will depend on how the parties go about courting those independents.
“And what we’ve seen in previous years when we’ve got independents who would be more philosophically inclined to the Liberals, Labor’s been able to woo them over.”
Labor’s own headache
The opposition has not been without its own problems, of course, as a trial continues into the alleged blackmailing of leader Peter Malinauskas by former Labor MP for Elder, Annabel Digance, and her husband Greg.
Court documents have since revealed Mr Malinauskas was secretly fitted with a wire to record an interaction with his accused blackmailers, alleging he did it “with a view to shutting down a parliamentary inquiry” into bullying and intimidation within the party.
“And that’s something that, of course, the Liberals could use to hit back,” Dr Manning said.
“You can imagine a debate with Peter Malinauskas where they are able to turn around and throw that back at him.
“Suddenly people just look at both of them and think ‘there’s no advantage either way — it’s just a double negative’.”
Labor must win Ms Digance’s former seat if it wants to take the election after losing with a 0.3 per cent swing to the Liberals in 2018.
Health care a key issue
Mr Manning said another key area of concern for the government would be its record in health care, with overrun hospital emergency departments and ambulance ramping consistently hitting headlines.
“This was dogging Labor in its last term and, of course, Marshall made a point of saying he’d fix ramping, he’d fix that, but it’s an ongoing saga and when you read reports from doctors saying, ‘The system’s not working for people, we’re overworked’, that’s a big worry,” Dr Manning said.
After all, much of the pain in Adelaide’s health system was created by the former Labor’s government’s controversial Transforming Health reform which sought to centralise health services and replace the city’s main hospital with the new Royal Adelaide Hospital.
It was Australia’s most expensive building at the time but has been riddled with teething problems and inadequacies since it opened in 2017.
All bets are off
One area where Dr Manning believed the government might get “a tick” was in the land tax reform it implemented in 2020.
But the fight to accomplish it was so taxing, he said, including backlash from its long-time ally in the Property Council of Australia, that it would likely be remembered “quite negatively by those who were impacted”.
The government has also found some success through Environment Minister David Speirs who, as well as overlooking several headline projects such as the opening of reservoirs for recreation parks, has a string of quieter achievements in grass roots projects that have won him community favour.
Dr Manning said he was unwilling to bet on anything, despite believing the Liberal Party would have retained government if the election was held a year ago at the height of the pandemic.
“Voters tend not to necessarily reward you too much for what you’ve achieved,” Dr Manning said.
The wildcard, of course, is COVID-19 with nobody truly knowing what is around the corner, especially now SA has reopened its borders to NSW, Victoria, and the ACT.
The government can only hope that infection numbers do not leap out of control, or its greatest achievement in keeping the pandemic at bay risks becoming a fond memory at the worst possible time.