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Joy and despair at the parties' parties

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It seemed that Steven Marshall couldn’t decide on quite the right expression.

After all, what is the correct combination of facial features to signal a draw snatched from the snarling mouth of certain victory?

The Liberals established their election night headquarters at the Arkaba Hotel in Adelaide’s eastern suburbs on Saturday. Labor was at the other side of town, at the West Adelaide Football Club.

At the top of the Ark, excitement and hopeful expectation soon turned to a kind of dull despair. At Westies, what started out feeling like a wake, soon turned into an incredulous celebration as Labor realised their 12 years of power might turn into 16, against all odds.

The Liberal leader stood up before supporters just before Premier Jay Weatherill joined his jubilant throng.

Introduced by his deputy, Vickie Chapman, who could not get off the stage fast enough, Marshall found himself delivering the line, “South Australians clearly want a Liberal government,” in spite of evidence to the contrary.

Marshall wore the sort of expression one might wear if forced to smile constantly for several hours, and then suddenly realise that perhaps smiling was not the right expression after all.

It embodied all extremes of the diverse emotional display wrung from politicians and supporters alike, as over three hours, the phrase landslide victory slunk guiltily out of the room.

There were throngs of bouncy Young Liberals, lone businessmen looking sour, groups lining up to console the defeated and one inebriated senior MP begging, “was it the little things? Was it the slip!?”

Beer in hand – for here, the beer ran free – another Liberal MP stared not into space, but at it, with bitter contempt. A senior official took a watchful post early in the night, leaning on a bench, overlooking the victory party; by night’s end, the same bench seemed to be the only thing stopping him slipping to the floor. It was that sort of an experience – a slow, gradual draining.

As Labor Leader Jay Weatherill took to the podium on screens around Liberal HQ, a few unconvincing boos were offered.

Weatherill’s words were barely audible as the Liberal faithful ignored him, drowning the speech in increasingly loud conversation about what went wrong for the Libs.

Jay Weatherill addressing the Labor crowd at West Adelaide Football Club.

Jay Weatherill addressing the Labor crowd at West Adelaide Football Club.

Earlier in the night, the mood was very different in the oblong room reserved for Labor at the West Adelaide Football Club in Richmond.

A few journalists milled around, setting up equipment, and a slow trickle of Labor volunteers – each wearing bright T-shirts, but downbeat expressions – filed in and ordered schnitzels and beers.

A big screen showed Sky News’ election coverage; once enough Labor people arrived it was promptly switched over to the ABC, as befitting the social democratic party.

Around 8.30 the mood started to swing, unlike Labor’s marginals. The ABC’s computer kept flashing up good news for Labor as the party held its own in marginal seats.

More volunteers flooded in – the room was awash with red and blue T-shirts, and staffers wearing Jay4SA badges. The mood lightened, the noise lifted, and the cheers became more frequent.

Local member Steph Key was greeted like a hero after avoiding what even Labor people predicted would be a thrashing.

When the ABC computer showed a graphic of the chamber with Labor ahead on the seat count, the room went completely mad, with people hugging, kissing each other, clapping each other on the back. One – and only one – person yelled out a quickly stifled cry of “Four more years!”

Staffers were talking about having to change their holiday plans (perhaps that one-way ticket wasn’t the best idea). A happy chap at the bar contended that this was a better result than Paul Keating’s against-the-odds victory in 1993 (the “sweetest victory of all”).

The hard heads were warning that the count was far from over; regardless, they had giant smiles on their faces.

Labor MPs started to arrive – all with the glazed joyful look of football supporters after a get-out-of-jail victory.

Just after 10pm, Jay Weatherill made his appearance, to a huge cheer and chants of “Jay4SA!”

He didn’t claim victory but he too couldn’t wipe the smile from his face.

No ambiguity at all.

– reporting by Liam Mannix, Bension Siebert and David Washington

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