The prevailing mood at Blackwood Football Club – the Liberals’ makeshift HQ for Saturday evening – was relief, rather than exhilaration.
Here, at last, was a semblance of electoral success. The last time the Liberals won an election in South Australia the Crows had just won their first flag. And Davenport was turning out to carry more than a passing resemblance to that John Olsen victory in 1997. Here, again, the win was hollow; it would need to be defended, explained.
There was a swing to Labor, a significant one; the Liberals were hanging on by their fingernails in a contest everyone expected them to win without breaking a sweat. Back then, the ALP was a disgraced pariah on the comeback trail under Mike Rann. They’re now well into a fourth consecutive term of Government, revelling in a by-election victory in Fisher and a six per cent swing to them in a blue-ribbon conservative seat they’ve never held.
It’s no surprise Labor has already trotted out the line that a swing to a 13-year-old Government in a previously-safe Liberal seat is a vindication of the party’s direction under Jay Weatherill. They prepared that narrative long ago and, politically, it’s the perfect weapon with which to batter the hapless Liberals. But they’d be very, very foolish indeed if they actually start believing it.
There are plenty of explanations for the result in Davenport and not one of them is a sign the electorate is enraptured with the Weatherill Government.
When, in June last year, one-time Liberal leader Iain Evans told Steven Marshall of his intention to vacate the seat, he warned there would be a swing against the Liberals. His usual double-figured margin had been whittled down to 8.1 per cent the previous March; Evans figured the Liberals would win a by-election 52 per cent to 48 two-party preferred.
Plenty has happened since that conversation took place – Labor’s Emergency Services Levy hikes, Tony Abbott’s inexorable decline, the Fisher debacle, more Gillman controversy – but Evans’ prediction was still on the money.
He’d been in parliament since 1993. His Dad, Stan, held Davenport before him since 1985 (and before that neighbouring Fisher since 1970 and Onkaparinga since 1968). Conservative voters in Davenport are accustomed to voting for an Evans, just as voters in the federal hills seat of Mayo were long accustomed to voting for Alexander Downer, another dynastic heir. When Downer retired in 2008, his usually-safe seat became a marginal, as Jamie Briggs slumped in with a mere three per cent buffer over the Greens, with Labor not fielding a candidate.
That margin has since recovered, and now sits at 7 per cent. All things being equal, the same will happen in Davenport at the 2018 state election. The Liberals may have gone into Saturday’s contest as the incumbent, but in name only; the name that wasn’t on the ballot paper was always going to tell against them.
The Abbott factor
Speaker Mick Atkinson’s contentious decision, derided at the time, to hold the Fisher and Davenport by-elections a month apart, was seen to unfairly favour Labor. In the event, though, it might have cost the ALP a seat. Indeed, Liberal insiders were privately expressing sheer relief on Saturday night – the party’s polling collapsed after then-Defence Minister David Johnston’s infamous “canoe” gaffe in late November. In all likelihood, Labor’s greatest chance of an upset was not on Saturday, but a month earlier.
Nonetheless – and despite being written off as an excuse by Labor – the Abbott brand remains toxic Australia-wide, and his perhaps-fatal knighthood gaffe was impeccably timed to alienate voters both in Davenport and in Queensland, where Campbell Newman’s first-term Government was routed on the weekend. He may profess to be a very good captain, but he’s quickly going down and taking the Liberal ship down with him.
If the scuttlebutt around the Blackwood Footy Club on Saturday night is any guide, the PM won’t last the week.
While Labor may mock, the party is well aware of Abbott’s culpability; after all, for the second successive by-election, Labor campaigned as much on federal issues as local ones. The PM’s incumbency could even have handed Labor enough protest votes for its historic state election win last year.
But the flipside is that if Abbott is jettisoned, SA Labor’s greatest electoral asset goes begging. While the ALP will publicly chide, it must privately reassess its strategy for 2018.
As usual, though, the state Libs are wedged between a rock and a hard place with their public narrative; they can’t very well go round saying that a terminally inept federal Liberal administration is bleeding their votes. Even though it is.
Far from being a pat on the back for the Weatherill Government, the ALP needs to appreciate the issues that resonated in this election.
Labor scrutineers reckon the Libs pulled one polling-day masterstroke (and no, it wasn’t those highly suspect Greens-masquerading leaflets): there was a CFS vehicle parked near every polling station, many adorned with pro-Liberal propaganda and CFS volunteers were also on hand to push the cause. A month after the hills fires, Labor’s already frosty relationship with its volunteer firefighters has degenerated into open hostility, and there’s no doubt whose side the public will take. And nowhere more so than in bushfire-prone hills districts such as Davenport.
The Libs also campaigned strongly on the Emergency Services Levy, even (finally) committing to reversing Labor’s hikes.
Weatherill may pay lip service to addressing cost of living pressures, but his Government’s single most significant budget measure in the year since its re-election has been to impose an arbitrary whack on almost every household and business in the state. It may plug a budget hole, but the electoral toll won’t be limited to Davenport.
If this by-election was truly an endorsement of Labor’s direction under Weatherill, Labor would have won it. It was their best, their only, chance to do so. In truth, thus far, Labor HAS no publicly-discernible direction under Weatherill. He hopes to rectify this when parliament resumes next week. If he wants to win his party an unlikely fifth term, he’ll need to.
Labor has much to celebrate in recent electoral results, but the danger for the Government is that they mask simmering resentment in the community that will continue to fester as this term progresses.
As for the Liberals, they’ve managed to conjure that Ben-Hur-esque finale to which Paul Keating once alluded: they’ve made it over the finish line with one wheel off the chariot. But, whatever else, it’s a win.
Marshall and the Liberals needed that taste of success, albeit soured by the margin, to vindicate their direction. And they’ve welcomed one more capable young turk onto their parliament benches. For a party in desperate need of new blood, that’s significant. Indeed, it may prove in coming years to be the most significant legacy of the Davenport by-election.
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