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Richardson: Six unlikely-but-plausible doomsday scenarios for SA in 2018

Opinion

For most of us, ‘tis the season to be jolly. But not those in the political vocation.

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For them ‘tis the season of fret and folly, as they feverishly await the arrival of St Nick.

No, not the avuncular beardo with the bag.

Rather, the former No Pokies crusader-turned political jack of all trades who has worked his everyman charm into an electoral nightmare for the major parties.

Politically, almost literally, anything could happen over the next three months.

Alexander could yet be convinced that a seat such as Heysen or Davenport requires some Downer magic to help save the flagging Liberal campaign

So here are six of my favourite doomsday scenarios for SA politics in 2018.

Sure, they’re all unlikely – but each one is eerily plausible.

Hopefully, they don’t give you a nightmare before Christmas!

With news that his tenure as Australia’s High Commissioner in London is coming to an end, replaced – by George! – by George, Alexander Downer is right now winging his way back to South Australian shores, according to his Facebook account.

Suggestions of the one-time – albeit not very successful – federal Opposition Leader surging home like a white knight to commandeer the Liberal army, and imbuing it with the authority of his status as Australia’s longest serving – and very successful – Foreign Minister, have refused to go away in recent years.

Largely because…well, the suggestion has never actually gone away.

Downer, according to those in the know, has always looked wistfully on the notion of a pre-retirement Indian Summer as Premier of his home state, but is somewhat less keen on any of the graft required to get there – such as serving a long apprenticeship in Opposition, or risking his neck (and reputation) on a marginal seat.

Alexander Downer and wife Nicky pictured doorknocking a potential constituent in the Adelaide Hills… or something. Photo: John Stillwell / PA Wire

Given there is virtually no such thing as a safe seat – let alone a safe bet – at the forthcoming election, it’s unlikely you’ll find the Downer name on your local ballot paper.

But with a bunch of seats in the same footprint of his former federal base of Mayo very much up for grabs, he could yet be convinced that a seat such as Heysen or Davenport requires some Downer magic to help save the flagging Liberal campaign. If so, there’s just the small matter of some delicate diplomacy required to convince the already-preselected candidate in such a seat that they’re better off losing their claim to the electorate now than in three months’ time.

Is it just crazy enough to work? Well, no-one’s canvassing such a wacky scheme for now – at least on the Liberal side.

But significantly, no-one’s altogether dismissing it either.

Speaking of Mayo, if the Liberal Party’s worst nightmare hadn’t already arrived in the form of the ubiquitous Mr X and his 32 per cent, the real doomsday scenario still looms – the prospect of concurrently running both a state general election campaign and a federal by-election in Mayo.

With Xenophon’s Team-mate Rebekha Sharkie set to be referred to the High Court to resolve the question-marks over her citizenship status at the time of her nomination, the prospect is very real.

If there is a fresh Mayo poll, it won’t be held on the same day as the state election, but a concurrent campaign would nonetheless further muddy the waters, shining a local spotlight on federal issues – where the Liberal brand remains on the nose.

Oh, and incidentally: the strong word is that if there is a by-election in Mayo, there may well be a Downer on the ballot – with Alexander’s daughter Georgina, a lawyer and Adjunct Fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs, set to throw her hat in the proverbial ring. She won’t be the only Liberal nominee, but it does raise the tantalising prospect (if one suspends one’s disbelief enough to allow for point six above) that SA politics could usher in a new Downer dynasty in the Hills, with the father/daughter power duo traversing the federal/state divide.

Far more likely though, is that Sharkie consolidates her stranglehold on Mayo and ensconces herself there for a generation. And at the same time helps turn the Hills zone on the state electoral map from blue to orange.

Frightened off fighting an election on the merits of a bank tax for fear of alienating the Liberals’ core constituency, Tom Koutsantonis yesterday unfurled his mid-year budget review, which far more cunningly attacked Labor’s core constituency instead.

If there’s a certain logic to threatening to gut the public service three months out from an election – after all, with the Liberals and Xenophon similarly flagging their enthusiasm for a leaner, meaner bureaucracy, public sector employees really have nowhere else to go – it also seems bizarre politics. There appears to have been little or no prior consultation, which has evidently led to deep disquiet in Labor ranks over Kouts’ bull-at-a-gate strategic approach.

Rightly so, too – the fact that, according to Newspoll, Labor’s primary vote is in the toilet on 27 per cent, implies that the Government is in no position to alienate its base right now.

Having spent 16 years inflating the public service – and allowing the Liberals to lose successive elections and leaders on the back of ill-advised attacks on the state’s biggest employer – it would be an irony indeed if Labor fell out of power by a handful of seats because it lost faith with its own workers.

Xenophon says he’s held discussions with former Labor MP-turned-independent Kris Hanna and continues to hold them with two-time Liberal candidate Jassmine Wood, who InDaily this month reported intended to run as SA Best’s Colton candidate.

But there’s since been a suggestion of friction between Wood and Xenophon – although he denies she’s been dumped for answering various media inquiries ahead of a formal announcement.

Nonetheless, she appears to have taken the hint – and stopped taking calls.

“We’re still working through a process with candidates,” Xenophon said this week after announcing five new candidates in Labor-held Lee, Hurtle Vale and Elizabeth and nominal Liberal strongholds Chaffey and Narungga.

“I’m still talking to Jassmine, and we’re having good discussions [so] to say she’s been dumped as a candidate is wrong… if there’s been a misunderstanding of how the process worked, that’s not a criticism of Jassmine.

“She’s still the main person we’re considering but we need to make a decision as to where we put our resources.”

But the episode highlights an issue for Xenophon’s fledgling party that will only become magnified if a glut of these candidates actually gets elected: how to maintain party cohesion and discipline when you are responsible not just for yourself, but your entire team.

Politicians – and prospective politicians – are generally no strangers to ego, and keeping the troops in line is hard enough for major parties with entire systems in place to do just that (Why do you think the party whip is such a key role?).

Perhaps this is why Xenophon has thus far eschewed career politicians with his candidate selections – but this too is problematic. This bunch of novices will be catapulted into probably the most fraught, tense and complex parliamentary cauldrons in SA history after March, and some semblance of political nous – or at least appreciation of parliamentary process – will be sorely needed.

Of Hanna, Xenophon tells InDaily: “Kris and I met last week and we had a good discussion to see how we both feel, and no doubt we’ll be talking in the new year… nothing’s been determined, it was just a good catch-up.”

But Hanna has a history of doing things his way – and as for the rest of Xenophon’s candidates, most have no political history whatsoever. It’s conceivable that while there’s no ‘I’ in “Xenophon Team”, the teammates could yet go the way of Palmer’s Pups at the first sign of trouble post-March.

As Frank Sinatra warned: Riding high in April… shot down in May.

Moreover, there’s a chance that Xenophon’s decision to target Labor high-flyer Stephen Mullighan in his north-western suburbs seat of Lee could yet prove the best Christmas present the Transport Minister could have hoped for. The seat officially became a Labor marginal under last year’s redistribution, and the Liberals would have had some hope of picking it up in a traditional two-party showdown.

But with SA Best now giving it a shake, there’s every chance the Libs will finish third (they polled a 35.7 primary to Mullighan’s 41 per cent there last time, when the now-frontbencher was a cleanskin candidate).

Nonetheless, let’s assume a scenario under which Mullighan loses his seat. The magnitude of the swing required would also suggest that Labor has lost the election, which would probably see Jay Weatherill vacate the leadership and – after an appropriate pause – his safe seat of Cheltenham.

No doubt Weatherill has his own favoured successors to inherit his Alberton stronghold (his former speechwriter and adviser turned Port Adelaide Football Club’s China mastermind Andrew Hunter is one name that springs to mind). But if Mullighan had been lost to the Labor benches, there would be a strong case for parachuting the rising star back into his former neighbour’s seat at a by-election.

Which, for the former Foley minder, would be all fine and dandy – but for one thing: he may yet end up in Weatherill’s seat, but his opportunity to inherit his leadership mantle would have passed.

“Whoa, just hold up for one sec here!” Photo: Tony Lewis / InDaily

Weatherill has apparently been telling party insiders of late that Labor is well-positioned for Life After Jay. According to those in the know, he routinely cites Mullighan, right-wing machine man Peter Malinauskas and left-faction colleague Susan Close as potential leaders-in-waiting. The latter we can probably exclude, as it’s monumentally unlikely the dominant Right faction will tolerate another left-winger at the helm, given they only installed Weatherill as a last-ditch bid – and the party’s best hope – to retain Government, and moreover that the Education Minister has since been tarred by the TAFE fiasco.

Which would mean that if Mullighan loses his seat, the likely net result would be to hand current Health Minister Malinauskas the Labor reins for the next four years.

Which, let’s face it, is probably what will happen in any case.

And here it is – the ultimate doomsday scenario. The epitome of electoral chaos and the archetypal symbol of a rudderless state.

On the numbers alone, it is a safe bet that no party will win enough seats to form government in their own right. Given Xenophon – for now – is only expected to run candidates in around 20 seats, he won’t be able to win the 24 required for an outright majority even if every single one of his hopefuls is elected.

Indeed – and quite bizarrely – if a single party seems better positioned than the rest to snare an against-the-odds majority… it is Labor, given much of SA Best’s electoral strength seems to come at the Liberals’ expense.

After 16 years, it seems hard to escape the political Stockholm Syndrome that appears to have enveloped the state’s collective psyche, wherein it becomes hard to conceive of a change of government, even with the widespread perception that the incumbent has fallen well short of what it set out to be.

But let’s assume the more likely option – whoever governs SA in three months’ time will have to do it at the behest of Xenophon. And it will be difficult – but not impossible – to conceive of the longtime crossbencher credibly endorsing another four years of Labor – given the very rationale for his state political insurgency was to halt the “path of decline” over which the ALP has presided for 16 years.

“We have a Government that is tired and cynical, that has abandoned accountability and transparency [and] failed to deliver reliable and affordable essential services that we depend on,” Xenophon said when he announced his own candidacy in October.

Mind you, he also noted his “dismay” at the Liberal alternative which, he noted, seemed “to be driven by a sense of entitlement that they are overdue for their turn in office, for the perks of power, rather than a coherent vision to make SA a better place”.

“Both sides disappoint me to the brink of despair,” he lamented.

But here’s a thought.

It’s a widely-held view that Xenophon erred by announcing his candidacy in Hartley, with many insiders feeling he would have been more assured of victory by stealing a chunk of the Liberal vote in neighbouring Morialta.

This week’s Newspoll would suggest otherwise, but Xenophon is as yet no guarantee to win the seat for which he is running.

And, particularly if SA Best fields a candidate there – as it may well do – Liberal leader Steven Marshall will need to make a good account of himself to avoid the shock loss of his own seat of Dunstan – a swing seat that has lurched back and forth between the major parties over the years, and currently sits on a tenuous 3.9 per cent nominal margin.

Which means there is an outside – yet plausible – possibility that the next Government of SA will be some form of coalition between the Liberals and SA Best – but that neither Xenophon nor Marshall actually win their respective seats.

And with that, I wish you a Merry Christmas.

Depending on your political proclivities, it may or may not be a Happy New Year – but it sure won’t be dull!

Tom Richardson is a senior reporter at InDaily.

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