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Richardson: Xenophon may not govern in his own right - but he can still be Premier

Opinion

Symbols, rather than policies, may be the currency of the March election, with the major parties’ attacks on Nick Xenophon failing thus far to make a dent. The electorate appears in the mood for change, writes Tom Richardson – but it could be a change not just of government, but of how we’re governed.

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The ‘It’s Time’ factor has suddenly become the state Liberal Party’s worst enemy.

Ever since about 2009, the Opposition has been running a small target political strategy predicated on a broad assumption that the electorate has had enough of Labor. That, to use a Labor luminary’s own famous phrase, ‘It’s Time’.

But the thing about running an ‘It’s Time’ campaign is… you’ve got to be pretty confident the electorate shares your temporal sensibilities.

In a two-party system, the old adage goes that Oppositions don’t win elections, Governments lose them. In SA, the first part of the old adage has held consistently true thus far this millennium, but the second part stubbornly refuses to follow suit.

Nonetheless, the tactic has invariably been the same. Like that old characterisation of insanity, whereby one keeps doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome.

To be fair, the Libs this term have tried to break the shackles of history. They have laid out policy pledges and they have attempted to map out their ideological ground, albeit via an odd and much-mocked leaflet entitled 2036, which spelled out the priorities for a Liberal Government in the lead-up to the titular date, apropos of very little.

Policy-wise, while they have been more industrious than the preceding term and a half, there appears to be no coherent platform. More, thus far, an eclectic assortment of minor pork-barrelling, dog-whistling and motherhood statements, punctuated by the occasional well-thought-out pledge, most of which – such as shifting Year 7 into high school – were part of their platform at the last election anyway.

But whether it’s the message or the delivery that’s not cutting through, it seems clear South Australians are still broadly unclear about what the Liberals are bringing to the table.

And after 16 years, this is unacceptable.

The best even the most ardent rusted-on conservative appears capable of saying for the Opposition is that while it has not yet been able to sell itself as a credible alternative, it deserves a chance to prove its mettle in Government. Because IT’S TIME, dagnabbit!

It’s an odd refrain, effectively positing that the Opposition need not make a case for power other than that the ALP has had its turn and a robust democracy demands a changing of the guard.

But it’s a strangely compelling one.

Except, of course, that this was a dangerous election in which to play the ‘It’s Time’ card, without (as Gandhi might have put it), being the change you wish to see.

Because, this time, there is an alternative.

And it’s an alternative voters are finding increasingly compelling, if recent and successive polls are to be believed.

Sure, if the Libs have policy question marks, and Labor’s lofty rhetoric must be matched against its historic ability (or lack thereof) to match words with action, SA Best’s policy platform is more like a community noticeboard. Full of helpful suggestions, with no notion of how any of it will ever get done.

Nick Xenophon himself still peddles the notion that he intends to hold the balance of power, hold the big guys in check and push for institutional reform.

It’s disingenuous shtick, because if the YouGov Galaxy polling across three seats published by various media in the past 24 hours is any guide, Xenophon – if he runs enough candidates – is every chance to form government in his own right.

At the very least, SA Best is now a genuine shot of holding more seats than any other party in a hung parliament.

And that’s without as yet even knowing who is responsible for what policy portfolio.

It’s a strange new world: all of a sudden, some of the safest major party seats are among the state’s most vulnerable.

On the relevant lower house booths at the 2016 federal election, Chaffey – a seat on a nominal 24 per cent margin for the Libs – would almost certainly fall Xenophon’s way.

And yet, the state’s most marginal seats – the likes of Newland, Adelaide and Colton – loom as more traditional two-party battles, in electorates in which SA Best is unlikely to force its way into second place.

But the reality is – no-one is safe.

There is hardly an incumbent in the 47-seat parliament that could reasonably expect to gain more than 50 per cent of the vote on first preferences… which means no-one should be feeling comfortable.

The major parties are, rightly, hammering the theme that SA Best is untested, a dictatorship, a void on several major policy areas.

And both continue to make promises, small and large, targeted and broad, hoping to convince the electorate of the merits of its case for power.

But the reality is, none of it may matter.

This election is increasingly Trump-esque – a howl of disquiet from a jaded electorate.

In this election, policies are not tallied and scrutinised and their merits expressed at the ballot box. In this election, policies are virtue-signals, symbols of what you stand for and who you purport to represent.

Xenophon has long managed to position himself as a champion of the dispossessed while maintaining himself as a voice of the sensible centre.

He is the sort of politician people are willing to take a risk on. Even if it’s a big risk.

And while the Liberals may have entered the policy fray, they haven’t successfully signalled to the electorate who they are and what they stand for.

Which, given their fundamental ideological internal disputes, is hardly surprising.

But for a party that should be on the cusp of their long-awaited big win, the Libs could well emerge from March 17 as the biggest loser.

Given the seats in which Xenophon is likely to pull support, and the fact Labor holds more marginals and fewer safe-havens, there is every chance the Liberal Party could hold fewer seats than any other party, even with a higher primary vote than Labor.

But, perversely, this could also be their saving grace.

Imagine this scenario (and it’s one that many political insiders on both sides have already envisaged): Labor wins 18 seats, well short of the 24 required for a majority; SA Best snares 15, with the Libs languishing on 12; two of Frances Bedford, Duncan McFetridge, Troy Bell and Geoff Brock prevail as independents.

In this scenario, Xenophon has two options: he could acknowledge Labor’s 18 seats as a mandate and back them to form government. In this scenario, the government partnership would hold 33 seats, to the Opposition’s 12.

Or he could suggest the ALP’s inability to govern in its own right is a mandate for change, and join a partnership with the Liberals, giving the new coalition government 25 seats, and the Labor Opposition 18.

He could plausibly argue this outcome is better for a robust democracy than a punch-drunk, demolished rump of an Opposition.

And one other thing: he would have the right to demand, on the numbers, to lead the Government as Premier.

This is no longer an outside possibility.

The Liberals have one thing right this campaign – after 16 years, the electorate appears hungry for change. Of a sort.

In politics, timing is everything. And perhaps, at last, It’s Time.

But time for what?

Tom Richardson is a senior reporter at InDaily.

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