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Richardson: Who’s afraid of a hung parliament – and why?

Opinion

The looming threat of a hung parliament has been widely painted as a political disaster. But, as Tom Richardson writes, history suggests a hung parliament is not necessarily a bad thing – and could be a catalyst for genuine change.

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The enduring frustration of election campaigns is when specious claims are allowed to fester into conventional wisdom.

And if the oft-discussed decline of the SA Best campaign plays out, it will be in large part because somewhere along the way ‘the vibe’ around Nick Xenophon was conflated with the truth about Nick Xenophon.

For instance, that he is a former Lib.

This basic fact has been trumpeted consistently by Labor as evidence SA Best is, in fact, some new and appropriately chaotic sub-branch of the SA Liberal Party, in a bid to distinguish the ALP as the only non-conservative option on polling day.

You can make of Xenophon’s ideological mish-mash what you will (it seems to me derived from some populist conflation of the narratives of Good Samaritan and David and Goliath), but the fact that he was a Liberal member in his uni days in neither revelatory nor particularly relevant.

In fact, despite his Liberal dalliance being widely known, in his two decades in public life, I don’t think I’ve ever heard it referred to in any kind of character assessment before, until late last year.

Indeed, the most interesting aspect of his Liberal pedigree has always been his controversial editorship of the Adelaide Uni student mag On Dit, a historical curio of the then-Nick Xenophou’s political life that has spawned plenty of colourful anecdotes in feature pieces over the years, invariably punctuated by his well-worn refrain: “Some people did drugs when they were young; I joined the Young Liberals.”

However, all of a sudden, his post-teen political peccadilloes are suddenly proof positive that he is some closet conservative who has conspired to hide this dark secret from public view all these years.

And yet somehow it never stopped successive Labor oppositions and governments from working collaboratively with him, with former Attorney-General Michael Atkinson recently confessing the pair were once so close they even holidayed together.

Then there’s the oft-parroted notion that Xenophon’s party is a policy-free zone.

In fact, his party has been spamming email inboxes with policy pronouncements for weeks. However, they tend to be micro-announcements of little interest to statewide media – things like a couple of extra paramedic ambulance services on the Yorke Peninsula, or a $100,000 motocross upgrade in the northern suburbs, or an arts hub along Jetty Road.

Perhaps the Xenophon team’s ground game is more formidable than we assume but, if it’s not, I struggle to see the benefit of this strategy. For while it’s all very well to run a pork-barrel-style policy agenda, if you can’t communicate it to the specific voters you’re trying to convince it’s a bit like a tree falling in a vacant forest.

All of which might explain why the public – and some parts of the media – appear to have so readily embraced the notion that SA Best is a policy free zone.

The truth is, the party has probably wasted more time on policy than is wise. If Xenophon had focussed his energies on his core purpose – streamlining the operations and processes of parliament and the bureaucracy while standing guard as a self-appointed political watchdog – his case would have been far simpler to make and more compelling.

Jay Weatherill used to argue that his allegedly sock-knocking-offingly bold agenda – outlined in early 2015 via a speech to re-open parliament by Governor Hieu Van Le – was to be his policy blueprint for the parliamentary term.

If that is true, it’s fair to say that very little has been achieved, with the headline items – the ones intended to make us collectively gasp, according to Weatherill – all falling either well short of their stated scope or by the wayside altogether.

By the same token, we have a Liberal platform for the next four years frequently predicated on what it won’t do, rather than what it will. No suburban tram expansion, no fracking in the South-East, retention of clinical services at the Repat.

If, however, one could vote in a government and know that, one way or another, there would be reforms put in place that would improve the transparency, accountability and administration of the state’s democratic institutions, that would – at least – be a tangible practical outcome of the next four-year term. And a positive one.

I’m not sure why Xenophon has moved away from his narrative around this, as it appeared not merely a plausible ambition but a worthy one.

And moreover, it offered voters a helpful rejoinder to another piece of speciousness that has been allowed to fester into conventional wisdom: that hung parliaments are inherently a Bad Thing.

Since Dean Brown’s post-State Bank landslide, three of the subsequent five elections have resulted in hung parliaments, with the party that formed government able to do so only with the acquiescence of key crossbenchers.

The performance of those governments may have varied, but they’ve hardly had any trouble governing – not in the Lower House at least.

In fact, it’s arguable that the most productive of Labor’s four terms in office – and certainly the one that produced the most resounding electoral endorsement – was its first, between 2002 and ’06, when it governed at the whim of Nationals MP Karlene Maywald, Mount Gambier’s Rory McEwen (another former Lib that Labor didn’t seem to mind courting) and the idiosyncratic Liberal renegade Peter Lewis.

No doubt plenty of hard work and diplomacy went into keeping the tenuous arrangement workable, but work it did for the most part – and it’s arguable that the looming threat of losing its majority made the first Rann Government hungrier, more diligent and (in some ways) more accountable.

Likewise, while there’s no Liberal love for Martin Hamilton-Smith these days, those not blinded by the partisan fog might at least recognise that his four years in office were spent more or less implementing the policy agenda he took to the 2014 election as Shadow Minister for Trade and Industry.

In other words, if you wanted a Liberal policy agenda in these portfolios, you actually – literally – got one.

If, however, you just wanted your team to win, you were badly shortchanged.

As SA Best – according to successive polls – slips from the dizzying heights of its December peak, and Labor is tarred by longevity and the lingering stench of Oakden, the prospect of the Liberals winning an outright majority becomes more compelling.

But the odds still appear against it.

At the wash-up of the 2014 election, the Libs finished with 22 seats – and managed to lose a few more in the intervening years.

First Hamilton-Smith threw his lot in with Labor, before the Libs lost Troy Bell (through no fault of their own) and Duncan McFetridge (through considerable fault of their own).

They also managed to lose (by nine votes) the southern suburbs seat of Fisher, which had long been held by former-Lib-frontbencher-turned-independent Bob Such but was calculated by the Boundaries Commission as being, nominally, firmly on the Liberal side of the ledger. It’s since been all-but-abolished: re-named and so vastly re-drawn that Labor has gained a nominal nine per cent swing even before the first ballot is cast.

So while on paper the Opposition kicked off the present campaign just a fingernail from a majority, they still need to win back at least two seats – and sandbag many more against SA Best incursions – just to maintain the frustratingly so-near-yet-so-far position they were in four years ago.

All of which is entirely possible, but it doesn’t just happen without a fair bit of effort on the ground.

If Xenophon’s campaign has done nothing else, it’s forced the major parties to spend precious resources – both their own cash through electioneering and ours, through pork-barrelling pledges – in seats for which they would usually simply pick a candidate and let them run their race.

As discussed, SA Best too is focussing heavily on campaign promises with a local flavour geared to individual seats, although their delivery is firmly predicated on two hypotheticals – that they win the seats in question, and that they also hold the balance of power.

Which makes much of their policy agenda unlikely to ever see the light of day.

But the one thing it could still achieve is parliamentary reform through the balance of power in a hung parliament.

Such an outcome, then, need not be necessarily all doom and gloom – although there are, of course, better and worse scenarios.

One informed punter who crunched the data and provided a seat-by-seat prediction based on the bookmakers’ favourites in every seat at the halfway point of the campaign suggested the likelihood of a 20-20 seat split between the two major parties, with four independents and three for SA Best – which I think we can all agree is the worst of all possible outcomes.

And, of course, punters never, ever, ever get it wrong…

But beyond the scenario in which it’s almost impossible for either major party to cobble together a majority, we should have nothing to fear in theory from the looming threat of a hung parliament.

It may yet deliver solid reforms that will ensure future governments are more accountable to the parliament and the electorate.

The broad acceptance of the specious assumption that handing the crossbench the balance of power will necessarily lead to poorer governance is one of the enduring mysteries of this campaign.

Along with another nagging question.

Why is Nick Xenophon – who over a long political career, one particularly egregious abuse of parliamentary privilege aside, has been broadly a force for good – now being widely ridiculed as the biggest threat to the future of SA politics?

Tom Richardson is a senior reporter at InDaily.

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