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Opinion

Worried Liberals face an unconvinced electorate

Opinion

The complex state election campaign will be fraught for the governing Liberals, who face in-fighting and a public that is questioning its judgement on opening up the state and underwhelmed by its record in other areas, writes Mike Rann.

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Elections are tough. Winning elections is even tougher. I can vouch for that having been involved in election campaigning for nearly 50 years.

The campaign itself is simply the culmination of a massive amount of preparation, research, candidate selection, policy work, costings, ads, social media, local ground-based organisation… ending up in a final couple of weeks of voting that determines who governs for the next four years.

During the campaign, journalists, desperate for colour and bored by relaying party promises, will look for any misstep or slip of the tongue at a news conference. They soon get tired of policies and will ferret out leaks, internal divisions or candidates contradicting their leader. So message discipline is a key to success. As in the past, journalists will also examine leaders’ backgrounds and private lives or hope someone will provide them with that kind of information. It can get really grubby.

On the surface, this 2022 election looks simple. Labor under Peter Malinauskas’ leadership, has to pick up at least four seats to form majority government.  The Marshall government has already fallen into minority status because of infighting, with the resignations of a cluster of Liberal MPs who have become independents. So the Liberals will fight battles on different fronts. Steven Marshall knows that “disunity is death” but he began this campaign with “blue on blue“ disputes continuing and factional problems unresolved.

There’s also the position of his former deputy Vickie Chapman. She is still called “Attorney-General“ even though a majority of MPs voted in support of a no-confidence motion against her. Why is she still there in defiance of convention? Because if Marshall sacks her the dogs of factional warfare would be unleashed. They are already barking.

The Liberals are worried. They hoped that “Covid management” would hold them up as it did for incumbent governments in other states.  However, Liberal polling shows the “opening up” before Christmas, before the majority of vulnerable nursing home residents received their booster shots, is seen by many as premature given the Omicron surge and the tragic number of deaths that needlessly occurred. So the Liberals’ Covid management pillar is crumbling.

The SA election will be the last opportunity anywhere in Australia to “send a message to Morrison” before the federal election.

Liberal polling also shows the government is seen as “lacking vision” or “mediocre” and, worst of all, voters can barely remember any of its achievements during the past four years.

There are complications for all sides of politics in this election. There’s the “noise” of the Mad March festival season. This has often been useful for incumbents. Voters are distracted. They are out enjoying themselves and not focused on politics. In the past, this remained the case until the last week of the campaign. That’s frustrating for Oppositions trying to punch through “compare and contrast” messaging such as funding for hospitals versus funding for a basketball stadium.

Finally, adding to this noise, a federal election is coming soon and, even without the date announced, campaigning is well underway. Morrison’s ratings are falling. Back in 2019, a new “folksy, daggy Dad” PM gave the Coalition much-needed freshness after the prolonged Abbott/Turnbull toxicity. That is no longer the case. Morrison has lost more than paint during the past three years. He has lost authority. And credibility.

In the recent by-elections in New South Wales voters vented their anger at both Premier Perrottet and Morrison. There were big swings, not only to enable Labor to win the Liberal stronghold of Bega, but also to independents. The SA election will be the last opportunity anywhere in Australia to “send a message to Morrison” before the federal election.

So what do I think? This SA election will be a close race right down to the finish line.

So far the focus of commentators has been on Elder, Adelaide, King and Newland but there will be breakouts and brushfires elsewhere. The swag of disaffected former Liberal MPs running as incumbent independents plus some very savvy candidate selection by Labor make this election much more complex and interesting.

Exactly 20 years ago I was about to be sworn in as Premier almost a month after an election in February 2002. Before that, in 1997, we achieved a swing of 9.4% and picked up 10 seats from the Olsen government. In 2002, with the affable Rob Kerin recently installed as Premier, Labor picked up only two more seats, with the election of Jane Lomax Smith and Paul Caica. It wasn’t enough. Negotiations with disaffected Liberals eventually made the difference and, ironically, brought stability to government when more independents joined our Cabinet.

Twenty years later I am predicting that on March 19 Peter Malinauskas will do much better than I did in 2002.

Mike Rann was Labor Premier of South Australia from 2002 to 2011. He is the CEO of Rann Strategy Group, Visiting Professor at the Policy Institute of King’s College London and a former High Commissioner to the UK and Ambassador to Italy.

Mike Rann’s election commentary will be published in InDaily every Friday of the campaign, alongside a weekly contribution from Liberal veteran Amanda Vanstone. Read her contribution here.

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