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Who will triumph on the election campaign's longest day?

Opinion

Tomorrow’s result is far from a sure thing, but the Liberals face strife even if they win, writes former Labor Premier Mike Rann.

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Tomorrow, Steven Marshall and Peter Malinauskas will endure their longest day.

Amidst the frenzy of a campaign, time seems to be racing. On election day, when the communion of democracy is quietly taking place, there is a completely different sense for leaders waiting at home, or touring the marginals thanking volunteers. The hours grind slowly. When the polling booths finally close, and until meaningful results come through, time seems to stand still. All leaders nervously wait for the exit poll figures and that first phone call from party officials.

The last week of this campaign has been bizarre. Lib HQ clearly thought it was a great idea to publicly attack independent MPs who were formerly Liberals, whose support to stay in government might be needed in coming days. This continues a long tradition in SA that 20 years ago paid dividends for me, for Labor and for government stability.

In the Sky News debate on late Wednesday afternoon Peter Malinauskas showed his strength, outlining his long-term program plus his immediate priority after the election of fixing the ambulance ramping crisis. He also used the latest official statistics to puncture the Liberals’ economic and employment credentials. Of Sky’s audience of swinging voters, 67% believed Malinauskas won the debate compared with 22% for Marshall and 11% undecided. It was the Opposition leader’s best performance of the campaign and at exactly the right moment. Malinauskas looked and sounded like a Premier.

That same day, a damaging new poll found voters had swung 56% to 44% in Labor’s favour. Combined with the debate, this was probably Steven Marshall’s “Ides of March” moment. It has certainly precipitated recriminations as well as panic within his party.

This election, however, could still be very close. Swings are seldom uniform. Under our electoral system, it is all about achieving the right swing in the right places. So it’s wise to remember the 2010 election in SA where a big swing against Labor occurred in seats where it didn’t matter. As a result, we comfortably retained government despite the premature celebrations of our opponents.

Will South Australian voters send a clear message to Scott Morrison that the bell tolls?

Often governments are re-elected after just one term, sometimes with thumping majorities. That occurred here in 1985 and 2006 and in states like WA and in New Zealand for elections held during the depths of the pandemic. That won’t happen tomorrow in South Australia. The Marshall Government squandered its authority with infighting and resignations, and with its failure to act on a no-confidence motion in Attorney-General Vickie Chapman who, understandably, has barely been visible during this campaign. Just like Scott Morrison. The Government also lost credibility on COVID management when it ignored the best health advice late last year. People died. Businesses suffered.

The Liberals have run an overwhelmingly negative campaign. It has felt desperate, as did The Advertiser’s support.

Steven Marshall has failed to convey a narrative for his re-election, let alone a vision. Even John Howard’s late campaign appearance will have reminded some voters that leaders can lose their own seats.

If re-elected, Marshall will attempt to lead an ill-disciplined chorus line whose tail end will inevitably mire him in strife. His Premiership has seen so many “falling outs” that his clear majority descended into fractious minority government. Do South Australians want four more years of Marshall simply trying to hang on?

Peter Malinauskas has run a positive campaign that underpins his priorities and values, with health at the core of Labor’s credentials. He has a strong team of new candidates in key seats, with some outstanding community-based women.

There is also an unusually strong national dimension to this election. The federal Coalition was stung by February’s by-election results in New South Wales. They will be looking closely at tomorrow’s results given that this election is so close to a Federal election in May. Will South Australian voters send a clear message to Scott Morrison that the bell tolls?

During this campaign, Malinauskas has presented the clearest contrast to Marshall. He has stood up to attacks with dignity and strength. As Premier he will stand up for our state in the same way. A winner, not a whiner.

For both leaders the longest day beckons. Our job is to vote like our state depended on it. Because it does.

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 was published in InDaily every Friday of the campaign, alongside a weekly contribution from Liberal veteran Amanda Vanstone. Read her final column here.

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