There is little doubt that Scott Morrison, the Liberal Party and the Nationals would have preferred a different outcome to last Saturday’s South Australian election, especially in view of the significant swing to the Labor Party, led by Peter Malinauskas, in many seats.
Nevertheless it should not have come as a great surprise that Labor defeated Liberal premier Steven Marshall and his team after one term. For starters, Malinauskas presents as a young, good-looking, perhaps even charismatic leader. And Marshall, while presiding over a strong state economy that included some economic reform, presented as a one-time business figure who looked somewhat out of place as a political leader.
But there is more. Many commentators, particularly those residing outside of South Australia, overlooked one central fact. South Australia is essentially a Labor state and has been so for eons. What’s surprising in South Australia turns on when the Liberal Party wins – not the other way around.
South Australia’s political history in the 20th century has been distorted by the presence of Thomas Playford, who was premier from November 1938 until March 1965.
In modern parlance, Playford presented as a political conservative. But he governed more like a democratic socialist Labor leader. He encouraged the development of heavy industry in South Australia that was protected by high tariffs and strict regulation of wages and conditions. And he won at least two elections due to a malapportionment of votes in electorates to the favour of the Liberals.
It was not surprising that Playford enjoyed much support among many traditional Labor supporters. In his biography Playford: Benevolent Despot, Stewart Cockburn quoted a company director as claiming that a Labor opposition leader had confided in him that Playford could do more for Labor voters than he could.
However, like many political leaders, Playford hung around for too long and lost the 1965 election. The Liberal Party returned to office in 1968 but it soon split with a breakaway Liberal Movement emerging for a while under the leadership of Steele Hall. Labor’s colourful Don Dunstan returned to the premiership from 1968 until retiring in February 1979.
The South Australian Liberal Party has never really recovered from the emergence of the Liberal Movement, even though the split was soon resolved. From time to time since then there have been Liberal governments. But Labor has governed South Australia for about 35 out of the past 50 years.
Despite what might be called its political exceptionalism, there are some lessons to be noted from last Saturday’s election. First up, Malinauskas is a social conservative, not a member of the Socialist Left. His mentor is Labor senator Don Farrell. Farrell worked in various jobs before taking a position with the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association, commonly referred to as the SDA or Shoppies’ Union.
The SDA is part of Labor’s right-wing faction. A strong supporter of the late Victorian Labor senator Kimberley Kitching, Farrell told the Sky News Agenda program on Sunday he would not only be attending Kitching’s funeral at St Patrick’s Catholic Cathedral in Melbourne but also saying the rosary before that. In short, Farrell is no sneering secularist.
Nor is Malinauskas, who has a bachelor of commerce from the University of Adelaide. Before entering the South Australian parliament he ran the SDA’s state branch. In his “member of parliament details” on the South Australian government website, Malinauskas describes himself as “a firm believer in the importance of family and community”.
Speaking on Sky News last Saturday night, Adelaide journalist David Penberthy had this to say about the new South Australian premier, starting by referring to his “huge likability factor”: “He’s not a woke leftie – they’re not going to be having edicts in the South Australian public service on Monday about how people start needing to put their pronouns on their business cards. This guy is a Catholic Labor-Right leader.”
Penberthy also said “there is a chance for the ALP, which has been very disciplined and very controlled by the Right here in South Australia, to get back to an ’80s-style focus on jobs and working in a mature way with business”.
That’s the continuing challenge for Anthony Albanese and the federal Labor Party. Albanese has always opposed the Greens, who threaten Labor in inner-city seats such as Grayndler in Sydney. His task is to convince voters that he has moved permanently away from his background as a Socialist Left leader who not so long ago proclaimed that he liked to fight what he termed “Tories”.
Malinauskas is a strong leader who appealed to Labor’s traditional base while also convincing enough voters who backed Marshall at the previous election to come over to Labor.
One of the former premier’s political failures was that he did not appeal sufficiently to conservatives who voted Liberal in the previous election. By the time this election took place last Saturday, there did not appear to be even one political conservative in the Marshall ministry.
In addition, the Marshall government erred in effectively handing the governance of South Australia over to the police commissioner and the chief health officer for much of the pandemic’s duration.
The leaders of other incumbent governments who won elections at the time of pandemic – Michael Gunner (Northern Territory), Andrew Barr (ACT), Annastacia Palaszczuk (Queensland), Mark McGowan (Western Australia) and Peter Gutwein (Tasmania) – gave the firm impression that they were leading, not following bureaucrats.
There is a reason for the Liberal Party to worry about retaining narrowly held seats in South Australia such as Boothby, Grey and perhaps Sturt. But South Australia is not the commonwealth, Marshall is not Morrison and Malinauskas is not Albanese.
The evidence suggests that this year’s federal election, like many before it, will be fought on a seat by seat basis.
Moreover, as in most cases when the outcome is close, it is likely that the voters who will decide the next election have yet to decide whether they will back the incumbent Morrison or the challenger Albanese.