The polls put the last Liberal state or territory government ahead but Adelaide correspondant Charles Cameron Kingston says the South Australian election may well end up with no clear winner once again.

An’ They’re Off

So, a February 9 election has finally being called in South Australia, the last state or territory with a Liberal government – albeit one with a fairly tenuous grasp on power.

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On election night in 1997, senior Liberal strategists thought the party was done for. Labor took 10 seats off John Olsen’s Libs, the Nats one and independents pinched another two. In the end, the 47 seat House of Assembly consisted of 23 Liberal Members, 21 from the ALP, one National MP and two independents. After supplying a speaker, the government needed to win up two votes amongst the three non-Labor crossbenchers (there is no Liberal-National colation in SA) to carry votes.

Since then, there’s been further shakeouts. One Liberal MP has quit the party, another has been expelled and one of the independents has come on board, while two Labor members have moved to the crossbenches after losing preselection brawls. This means that South Australians will go to the polls with the numbers at Liberal Party 22, Labor 19, Independent 2, Independent Labor – 3 and National 1.

The defectors from the ALP have said that a future Labor administration can count on their support. Premier Rob Kerin must wish he was so lucky. The votes of the former Libs have gone all over the place. Still, the Liberal Party remains in the box seat. On crude arithmetic alone – we can look at the issues later as they emerge during the campaign – the Libs need to pick up only two seats compared to three for the ALP.

The polls have been good lately for the Libs – very good. The Morgan poll has them ahead on a two-party preferred basis for the first time in three years, while Newspoll puts their primary vote at 45 per cent, 10 points in front of Labor. A poll taken last week by the Adelaide Advertiser extends that lead to 11 points, but there is some suggestion that the Newspoll and Advertiser poll may have put too much emphasis on rural seats.

The Libs were in trouble in the country until the former farm good salesman Kerin became Premier. That’s turned around, and the election will now be decided in the metropolitan area – but let’s have a look at the key seats across the state. Just a reminder – South Australia has a redistribution after each election to make life a little more interesting.

Liberal Seats

Colton (0.9%), western suburbs beaches : Colton has scarcely been served well by its sitting MP, the somnolent former Adelaide Lord Mayor Steve Condous. He is retiring and the new Liberal candidate, ministerial adviser and former local councillor, John Behanna, makes much the same impact as wet cotton buds and is just as woolly. Labor’s candidate, National Secretary of the United Firefighters Union Paul Caica, is looking good.

Hartley (0.9%), eastern suburbs : Sitting member Joe Scalzi is about three feet high and tends to panic. His Labor opponent, psychologist Quentin Black, almost took the seat off him in 1997and has remained in campaign mode ever since – so Scalzi hasn’t been able to shake of the sense of impending doom. This is another seat Labor has a good chance in.

Light (1.4%), northern city fringe : The battle for Light should be a good one. The seat has always been based around the town of Gawler to Adelaide’s north – but Gawler is now a virtual outer suburb. Education Minister Malcolm Buckby holds the seat, and will be up against Labor deputy leader Annette Hurley. Buckby declined a chance to contest the deputy premier’s position when John Olsen resigned, despite being asked to run. In contrast, Hurley is leaving a seat with a notional 19.9% margin in her favour to have a go. Again, Labor is hopes this is a seat it can win.

Heysen (1.9%), Adelaide hills : The Democrats, not the Labor Party, are the threat to the Liberal Party in this seat – or so they should be, according to the 1997 results. Newspoll puts the Dems on just 10% at the moment, a far cry from the 16.5% they scored last time round. Still, there are a couple of factors in their favour. Popular long term MP David Wotton is retiring, and will take his personal vote with him. The Liberal branches in the Adelaide Hills are controlled by the Evans family, two generations of inbred stackers and the political equivalent of those charming country folk in Deliverance, who have installed lazy layer Isobel Redmond as the Liberal candidate. In contrast, the Dem’s Ted Dextor is working the ground hard and supposedly drawing on the advice of external consultants for his campaign. Throw in Labor preferences and the Dems might just get their Holy Grail – their first seat in the lower house for 20 years.

Adelaide (2.3%), CBD and North Adelaide : The one person hoping hardest that the Libs will lose Adelaide must be the current MP, Michael Armitage. Armo threw an almighty sulk after the seat was redistributed, tried to win preselection for the ultra-safe seat of Bragg and failed. After ending up as a lame duck, he was plucked over by Premier Kerin who dumped him onto the backbench in his December reshuffle. If the new Liberal candidate, former Adelaide Deputy Lord Mayor Michael Harbison, holds the seat, Armitage will be a laughing stock. Harbison has to be given a good chance. He doesn’t have much in the way of brains, but compensates with pots of cash and a good profile. His Labor opponent, however, beats him hands down in the profile department as she is a former Lord Mayor of Adelaide, Jane Lomax-Smith. J-Lo’s campaign is well funded and has an expereinced former deputy premier, Frank Blevins, in charge. This will be another one to watch.

Stuart (2.8%), far north : Stuart, held by Graham Gunn in various forms and under various names since MP since 1970, looked dodgy last year but should have returned to the Liberal fold with Kerin as Premier, much to the chagrin, no doubt, of Labor candidate Justin Jarvis.

Frome (3.4%), mid north : Frome is Kerin’s own seat and, while shaky in polling last year, will remain in Liberal hands.

Mawson (3.9%), southern city fringe : Mawson is one of those seats – won by whoever forms government at every election since 1970 – but Police Minister Robert Brokenshire should hold it against Labor’s Moira Deslandes unless a heavy swing is on.

Davenport (4.4%), Adelaide Hills : This is another one of the Libs versus Dems seats, held by young Iain Evans and previously the seat of the founder of the dynasty and its guiding light, Stan. Anywhere else, Davenport would be a safe Liberal seat, so its marginal status says something about the Evans clan. Iain Evans, Minister for Environment and Heritage, may get some dirt thrown at him for disallowing a mine last year in a decision that got the Adelaide rumour mill cranked up higher than it had been for years, but unless a swing is really on he should be able to see of the Democrat candidate Yvonne Caddy, a local mayor. Poll watchers will be keeping a keen eye on other candidates in the seat, too. Last time a mysterious female independent no-one had ever heard of but, who in a most remarkable coincidence, had Iain’s mum’s maiden name nominated at the last minute and directed preferences to him. It will be interesting to see if something similar happens again.

Bright (4.5%), southern coastal suburbs : Sitting member Minerals and Energy Minister Wayne Matthew is said to be feeling very worried about his seat, despite the polls. Perhaps this is just a strange manifestation of the guilt that must come from wearing a very bad hairpiece.

Waite (4.8%), inner southern suburbs : Waite, back when it was known as Mitcham, was the only lower house seat the Democrats have ever held in the country. It was occupied by Robin Milhouse who moved in the 1970s from the Liberal Party to the Liberal Movement to the New Liberal Movement when Steele Hall rejoined the Liberal Party to the Australian Democrats. When he was popped into the Supreme Court in an attempt to win the seat back by the Tonkin Liberal government, Democrat Heather Southcott managed to hang onto it in the by-election but it returned to the Liberal fold soon after. Sitting MP, Tourism Minister Martin Hamilton-Smith is a fairly controversial accident waiting to happen, but Democrat Stephen Spence is unlikely to win.

Labor Seats

Mitchell (0.5%), southern suburbs : More than a few political observers in South Australia suspects sitting member Kris Hanna bays at night during the full moon. Most Libs think he is yampy as the day is long, but nothing has been proved and he is likely to see off their candidate, Hugh Martin.

Reynell (1.6%), outer southern suburbs : Liberal Julie Greig, who won this seat in one of the great upsets of 1993, is coming back for another go, but sitting MP Gay Thompson should be safe.

Norwood (1.7%), inner eastern suburbs : The Libs have got high hopes for this seat. Changing demographics and eccentric member Vini Ciccarello, a former local mayor, who doesn’t seem to realise that the electorate takes in areas outside her old stamping grounds have candidate Michael Durant feeling excited. Labor, however, isn’t rattled yet.

Elder (1.8%), inner southern suburbs : Sitting MP Pat Conlon is a former staffer with Nick Bolkus and can often been seen lunching with lawyers from Duncan Basheer Hannon, the firm acting for Bolkus against Crikey. This makes him a clear enemy of the people who deserves to go down in flames. If we apply slightly more rigorous criteria in making an assessment of his seat, Conlon still has troubles. Despite a high profile gained by chasing John Olsen, Graham Ingerson and Joan Hall through their various bungles and conflicts, Conlon’s strong support for the various facets of the liquor and hospitality industry has been noticed as far away as Rozelle. The demographics of his seat are moving in the wrong direction, too. Despite all that, Conlon can be an engaging and witty character – and a complete bastard when the need arises. The Libs would love to see him go, but have preselected a nobody candidate, Heidi Harris, for the seat who will be no match in single combat.

Florey ( 2.9%), north-east suburbs : There’s been some talk that Labor’s Frances Bedford could be in trouble in this seat picked up at the 1997 election, despite the redistribution doublings Labor’s margin. Still, she works the seat hard and should see off Liberal Lyn Petrie.

Other Seats

Rory McEwen, the independent in Mount Gambier and Liberal Independents Peter Lewis and Bob Such are likely to hang onto their seats. Parts of the south-east is booming, which should help Rory’s cause. While other people thought Lewis’s claims in Parliament that he had to shoot his best mate while engaged in secret duties for some nameless government agency in Asia meant that he should be locked up, they don’t seem to have done him any harm in his River Murray electorate. Such is lacklustre, but his opponent, federal oncer Susan Jeanes is generally regarded to be impossible to work with.

Nat Karlene Maywald is up against Kent Andrew, the man she beat in 1997 to take the seat of Chaffey, and should have no problem holding on. The Nats are unlikely to regain the Eyre Peninsula/West Coast seat of Flinders Liberal Liz Penfold snatched away from them in 1993.

The two metropolitan Independent Labor seats, Cheltenham and Enfield, are different matters. Despite well publicised allegations of domestic violence, former Labor deputy Ralph Clarke may just hang on against faction hack and unsuccessful federal candidate John Rau in Enfield. Jay Wethrill, the son of the former Labor MLC and endorsed Labor candidate for Cheltenham is more likely to triumph over Murray DeLaine.

There is speculation that disgraced former minister Joan Hall will faces an independent challenge in her seat of Morialta. Hall has been an incompetent embarrassment, but may be saved by her 7% plus margin.

Final Wrap

So, how will it go? The polls give the Liberal Government a comfortable lead, but Labor leader Mike Rann is the stronger campaigner. It is hard to see Labor surrendering more than two seats at the most to the Libs. Instead, the election is the government’s to lose. Adelaide, Colton, Light and Hartley will all be hard to hold and if the Democrats regain momentum Heysen may also go.

Still, at the moment, it is hard to see any side winning a majority in their own right. The really dramatic vote will come on the floor of the House when Parliament first meets, not on February 9.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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