Back in October 2005, Peter Brent at Mumble began a piece with “Some poor South Australian schmuck wants to be opposition leader.” The “schmuck” was Martin Hamilton-Smith, but he backed away from a leadership challenge after failing to attract support.

Yesterday, however, he got his way. After an intervening landslide election loss in March last year, the South Australian Liberal Party yesterday made Hamilton-Smith leader, defeating incumbent Iain Evans by 13 votes to 10.

But this is not just a South Australian story. Evans’s demise marks a truly astonishing milestone: the state Liberal Parties, collectively, have now changed leaders 20 times without winning an election. No state has had fewer than three changes.

No wonder these people are hard to keep track of. As Matt Price said last year, “Only the most tragic political trainspotter” would be able to name all six state leaders.

At that point Peter Debnam had just celebrated his first anniversary in the job, and was already the longest-serving state Liberal leader. He’s now gone; the honor falls to Paul Omodei in Western Australia, who was elected in March 2006 but is already regarded as under threat.

In case you don’t believe me, here are the 20 leadership changes in less than a decade since the last Liberal state victory (in South Australia) in October 1997:

New South Wales: Peter Collins replaced by Kerry Chikarovski (1998), replaced by John Brogden (2002), replaced by Peter Debnam (2005), replaced by Barry O’Farrell (2007).

Victoria: Jeff Kennett replaced by Dennis Napthine (1999), replaced by Robert Doyle (2002), replaced by Ted Baillieu (2006).

Queensland: Joan Sheldon replaced by David Watson (1998), replaced by Bob Quinn (2001), replaced by Bruce Flegg (2006).

Western Australia: Richard Court replaced by Colin Barnett (2001), replaced by Matt Birney (2005), replaced by Paul Omodei (2006).

South Australia: John Olsen replaced by Rob Kerin (2001), replaced by Iain Evans (2006), replaced by Martin Hamilton-Smith (2007).

Tasmania: Tony Rundle replaced by Sue Napier (1999), replaced by Bob Cheek (2001), replaced by Rene Hidding (2002), replaced by Will Hodgman (2006).

So do poor election results cause leadership instability, or vice versa? Or are both the product of some deeper Liberal malaise?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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