As expected, the South Australian Liberal Party completed its leadership transition yesterday, with the election of Isobel Redmond by a reasonably healthy margin of thirteen to nine, on the second ballot. She replaces Martin Hamilton-Smith, whose resignation made him the second successive leader to not even reach an election.
Redmond, who is in only her second term in parliament, promised to lead “a united and inclusive party” and “vowed to heal its deep divisions.”
Well she might. South Australia is usually regarded as the party’s most highly factionalised state, and its depleted caucus is prey to bitter personality clashes. Not much has changed since Chris Kenny, himself a factional player (and now chief-of-staff to Malcolm Turnbull), described the state’s politics twelve years ago as “Melrose Place on ugly pills.”
Once upon a time, South Australia’s factions fought over big issues: Steele Hall dragged the Liberals into the modern era in the 1960s by supporting electoral reform, and in revenge his opponents drove him and many of his supporters out of the party in the 1970s. The split was later patched up (although some of Hall’s followers went on to help form the Australian Democrats), but the party long remained divided between an urban-based left and the more rural right (which in the eastern states would more likely have joined the Nationals).
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But no-one talks much about ideology any more. Redmond is nominally from the right, while Vicki Chapman, her defeated rival, is from the left, but the differences are tribal rather than based around serious differences of policy. It’s high time the party tried to put the disputes of a generation ago behind it.
Redmond becomes the fourth woman to lead a state Liberal Party, but the precedents are not particularly encouraging.
Joan Sheldon, the first, won government in Queensland as a junior partner to Rob Borbidge’s Nationals, losing office in 1998 after one term. Kerry Chikarovski fought one election in New South Wales, which she lost in a landslide, then was deposed shortly before the following one. Sue Napier in Tasmania didn’t get to fight an election, being replaced by Bob Cheek in 2001 (who went on to lose the election and his own seat).
Although she faces an unenviable task, Redmond at least comes with the advantage of low expectations. No-one thinks the Liberals can win next year’s election, but if she puts up a credible showing, she may be allowed to keep the job until 2014, when the climate could be more favorable. That’s the trajectory that Mike Rann followed a decade earlier, and it worked well for Labor.