As the air cleared on Saturday night and Sunday morning, word was that the results in South Australia and Tasmania were too close to call.

However, for all but the most starry-eyed Liberal optimists, that was only half true. In South Australia, any calculation that involves Labor falling short of 24 seats out of 47 requires them to lose Hartley or Newland, where they finished the night with respective leads of 864 and 857.

For an illustration of how likely this is, consider the seat of Chatsworth in last year’s Queensland state election. The Liberal National Party thought a 280-vote turnaround on absent votes (which should account for about a third of those yet to come, with most of the rest being postals and pre-polls) so remarkable that they used it as evidence of skulduggery in a legal challenge, with little else to support their case. If the overall  result was not on the line, it’s unlikely that Hartley and Newland would be under discussion. The real points of contention are whether Labor can add further seats to their tally. In the southern coastal suburbs seat of Bright, Labor sitting member Chloe Fox is holding on to a lead of 44 votes,  which probably won’t be enough given how postal votes usually behave.

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Further inland in Mitchell, independent Kris Hanna has his nose ahead of the Liberal in the race for second place, but will lose to Labor if he falls  behind.

Labor’s success in clinging to a majority in the overall electoral context will go down in campaigning folklore. Its statewide two-party preferred vote will be between 48% and 48.5% — the same territory as the Western Australian election. How they were able to hang on is neatly illustrated by a set of numbers crunched by Antony Green. In seats classified as marginal (less than 6%), the average swing to the Liberals was 1.7%. In those classified safe (margin less than 12%), it was 7.7%. In very safe seats, it was 11.3%. Equally, there was an average swing of 8.3% in the 14 seats already held by the Liberals.

Key to the result was a strategy to abandon the eastern suburbs marginals of Norwood and Morialta, and hold the line in Light and Mawson (respectively located at Adelaide’s northern and southern fringe) and the eastern suburbs seats of Hartley and Newland. Every one of the targeted marginals held firm, with Labor remarkably picking up swings in Light and Mawson, its two most marginal seats. Neighbours of these seats include Schubert, Taylor, Kaurna and Heysen, which respectively swung to the Liberals by 11.4%, 14.9%, 13.7% and 11.7%. That left Labor with a two-seat buffer to absorb unpleasant surprises, one of which was duly delivered in the seat of Adelaide, where education minister Jane Lomax-Smith was unseated by a swing of 15.4%. It had also been hoped that popular Bright MP Chloe Fox could take care of herself, although it seems that hasn’t quite paid off.

All that said, it would not do for Labor to get too comfortable. A one-seat majority presents an opportunity for any disgruntled member to wreak havoc by quitting the party or subjecting it to an inopportune by-election. A salutary precedent is that of Carmen Lawrence’s government in Western Australia, which lost its majority in 1991 after three ministers were dumped in a reshuffle. One quit the party to sit as an independent while another resigned from parliament altogether, which under the political circumstances of the time effectively meant handing his seat to the Liberals. The government was thus reduced to a minority position, which, in the South Australian context, could yet threaten its very survival.

The government has nonetheless lived to fight another day, which is more than might be said for its counterpart in Tasmania. David Bartlett has always insisted he would not govern unless Labor won more seats than the Liberals — although that does leave open the possibility of Labor finding another leader who will, which has a precedent of sorts when the Liberal leadership baton passed from Ray Groom to Tony Rundle after the government lost its majority in 1996. As it stands, the conventional wisdom is that the final result will be Liberal 10, Labor 10 and Greens five.

However, there are still two seats in doubt, and surprises under the Hare-Clark electoral system are as common as not. One of the two alternative scenarios is that the Liberals will squeeze out the Greens candidate in the north-western division of Braddon, which would set the seal on Bartlett’s defeat by giving the Liberals a tally of 10 or 11. However, if that doesn’t play out, the possibility that the Liberals might lose their presumed second seat in Denison to either a second Greens candidate or independent Andrew Wilkie could yet leave them with only nine seats.

Owing to the fantastically arcane complexities of Hare-Clark, the situation looks set to be unresolved for nearly a fortnight. It is quite possible that the result will not be known for sure until the final voting data has been entered into the computer and the button pushed, which in the past has turned up such surprises as the Greens’ win in Bass in 2006 and, at federal level, the fourth coalition seat in Queensland that gave it its Senate majority in 2004. Even after the dust from the election has settled, the minority government position will leave a cloud of uncertainty over Tasmanian politics for the next four years. If experience is a guide, the new parliament stands a less than even chance of running its full term.

Follow the latest counting here and here.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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