The rollercoaster ride of Jay Weatherill’s South Australian premiership has taken another dip this week, after a parliamentary defection cost his Labor government its one-seat majority. 

The resignation of Frances Bedford from the ALP has been a long time coming — much of her two-decade career has been spent pursuing left-of-centre positions that have often caused discomfort for the party leadership.

There have been intermittent suggestions over the years that she might end up pursuing such interests free from the bonds of party discipline — either on her initiative to protest against heavy-handed law-and-order policies, or in response to a move against her preselection.

The latter was reportedly being plotted after she joined a rally protesting against a government policy, before the last election — but it floundered amid concerns she would be able to defend the seat as an independent.

What’s brought the situation to a head this time around is an electoral redistribution that is casting a long shadow over the state’s politics as the government enters the final year of its term.

Under a unique provision of South Australia’s electoral laws, the drafters of electoral boundaries are directed to engage in noble cause gerrymandering so as to achieve “electoral fairness”, to the extent that such a thing can be conceived in purely Labor-versus-Liberal terms.

The electoral fairness provision was introduced in 1991, and it has been notably unsuccessful in delivering its presumed objective, with three out of the six elections held in that time having been won by the party that lost the two-party preferred vote — with the most egregious examples being the last two elections.

Despite being trounced 53-47 on the two-party vote at Jay Weatherill’s first election as leader in 2014, the efficient distribution of Labor’s support left the party only one seat short of a majority. Labor was able to make up the difference firstly with the support of an independent whose only other alternative was to reduce the parliament to deadlock, and then on their own steam after a morale-boosting by-election win in December 2016.

As the Liberals enter their eighth year of crying blue murder about their status as a permanent opposition in defiance of the majority will, the Electoral Districts Boundaries Commission has sought to accommodate them with a redistribution that gives them a notional gain of three seats.

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If voting patterns from the last election were republicated under the new boundaries, the Liberals would win 25 seats to Labor’s 20, with two ordinarily Liberal-leaning seats being won by independents.

This time it fell to Labor to cry foul, with a legal challenge advancing the claim that the commissioners had defied the principle of “one vote, one value” by over-representing rural areas.
The Supreme Court rejected this three weeks ago, leaving Labor to confront the difficult realities of the new map.

One of the many consequences was the transformation of Bedford’s electorate of Florey in inner northern Adelaide from marginal to safe Labor, making it irresistible to factional predators who had only been willing to tolerate Bedford while she was defending a seat that might be lost to the Liberals in her absence.

The Florey preselection was duly stitched up by Jack Snelling, the Weatherill government’s Health Minister and a powerbroker with the Right faction Shop Distributive and Applied Employees Association, whose existing seat of Playford has largely been subsumed within the redrawn Florey.

Speculation that Bedford might not go quietly intensified earlier this month when The Advertiser was provided with results from a Labor-commissioned ReachTEL poll suggesting Bedford would score a third of the primary vote in Florey if she ran as an independent, with Snelling, the Liberals and the Nick Xenophon Team each able to manage only half that.

Now that Xenophon himself has declared he will “be doing my best to ensure that she is re-elected”, Snelling will be feeling all the more nervous.

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Xenophon’s intervention emphasises the potential for the election to turn the tables on business-as-usual two-party politics, after what proved to be the false alarm of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation in Western Australia.

Even without the state’s power crisis as a factor, sentiment for change will surely be irresistible against a government that will, by the time of the election, have been in power for 16 years — nearly twice as long as Colin Barnett, who has attempted to portray himself as an innocent victim of irresistible “it’s time” sentiment.

However, the Liberals’ capacity to exploit the situation is inhibited by the federal government’s extremely difficult relationship with the state — and the presence of a minor party player who really is the sophisticated politician that many Liberals were pretending Pauline Hanson was until a few weeks ago.

Even if Bedford resists a formal alliance with Xenophon and his party, the spectacle of her battle with a little-loved Labor warlord will be invaluable promotion for his broader message.
All that’s needed now is for Bedford to play her hand and announce she will indeed be a candidate.

And while she isn’t going that far formally, she left little to the imagination in her resignation statement this week, warning the party’s “faceless men” that it was “the voters — not you — who will choose the next member for Florey”.

Peter Fray

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