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Introduction

Introducing a new multi-part feature series by Guy Rundle on the South Australian election, which may well deliver Australia its most politically complex lower house in more than a century.

Part One

Xenophon stumbles, but could still blow the dam wide open in SA

“Dam Buster! Explorer says new mine could be state’s biggest … ” screams the front of The Advertiser, available free everywhere, piles of ’em lying around airports, hotels, coffee shops, snowdrifts of ’em. Rupert Murdoch’s first paper is now on the way to being a freesheet.

Some copper miner is complaining that he can’t get clearance for his billion-dollar project from the local Aboriginal Affairs Minister. This is front-page news, five days before an election that may well deliver Australia its most politically complex lower house in more than a century.

Jay Weatherill’s Labor government is governing with 23 seats in the 47-seat assembly. The Libs won 22 at the 2014 election, but defections and byelections have reduced them to 19. Four independents would thus have power if they could work as a unit, but with one de facto Labor, one Lib and two centrists, Weatherill has managed to sail through its fourth term.

How have Mike Rann and Jay Weatherill managed to stay in power? Sensible can-do centrists, quiet achievers, etc, etc, but also a kink in the distribution here, which had Labor win government with 48.4% of the two-party-preferred vote in 2010, and a whopping gap (47% to 53%) for the Liberal opposition in 2014 — the product of vast demographic imbalance; 75% of the population living in Adelaide, and the rural 25% counting about eight Labor voters in total.

The ‘Tiser’s headline reminds you of the strangeness of the place; despite being one of the most urbanised states in the world, Adelaide, spreadout, sprawling, half vacant, perpetually feels like a big country town, on the edge of an untameable desert. The city lives on Russell Drysdale time — life is an iron verandah, rusting in the sun. Sometimes it’s hard to believe anything has happened here, or ever will.

But now Nick Xenophon is roaring to the rescue. Or was. The mid-century matinee idol ex-Senator — Dirk Bogarde hair, and Humphrey Bogart eyes — threw together SA-Best, as his NXT Senate team came apart under the impact of section 44 rulings, disqualifying himself and NXT fellow Skye Kakoschke-Moore.

Early polling had SA-Best (which is contesting 36 assembly seats) on some staggering figures, heading towards 35% — the product of an utterly underwhelming Liberal opposition, the desire for a real alternative, and the belief that state Labor had let industry go at the behest of neoliberal-dominated federal Labor.

But Xenophon had no party in place, no big money behind him, and both major parties have come at him, out of fear that success here could rip open the fabric of Australian party politics.

The level of major party dissatisfaction is so high that, if Xenophon could’ve done it and gotten a magic four-way result of, say, 16-15-14-2 seats (SA-Best, Labor/Liberals, and the Greens respectively), he would have first call to form a government. He probably couldn’t, or not for long, but the sheer fact of it, the event, would have been shocking to the conniving major party duopoly.

That’s not going to happen now. Nor, most likely, is Plan B, where SA-Best gets 8-10 seats, and could be a minor party in a coalition government, with four or five ministries. The price of that, for any major party, would have been reform of the whole system, parliamentary numbers, donations law, transparency, etc, etc.

But a poll that will be dropping as we go to press will show that SA-Best’s support, having collapsed to 21% two weeks ago, has fallen further, into the mid-teens or lower in indicative Adelaide suburban seats such as Dunstan and Mawson. The reason? A barrage from all sides. The Libs have been hitting the anti-pokies SA-Best with a scare campaign about the “devastation” that the party’s plan (cutting the state’s 3300 poker machines by half) would wreak.

Labor has been hitting SA-Best with some very dodgy stuff about Xenophon’s votes in the Senate on Gonski 2.0 and penalty rates, and the Greens have come at him from the left, with a 100% pokies removal plan.

But it’s the attack from the right, and their supporters — the SA chapter of the Australian Hotels Associations, and our old friend Woolworths — that has big money behind it. As in Tasmania, it’s about the pokies, the machines that ate Australia. There it was the pokies themselves, freedom to choose. Here it’s Xenophon. The “No Way Nick” campaign suggests that the anti-pokies push is wanton ego on his part.

That’s had an effect as Xenophon’s push for free publicity — roadside stunts, crap ads — has started to wear a little. And to get a party up from zero, he’s charged candidates 20 grand to have the SA-Best imprimatur. Nothing untoward about that per se, but it turns you into a de facto professional-class party, and that will cost him Labor votes, and even second preferences. The Greens and Labor have both preferenced a range of SA-Best candidates behind the Libs, calling SA-Best “orange Liberals”.

Despite all that, Xenophon could still have a triumph of sorts, a Plan C. That would involve a four-way split: say, 21 Labor or Lib (plus dedicated independent), 20 Lib or Labor (ditto), four SA-Best, two true independents or Greens. That very possible result would leave Xenophon in a position to demand Coalition, key ministries, and his reform package as the price of the deal. If not exactly a “dam buster” yet, it would be an explosive charge skipping across the top of the water, to blow major party control open.

Part Two

Being Nick Xenophon

Nick Xenophon, alone, jumps around a car too small for him — a red toy Fiat, his face plastered over it, a clown car — into a sandwich board too large for him.

We’re at Campbelltown Mall — the IGA and a strip of cheap and cheerful shops, an alterations and repairers, a cake shop, a “snack bar”, a newso. Through the window of the dry cleaners a mirror winks at us, piercing Adelaide sun.

Nick has the huge sandwich board — “I’m Fronting Up For Hartley!” — halfway over his head. His helmet black hair does not move (there are single strands of grey in it now). Nor the white-toothed smile. He can’t jiggle the thing into place.

But he’s still trying to direct the photo I’m taking.

“You should take me through the mirror! Sorry I shouldn’t direct! I’d quite like to direct!”

His team, in bright orange T-shirts, minder — 23-year old Michael — and long-time staffer Amanda, are suddenly there, struggle with the strap-hung placards.

Nick is already off, talking to the punters. “Hey, how are ya? Hey Dave.”

He knows about half those passing.

Labour Day in Adelaide, a place that still takes its holidays seriously. The town is empty enough on the best of days; today it appears to have a negative population.

Having been round the traps for his candidates, Nick is back in Campbelltown, at the centre of Hartley, the electorate he’s gunning for.

I was hoping we’d do some doorknocking — he’d promised to doorknock the whole electorate, though this week said that wouldn’t happen — but we’re doing this instead.

He’s lived here for 25 years. One suburb over. Paradise. “I live in Paradise!” People beam at him, clap him on the shoulder. Paradise, indeed.

“I’ve already voted! I’d vote for you again, if I could.”

But when someone asks a question, he switches immediately into policy.

“We’ve got a program on transparency in government …”

“Class sizes, I tell you why this has got the way it is” — always rounding out with the kicker — “and if you vote for me, you’ll get a revolution in government,” etc, etc.

It’s not rote. He listens, replies. The retail politician in the empty shopping centre. These are real one-minute conversations. And it’s good to see a professional at work.

He’s pumped up, now, beaming. He wasn’t a couple of hours ago. He’s coming alive, a coiffured golem, drawing energy from the very air around.

“You love the crowd.”

“It’s the rum baba!” he says.

***

Two hours earlier, sitting outside Pasta Deli — a local LA-style eatery that locals speak of as if it were Vienna’s Café Centrum before World War I — Nick Xenophon was staring a little discouraged, at his mostly gone cake, a rum baba, remnants of sponge lying in sweet rum on a plate, ravaged so thoroughly it is all but smoking a cigarette in afterglow.

“Should I have another rum baba? I don’t drink. I get all my alcohol from food.”

“What did you have for lunch?” I ask.

“I haven’t eaten all day.”

“Jesus, Nick, have a ham sandwich. I’ve got a walkabout and a candidate’s meeting. You’ll sugar crash like an eight-year old.”

“Good idea,” he dashes in to order.

He’s back. The energy has gone again. The idea of a ham sandwich had been a temporary, carby shining star. Now it was gone.

“So how’s it going?” I ask.

“Oh … I’m living the dream, living the dream. Suddenly tired again. The black hair helmet droops. “Sooooooo tired.” The phone rings. A query about a Facebook post.

“That uh, that’s something that you should have let me look at.” Stern, but polite. “It probably doesn’t matter but I need to see those things before they go out.”

He hangs up, turns to me. “We’ve got this kid doing the social media, he’s great …”

“There’s always a kid doing social media. Don’t you have a campaign manager?”

“Well there’s a campaign co-ordinator, there’s a-“

He’s scrolling polls on his phone.

“But,” I ask, “there’s no one saying ‘Nick, be here, say this, Nick stop thinking about that’ …?”

“Phooooof.” He names a seat, which I agree not to name. “That’s gone … did you see the car?”

I’d been driven there in the Fiat, a ’60s sardine tin. Michael, Nick’s 23-year-old assistant was worried I wouldn’t want to ride in it. “There’s no airbags.”

“Toulio lent it to me. Did you meet Toulio?”

Waiters come, with a plate of ribs. And another plate of ribs. Like two cows fell into a BBQ sauce vat and drowned. It is 3.45 in the afternoon.

“Nick did you order me ribs?”

“Ye-eh!”

We tear the meat from the bones. He’s revived.

“So it’s been tough?”

The beaming smile folds up. “Oh they’ve gone me, they’ve totally gone me.”

True enough. The TV ads are mostly “Say No To Nick”. Labor has preferenced 18 Libs ahead of half SA-Best’s 36 candidates, saying they treat “blue” and “orange” Liberals just the same. (“Yeah, but the SA-Best they’ve preferenced are all in ALP strongholds; the Libs have been preferenced in SA-Best winnables,” someone later observes.)

He’s got a right to feel aggrieved. The two main claims against him — that by voting for Gonski 2.0 he voted for $220 million in cuts (a Labor claim, based on comparing the actual package offered, to Labor’s suggested, larger, Gonski, not on offer) and that cutting pokies by half would pretty much destroy the state’s hospitality industry — are both so outrageous, they obscure a lot of the stuff he might need to answer for: voting to cut company tax, tilting against wind farms, a rare example of the literal quixotic.

“Surely this was always going to happen,” I say.

“Tsschhhhh yeah, but…” He’s distracted again. “Not at this level, four, five times the spending. You can see it in the figures.”

“It’s also native doubt, isn’t it? People think your team wouldn’t hang together.”

“Look, this would be a consensus party; I’m not a dictator.”

“Yeah, but I think that’s what some people are worried about.”

He’s distracted again. No one could doubt his ability to multitask. It’s the ability to task I wonder about. The initial plan, when SA-Best was established in a few weeks last year, was to contest around 15 strong seats, give or take.

Polls showed support in the mid-30s. Suddenly the slate became 36 of 47 seats, enough to be aiming for government. Spread too thin. Candidates who stuck their hand up and paid $20,000 for the ride. It’s got out of control quickly. Beyond the propaganda barrage, people took note.

“It’s amazing, the advertising, you think there’d be at least some …” he gropes for a word, “not even fairness, just … I mean it’s been ridiculous …”

He’s amused, appalled, exhausted. And on his phone again. The conversation’s made me edgy, because he reminds me of me a little too much for comfort. Attention junkies, excitement junkies. I myself feel the energy drain away when stuff stops happening for five minutes, when there’s not an event to be at, a deadline to make the fingers fly across the keyboard. Consistent application is a mystery to me. Nick’s a mirror of that, with a better head of hair. I’d slice that black bob right off him with the ribs knife, stick it, bloodied, on my head, if I could get away with it.

“Don’t let that fool you,” a state political commentator tells me later, “when Ann Bressington [an SA upper house member, the first of Nick’s several defectors] went him hard in the press, a whole bunch of people he’d helped came out to defend him. Asbestosis victims, industrial manslaughter families … no one asked them to, they just did.”

But for now: “Let’s go! Let’s go to Campbelltown!” He’s up. The chair flies behind him. The ribs or the rum baba? We’ll find out.

***

The only grief Nick gets outside the IGA, in is huge sign — “I guess this is on-the-job training, if it doesn’t come good,” I say, the only remark that, from his look, seems to have cut close to the rib — is, what else, an old family friend; 60s, a magnificent mullet gone silver grey, Italian, five foot, black leathers, big paunch, like out of a seniors’ production of Grease.

“Nicky, Nicky, Nicky what are you doing you breakin’ my heart, we get Labor in, everything goes terrible, why you wanna let Labor in.”

“Frankie, Frankie, I don’t wanna let Labor in,” he says to the only man in the state who thinks Nick is closet Labor.

“That Rann,” says Frankie, approvingly, contradictorily, “he got sixty million from the government for some bridge, I think. He say to them, sure thirty million if you want the bridge halfway– Weatherill, phhhhppp!”

“So what you want,” I say to Frankie, “in a premier, is a better grifter.”

“Exactly!” Frankie bangs my chest with the back of his hand.

“Take a leaflet, Frankie!” Nick says. Grifter-lovers vote too. He’s suddenly tired again.

We’re done. Surely doorknocking would have been more productive. He stops in the snack bar. They know him. Outside, Michael hustles him out of the sandwich board, windows all around flashing opaque with late afternoon sunlight. The clown car awaits. Come Saturday, either the whole SA-Best team will step out of the red Fiat and into the balance of power, or them without him, or just him solo, a local member without influence. With the chance of government gone, I’m not sure what Nick Xenophon really wants. In that, as the red Fiat scoots off, I am not alone.

Part Three

The thorn in Labor's side

Frances Bedford, a small black-haired woman in striking yellow and red power pantsuit, jumps from her car in Modbury Hospital carpark, and grabs a plastic basin half her size, holding press releases on clipboards.

“I’ll take it,” I say.

“Aren’t ya doing a photo? Well how can you carry this!” It is good-natured. It is forthright. She does not suffer fools. Her team, setting up a presser, move fast, usher some not-well people gently into place.

“This is the failure of the Transforming Health right here,” she says before we’ve begun. Transforming Health, I have learnt quickly, was an SA Labor initiative packed with the usual neoliberal goodies: internal markets, sweeping “efficiencies”, consolidations.

For Modbury, in Bedford’s division of Florey, in Adelaide’s north east, this meant losing “high dependency” emergency department services, which is pretty much anything above a broken arm. Health Transition was meant to have a full-service hospital nearby take those services over.

It hasn’t, so the very ill spend a lot of time in ambulances. “Five divisions border this hospital, where are the members today?” Bedford muses aloud. “No one in Labor seems to much care. People will die from this. We’ll be burying them.”

Hard words, because Bedford was in Labor for 30 years, and has been the state member for Florey since 1997. Lifer really. Her dad, a boozer, moved the family here from Sydney after her mother’s death when she was 12. Labor man. “Had me hand out leaflets, when he was drinking.”

“Sounds… hard,” I say, inadequately.

Now she’s the last member of a small Labor Left faction now scattered. She’d come in in the early ’80s, got preselection for the unlikely win of Florey, won it and held it.

Last year, “The Machine” — the smooth Left-Right faction deal in SA, anchored by the Shoppies — decided they wanted it back, after boundary changes made it a safer proposition. Bedford was rolled, and Shoppie loyalist, neat young man and father of six, Jack Snelling was dropped in.

Jack Snelling had some sort of early midlife dummy spit shortly after, quitting politics. Labor looked around for a worse thing to do, and found it, dropping in Jay Weatherill’s spin doctor Rik (no c) Morris, a smooth-haired Gen X-er who lives in the hipster inner-city area of Unley (he attended Modbury High for a while) and he has made something of the fact that his great great grandparents are in Golden Grove cemetery nearby.

When Bedford pointed out the mildly cooked nature of this, she was told by an SDA faction supremo that they would “raze the village to save it” — lose their hold on government, rather than lose their stranglehold on state Labor.

That may have become a self-fulfilling prophecy, since Bedford quit the party, stayed on as a local MP and is running in this election as a Labor Independent. With local devotion — “she’s wonderful”, a woman with a cane says, staggering over to Bedford at the presser to touch her hand — and with the Greens and SA-Best in the mix, she may well get there.

 

“It’s not just about local issues,” Bedford had said earlier, back at her office, seated amid desks crowded, maze-like; a shrine of sorts to Howard Florey on one side, a plastic cabinet of soft-toy ladybirds on the other. Hundreds of them. (“They’re for kids who visit; it sort of got out of hand.”)

“There’s a democracy gap, in the party, in our society,” she said. “I go to schools to talk to kids about democracy. Not because it’s vibrant, but because it’s threatened. I got into Labor through activism at my kids’ kinder in the ’80s.”

“There’s no path like that anymore. And they don’t seem to much care that there isn’t.” It’s the spirit of community Labor that first came to power here, with Don Dunstan, continued through Whitlam, expressed by the Cain/Kirner governments.

It’s the idea that ordinary people, coming to politics through the social movements could win and exercise power without having to turn themselves into gangsters and cynics to do so. The Weatherill government has done many good things, but the takeaway is obvious: if Frances Bedford is exactly the person you’d squeeze out of the party, if Rik (no c … Jesus) Morris is the person you’d put in her place, then your party’s in the emergency department, and the only enemy of its recovery, worse than The Machine, are the people who deny it for their own emotional needs.

Back to the city in an Uber, the suburbs of Adelaide are dizzying. They all seem to bleed into one another. I find them formless, hard to take. Adelaide is the city in the world that reminds me most of LA. People laugh when I say that, but it’s the endlessness — the way that it seems to unroll like a movie, endless dinky ’70s, ’80s, three- or four-shop strip malls, servos, car yards, funeral parlour forecourts, cheesecake shops, single shopfront gyms, floating in the endless sun. The place is a short history of timelessness.

“I will work with anyone, anyone, to get the best results for Florey, for the state,” the audio plays in the back. “Yes, I’d consider speaker, if offered,” she tells the presser. “But they know it wouldn’t shut me up about anything.”

It will not. After the presser, she’s a yellow-red blur. She scurries from attendee to attendee — “You’re alright, this hasn’t tired you out?” — to scribbling journos, who need a clarification.

To the outsider, the place may all blur into one. But people are loyal here, and local. Come March 18, Rik’s grandparents may not be the only members of the Morris family to be buried on the borders of Florey. Whether Labor ends up in power or opposition, Frances Bedford, left independent, would be — excuse me — a bug up their arse for a while to come.

Part Four

Wakefield in fright

“Gluttony” was jumping when we got there, in the dark. It’s a curated part of the larger festival, with an emphasis on the outre and bizarre. On the gardens outside Adelaide’s main grid, beneath the fairy lights, two dozen little venues, bars, had festival-goers — ‘burban punters, carney folk, hipsters — milling around. “Empyrean”, “Spiegel Zelt”. They’re little tents and shacks and caravans, gussied up in carny, decadent style.

Hung out at the bar for a bit, looked at the run-downs on the boards outside the venues: 11.15pm “Constance Goodenough’s Zymotic Disregards”, and “cancelled tonight”. One chalk line through it marks failure; no one bought a ticket. Couldn’t even comp it. There’s half a dozen of those, all the way up the winding path of Gluttony, the Flanders field of the culture wars, bodies awaiting burial.

Saw a rock’n’roll circus act, in which tattooed women danced and stripped to live hard rock, while berating us about concepts of gender.

It was like an entire relationship from the ’90s, compressed into 55 minutes.

Yearned, I must admit, for Hindley Street. Hindley Street! The last true bohemia in Australia! Three blocks of a street with sheesha bars, strip clubs, bookshops — one left — a bikie pub or two. This felt like the safe space version of the real thing. Hindley Street still feels free.

Still good fun though, Gluttony, and part of the sprawling otherness the Adelaide Fringe Festival has become. It runs every year, the Festival “proper” every two, so there is a fringe without a head. It is at the periphery of the city, but its centre.

Same as it is for every peripheral society across the West these days. When the industry goes, your options narrow. You try to become a boutique state, branded, like Tasmania, or you take a tax race to the bottom, like US states, or you try and fill the hole left by work with culture, information and services.

The last of these will never work, but for a while it looks like it will. Due solely to the distorting effects of city-country voting divisions, Labor’s had 16 years in power, at one point getting in on 47% of the two-party-preferred vote, an absurdity.

Were this New South Wales, the place would be a giant shopping mall with a coal mine beneath it, owned by the Russian mafia, on that sort of cozy bump. Here, in the liberal-minded free society — for white settlers, obviously — of Edward Gibbon Wakefield, it results in a kind of working cross-party consensus, on a whole range of issues, a lack of differentiation of political, personal style, save perhaps for parts of Labor. Even Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives lack the ramrod, fake-Roman-marble-statue-in-a-pizza-joint of their leader, the good Senator Bernardi.

There are exceptions, such as the Labor machine’s treatment of its own, and a brutal struggle in the seat of Giles, covering the rustbelt port of Whyalla. Labor MLA Eddie Hughes sits on 66%. But he’s facing a challenge from mayor Tom Antonio, running for SA-Best. Hughes got a seven-day suspended sentence arising from argy-bargy with a cop during a 1977 Eureka republican protest he made during the Queen’s visit. Antonio was named in parliament in 1992 as the co-author of a racist fax, something Antonio denies. There’s been altercations at polling booths, on-air radio debate meltdowns, the works.

But apart from that, it is bizarrely convivial. The last week appears to be spent not in campaigning, but in putting in and responding to costings, and fielding endless policy inquiries from interest groups, far more so than anywhere else. “Tidying up” they call it here, a phrase used so often that I thought it meant pessimistic members were clearing out their offices. But the only movement I saw back and forth was Greens MLC Mark Parnell unloading a new batch of office plants, on Parliament House steps.

This is the liberal spirit of South Australia, and, until a few weeks ago, it appeared as if Nick Xenophon and his SA-Best team would take that mantle, win a dozen seats and become a deputy premier, and in coalition government. Now it’s looking like he’ll get three or four in the 47-seat lower house, with between three and six independents/Greens (one or two Greens at most, and highly unlikely), to create a multiply hung parliament.

The collapse of the SA-Best vote indicates the central paradox of Westminster-style liberal politics, currently being played out here. The Westminster fiction is that X people are elected to parliament, come to the place, make agreements, and one such is then called on by the governor to form a government. Single member electorates and single votes express this.

The trouble is, when this possibility becomes real — a parliament that may possibility have a party, SA-Best, at its centre that is merely a running coalition of centrist (largely liberal) individuals — everyone panics and begins talking of chaos. SA-Best’s vote tanked in part because of brutal, and in places, wildly false, attack from left, right, unions and pokies interests on Xenophon’s record. But Xenophon increasingly came to be seen as a man not in control of a party — SA-Best missed out on releasing its program costings this week, a pretty major misstep for a pro-transparency party.

Truth is, in Australia, parties, and party machines, predate our post-colonial parliaments by decades. In every Westminster system, multi-member lower house electorates should replace single-member electorates. In South Australia, that would not only dispel the fiction of the individual conscience that lies at the root of liberalism’s delusions as to how the world works, it would solve the aggregate vote-seat allocation mismatch. Indeed, it’s the only way it can be solved. It would weaken the single-member hold, too.

That may happen, if tomorrow’s result is a real carnival, a trip up the winding path of political grotesquerie. If there are six parties and groups in the lower house, and as many as eight in the smaller upper house, then what InDaily has called the “unwinnable election” will prove a forcing house for a change in ideas of doing government, how ministries are composed, and all that.

Or if, like Tasmania, it proves a fizzer, Jay Weatherill will sail on to be the red Tom Playford of our era.

Whatever, I’ll be watching from Hindley Street, in the last ratty coffee shops, where the cages go-go girls once danced in — into the ’90s! — still hang, and enjoy the carnivale.

Part Five

The wash-up and wash-out: why South Australia turned into such a damp squib

Well, South Australia, in the end what a fizzer you proved to be. As m’colleague William Bowe makes clear, it was the latest in a series of fizzers, after Tasmania and Batman, in which insurgency was checked, and power returned to the norm. Batman was a two-way slugathon; in Tasmania, the far greater prospect of an upset was rendered unlikely by the shambolic performance of the Jacqui Lambie Network.

South Australia was the fizzieriest fizzer of all. In a polity known for its breakaways and independents, power simply changed hands between major parties, with the incoming Liberals taking 24 or 25 seats, a majority in their own right, something Labor lacked. The mainstream pundits will read all sorts of things into it about political cycles.

But in actual fact, the Liberal two-party preferred was almost identical to its previous results, when skewed distribution misallocated seats. Fourteen per cent of the vote went out to SA-Best, and then came back to the major parties without much “funnelling” to one side or the other, variant to what they would have achieved. Indeed, the actual vote did a great deal to discredit the system-as-is, a point to which I’ll return.

Steven Marshall’s victory is hardly decisive. On 24 seats, he’s one byelection away from losing a solo majority, and two away from losing power in the chamber. Two of the seats won, at time of writing, Newland and Mawson are on wafer-thin margins. If he’s on 24, he’ll need to draw a speaker from the three independents available — it may well be Frances Bedford, who retained her seat of Florey as an independent Labor candidate, after the party dumped her in a factional deal.

In the upper house — 22 members, 11 of whom were up for re-election this time around — Marshall will have some jigsaw work to do. Labor and the Libs won three seats each. SA-Best have won two, and may get a third. The Greens will probably win one, all they were expecting to get. The Australian Conservatives have lost one, as have SA Advance (Xenophon dissidents who regrouped), and so, sadly, have the small Dignity Party, a disabled-rights group. Three seats remain in doubt; Labor, Liberal, SA-Best and the Greens are competing for these.

 Greens SA MLC Tammy Franks at Tesla charging station, near the old bus depot, Adelaide. From my forthcoming coffee table book Australian Political Women And The Bowsers That Symbolise Their Values.

Whatever way it shakes out, it looks like the Marshall government will need SA-Best to get stuff through. There is speculation that one of SA-Best’s MLCs will step aside so his Xenophonness can step into the slot but — hahaha — we’ve seen how that goes. Should that fail to occur, we’ll see if SA-Best survives as a unit — sick or otherwise.

SA-Best’s extraordinary rise and fall in the six months prior to the poll will be examined in the years to come, with the usual 20-20 hindsight. For now, one can say that early poll success, from 25% to 33%, produced its own undermining. Xenophon expanded the seats under contest to 36, created a pay-to-play system where candidates had to stump up $20,000 ($40,000 in the upper house), to be managed within rather complex party arrangements.

The result of that was many candidates were well-heeled professionals, local pols, etc, most of them Liberal-shifted, and some failed candidates for party preselection. Trouble was everyone in the seat of, say, Von Einem, knew that candidate Kafoops was a Liberal shill, and so the myth of centrism was busted for half the electorate. Collectively that added up to a turning away. SA-Best got exactly half the high-20s figure it had polled (guess which half).

Xenophon’s SA-Best was the heir to the independent liberal tradition that manifested in South Australia for decades (first within the party, then outside it), and has roots in its establishment as a free settler state, with an emphasis on religious independence — and hence the call to the conscience. From the 1960s onward, this manifested in independent movements: the Liberal Movement, the Australia Party, the New Liberal Movement, and finally the Australian Democrats.

Xenophon gained a respectable slice of the vote, especially given the two-party and special interests pile-on. Like earlier movements, it had a top-down character: Steele Hall, Gordon Barton and others had kick-started earlier movements. But unlike these earlier movements, the spark at the top never generated a fire down below. The Liberal Movement and the Australia Party were still able to fill halls, to have a life of a decade or so, and become party expressions of the pre-knowledge class, knowledge-work groups/trendies/bohos, etc.

Though it is not impossible that SA-Best will grow, or be grown, into that, it is not likely. The Greens take a slice of the most politically determined of such groups; Marshall’s Liberals are not the conservative gerrymandering cabal that Thomas Playford’s Liberal Country League were.

The Marshall government is unlikely to be a Campbell Newman-style trip; they would be foolish to throw away a lot of what the Rann/Weatherill governments achieved. It’s because the major parties are so centrist, having absorbed the lesson of previous centrist movements, that a genuine Centre Party would find it difficult to re-establish here.

Of course, were South Australia to have a multi-member-electorate Hare-Clark lower house, things would be different. Some 39% of the vote went to minor parties and independents. In such cases, the single-member exhaustive preference system acts in an anti-democratic manner, denying people the right to be represented by non-majors. That will most likely never happen, because what is the one thing that both major parties would unquestionably come to consensus on?

Fizzer. Fizzer. Ffffffffffiiizzzzzzzzzeerrrrrrrrr!

54 comments

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54 thoughts on “Down to the wire – South Australia decides

  1. The Advertiser was not Rupert Murdoch’s first paper. It was The News – hence the name Newscorp. The News was always a tabloid, and mainly an afternoon paper. The Advertiser was the morning broadsheet. When Newscorp bought The Advertiser, The News was sold, and eventually died.

    1. He also promptly turned “The Advertiser” into a tabloid – basically “The News”, only in the morning instead of the afternoon.

  2. Incredible that voters in Tasmania & SA could be sufficiently gullible to fall for the ‘pokies create jobs’ farce.

    Incidentally, ‘Rupert Murdoch’s first paper’ (ie: the one his tentacles initially tainted) was actually The News, Adelaide’s former afternoon rag.

  3. Something has to give in our inept political class. I can only wish Nick Xenophon and ALPs Mark Butler well in their respective attempts at smashing politics-as-usual. Otherwise we are careering toward fourth-world status.

  4. “as his NXT Senate team came apart under the impact of section 44 rulings, disqualifying himself and NXT fellow Skye Kakoschke-Moore.”

    Correction. Nick wasn’t disqualified, only challenged.

  5. Me tinks grundle tapped this out from illegible notes.
    If any, it’s a longgg way from Batburg.

  6. The idea that nothing happens in ADELAIDE is ridiculous and does you no credit Guy. Apart from leading the nation in many innovations from the early 1890s, I am exhausted after enjoying the ADELAIDE Festival, the Fringe, Australia’s best city street car race, Womad and much more in recent weeks. We have our troubles as all do, but there’s plenty happening…maybe it’s your view that’s rusty and out of date.

    1. Agree Robbo. I think Rundle stretches himself a bit thin at times and this throw away line and the assertion that The Advertiser was Rupert’s first, is evidence. Rundle is doing a FIFO on SA but that’s no excuse, especially in March! Not just that though, the city-scape has changed a lot since he last visited (when Tom Playford’s gerrymander ruled the state?).

    2. I didn’t say nothing happens. I said the city sometimes has the air of that. Sorry, but that’s simply how those long often empty streets sometimes feel.

      1. P.S. Guy, the LA comparison was the first thing that popped into my head when I moved here. Endless low-rise suburbia on a grid, speckled with strip malls, surrounded by hills, sprawling. You’re spot-on.

    3. “Nothing” happens in Adelaide. It doesn’t mean nothing happens. It means it’s a quiet town. They don’t call it Bendigo-by-the-Sea for nothing.

      Yes, I live here, and yes, it has been getting better recently. But it’s still sleepy outside a few weeks in Autumn.

      1. BOSTON MATT: OUCH! “Bendigo-by-the-Sea for nothing.” I hadn’t heard that.

  7. Nobody knows what will happen on Saturday but Adelaide will still be a vibrant festival city – at least for a while- rather than a country town; a description which could only be given by a supercilious windbag.

    The amount of money being spent to try and prop up the nice but ineffectual Vincent Tarzia in the face of the opposition of Nick Xenophon play is incredible. Robo-calls going out this evening from an unidentified but mellifluous voiced woman saying support good old Vincent not those dreadful SABest and Labor people. This on top of many letters, leaflets, corflutes, tweets, Facebook posts and a giant poster on the Migrant Monument corner. Who knows where the funding is coming from but it is a lot of money being spent by the Liberals.

  8. Exactly which lower house SA seats do you reckon the Greens have the whiff of a chance at taking? They polled ~19% in Heysen, once, the election the Dems collapsed. They barely crack 10% anywhere else, unless I’m forgetting something?

    1. I said the last 2 wld be genuine independents and or greens. Yes Heysen is the best shot. These are 4 way races + minor runners. In preferential systems, you can get there from a 15-20% vote. The more candidates in exhaustive preferential, the less important the primary. Imagine a race with 51 candidates – A gets 49%, B gets 2%, C – ZY get 1% each. B gets 100% of their preferences and wins. Heysen is very winnable for the Greens.

      1. Heysen is the best shot.. though Adelaide could become quite strange if Greens outpoll SABest.

        1. It could, if SA-Best were running in Adelaide. They’re not. You’d think they would have made it a target for psychology’s sake – I reckon not doing so (and missing out on all those extra corflutes on King William) was a big mistake on their part.

          1. Which is my point. SABest are polling 21% in Adelaide, but do not have a lower house candidate……

      2. I was referring more to the following:

        “…say, 16-15-14-2 seats (SA-Best, Labor/Liberals, and the Greens respectively)”

        Anyway, I’d love to see the Greens in the lower house, but I don’t know where else they’d stand a chance of picking up a seat. Inner Melbourne our beloved Bendigo-by-the-Sea is not. Any lazy research is complicated by the fact that googling their election results will be forever fraught so long as Antony Green lives…

  9. Beautifully written. The man sounds rather infantile, a pity as his stance on pokies redeems him.

  10. I like the copy GR, but the format’s a bugger.

    1. Ditto Rhwombat.
      I know the hamsters in the Crikey IT bunker are starving to death.
      But *someone* should tell them to bring out the whiteboad/screen for this format.
      It’s an absolute dog.

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