Wakefield in fright

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“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.