Richardson: I kinda told ya so

Mar 21, 2014
Steven Marshall during the campaign. Photo: Nat Rogers/InDaily

Steven Marshall during the campaign. Photo: Nat Rogers/InDaily

Who’d have thought?

On Channel 9’s Saturday night election coverage, Amanda Vanstone was reminded of Julia Gillard’s words (paraphrasing Bill Clinton): “The people have spoken, but it’s going to take a little while to determine exactly what they said.”

For the Liberal Party though, a more apposite quote could be that of one-time California state senate candidate Dick Tuck: “The people have spoken … the bastards!”

And I don’t want to say “I told you so”, but…I did kinda tell ya so.

It’s not quite “It Was InDaily Wot Won It”, but I have been on my high horse for a while now about the opportunity the Libs have had to seize the policy agenda – an opportunity they failed to take.

I’ve had MPs – state and federal – calling me up to tell me I’m on a hiding to nothing, and assuring me that keeping Steven Marshall’s head down and withholding information was the soundest strategy for seizing government, rather than taking the electorate into their confidence, and risking a backlash.

So yeah, there’s an element of vindication in Saturday’s result, along with a vague sense of disbelief that after tripling its campaign spend on polling and the like, the Libs still failed the grasp the fairly simple concept that you actually need to win more seats.

It’s not entirely their fault, mind you. You can understand that you need to campaign in the marginals, without really understanding how to conduct a marginal campaign. Labor went into this election with 11 seats under 5%. That’s compared to the Libs with three under 5%, and none of them considered any real chance of being lost (though, despite some snide derision when some sections of the media suggested it, Adelaide and Steven Marshall’s own seat of Dunstan came close).

The Libs’ most marginal seat going in was Morialta, which is now practically safe. Perhaps John Gardner can give his moderate faction colleagues a lesson on how to campaign to save your seat. Maybe the problem for the Libs is that Labor is accustomed to living on the edge. There are four conservative seats with a margin over 20%; Labor has none. Marginal campaigning, apparently, isn’t something that’s learned, but something that’s inherited, and that’s why Liberal frontbencher David Pisoni on Saturday night morosely described Labor as “the natural party of Government” in SA. This is a gerrymander orchestrated by the side that’s come off second best.

If you’re determined to run on little more than an “It’s Time” factor, you’d better be pretty damn sure the electorate agrees with you.

It’s no surprise the Liberals have a higher popular vote; the problem for them is it’s invested in a relatively small number of seats. The bulk of the metropolitan seats, where this election was fought, failed to heed the Liberals’ pitch.

In hindsight, it’s clear to see why. The oft-repeated refrain that the Opposition was “backing business to grow the economy” was an own goal, an appeal to nobody beyond the Liberals’ own heartland, and certainly the least inclusive election slogan we’ve seen in recent years. Despite lip service on cost of living, the Liberals’ policy platform fell short of Labor’s on concessions and managed to annoy the local councils to boot through the rate cap pledge.

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Partisan campaigners on the ground told me that the electorate, already jaded after the federal debacle, tuned in particularly late to this campaign, in many cases during the last 24 hours. In this time, Weatherill’s pitch clearly outshone Marshall’s: standing on the sculpted turf of Adelaide Oval, he delivered a perfectly manicured cry-from-the-heart that “we’ve built something wonderful here together” that was “all at risk” if the Liberals win. By contrast, Steven Marshall saved his worst for last, accidentally urging people to vote Labor and positioning himself as a modern day Augustus Gloop or Veruca Salt by smugly declaring “I get to come to Chocolate Factories” on a tour of the Robern Menz facility.

But none of it matters now. Perhaps the small target strategy, so revered ever since John Hewson accidentally brought down Bob Hawke and found himself facing Paul Keating instead, needs to be better targeted. Specifically, if you’re determined to run on little more than an “It’s Time” factor, you’d better be pretty damn sure the electorate agrees with you.

It’s been suggested the Libs’ campaign faltered because they didn’t go negative enough in the final week, but this campaign had already seen more than its share of negativity. What was lacking from the Liberal side was positivity; we knew all about what had gone wrong under Labor, but there was little clue of what would be better under Marshall. Hope is an intangible electoral asset, and it is a risk to offer it; it involves just a little audacity, removing a few veils to stand before the electorate with a little less to hide.

Ironically, for a battle that was fought in the metro marginals, the election may now be won on regional policy, as the Frome incumbent assesses his options.

But whatever happens with the independents, it is clear the Liberals have lost this campaign, and that is a shame, because it diminishes Steven Marshall, who has, or had, the capacity to be a dynamic Premier. Even if he is anointed now, he will be wounded, and will slink into government – a far cry from the virtual ticker-tape parade he expected by his fanciful pre-poll prediction of a 27-seat rout.

There still appears a concerted barracking campaign to get him there: an Advertiser-commissioned Galaxy Poll appeared designed to sway Such and Brock, but it should be no surprise that both seats are conservative-leaning, since both are effectively Liberal seats whose constituents can’t bring themselves to vote Liberal. But there’s the rub; if they genuinely favour a Liberal Government, they had the opportunity to vote for one. They didn’t.

Such and Brock’s task now is not to ask their electors to effectively recast their ballots, but to come to an independent decision and face the consequences in four years. The Galaxy poll appears even more wasted on Such, since he’s highly unlikely to stand again. Indeed, he only stood this time after lobbying by moderate Liberals who didn’t want to contend with Iain Evans acolyte Sam Duluk in parliament. If they’d known that rearguard action would force them into another four years of Opposition, they’d have probably kept their petty factional squabbles in check, but we know how much the SA Liberal Party loves a factional squabble.

Whatever the independents decide, there will be Liberal blood spilt over this result (the party’s state director is one whose future is already the subject of some internal discussion). For Such, though, it is a crowning achievement. Whatever he decides, and for whatever reasons, he will settle some old scores; he will either propel the Liberals into power but leave the conservative right unable to wield any influence, or he will simply deny the party government altogether.

Last week I tried to find some silver linings in a tarnished campaign, yet still warned a hung parliament would be the worst possible result. So in the enduring spirit of optimism, let us seek a silver lining in this week’s conundrum. There is one that presents itself above all else, given that both Marshall and Weatherill would be given long odds to survive a term at the helm of their respective parties: by dealing with the independents, they can ensure a stipulation of their compliance is that if the leader changes, the deal is off. Which means, for once in SA, we can have a term of Government without incessant sniping and speculating about challenges and successors.

It could be the most stable administration we have had in almost 12 years. Who’d have thought?

Tom Richardson is InDaily’s political commentator and Channel Nine’s state political reporter.

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