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I’ll lament the loss of election posters on Stobie poles – and David Speirs might too

The Liberals’ surprise victory in banning election corflutes in South Australia could have unexpected consequences for leader David Speirs and his party’s chances in the Dunstan by-election, writes Matthew Abraham.

Feb 09, 2024, updated Feb 09, 2024
Corflutes and ambulance ramping might have been a  powerful combo for the Liberals in Dunstan - but their own legislation ties their hands. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Corflutes and ambulance ramping might have been a powerful combo for the Liberals in Dunstan - but their own legislation ties their hands. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

“My name is Tammy Bowling. You all know my dad, Big John Bowling.

“Dad is running for Laurel County Jailer. You know my dad is Laurel Co. jailer now.

“I would probably have more time with dad if he did not hold public office. And sometimes I wish he wasn’t jailer.

“But he wants to be Jailer real bad and I want my dad to be happy.”

So began the heartfelt plea by young Tammy Bowling to the voters of Laurel County, Kentucky, to re-elect her dad as county jailer in 1985.

It worked. Big John Bowling won.

Laurel County is the birthplace of Kentucky Fried Chicken and alcohol sales are banned outside London, the county seat, home of the annual World Chicken Festival.

That’s probably all you need to know about Laurel for now.

But like every busted-arse county the length and breadth of the USA, citizens get to elect their local jailers, sheriffs, magistrates, mayors and many other civic office-holders.

When we lived for a short time in Kentucky in the mid-’80s, it was hard to drive anywhere without seeing election posters.

Many of them were corny, home-made placards, tied to poles banged in the ground along back roads and highways.

Candidates, or their children, like Tammy, or friends took out small print advertisements pleading for votes, often freely admitting they were running because they needed a job.

This was worlds away from our democratic system, so I began collecting some of the election material, including Tammy’s ad.

It was fantastic, hometown democracy in the raw.

In the almost four decades since, I doubt much has changed.

As the US presidential primaries demonstrate, Americans throw themselves into elections with a passion that is as crazy as it is enviable.

They make us look like a bunch of democracy sad sacks, warily sticking our necks into polling booths as though each housed a guillotine, only bribed to turn out by the promise of a “democracy sausage”.

If voting weren’t compulsory, only the crackpots would turn up to vote.

The proof of this is in local council elections, where voting is voluntary, so the government spends millions on advertising campaigns begging us to vote. Only the terminally bored bother, and that’s why so many fruitcakes get elected to councils on a handful of votes.

Former premier Steven Marshall and Opposition leader David Speirs. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

On Wednesday, South Australia’s MPs banded together to ban political party corflutes on public roads, Stobie poles and trees, with a maximum penalty of $5000 for breaches.

It was a sad day, killing off a useful, colourful and often entertaining tool in our little democracy.

The only glimpses we’ll now get of local candidates will be those who get to do inane “noddies” over the shoulder of their leaders at media conferences. As for minor parties and independents, they’ll be largely invisible in the physical universe.

This “reform” may yet prove to be an own goal for Liberal leader David Speirs, who introduced the anti-corflute legislation last year.

The Liberals were reportedly taken by surprise when the Malinauskas Government decided to support the ban this week, ensuring a rapid passage through parliament.

What’s in it for Labor? Let’s join the dots.

As InDaily’s Thomas Kelsall reports, the legislation passed the House of Assembly on Wednesday and when it clears the Legislative Council will be in force for the looming Dunstan by-election to be held on March 23.

The by-election to replace oncer Liberal Premier Steven Marshall is being sold by Speirs as a “referendum on ramping”.

He wants to make the by-election all about the Malinauskas Government’s failure, so far, to deliver on its unequivocal election promise to “fix ramping” in this term.

A swing against Marshall at the 2022 state election slashed his comfortable margin in Dunstan to just 0.6 per cent, the slimmest in SA.

Losing it will be humiliating, and dangerous, for Speirs. Two years out from the March 2026 election, a defeat would seriously undermine his leadership.

If his social media account is any guide, Liberal Vincent Tarzia is already positioning himself for a tilt at his boss’s job, posting presidential-style selfies on X, formerly Twitter, looking like a model from a David Jones catalogue.

By contrast, Labor has little to lose. Failing in Dunstan will take some paint off the Malinauskas duco, but leaves Labor’s solid grip on government unchanged.

In short, the Liberals will need every ounce of luck they can muster to hold Dunstan. And they badly need a win.

That luck includes being able to promote your candidate, Dr Anna Finizio, as widely as possible.

She’s already up against Labor letterboxing leaflets bagging her credentials as a “local”.

The leaflets highlight her claims when running in the federal seat of Hindmarsh, just 20 months ago, to have “strong connections and links … spanning three generations” in the western suburbs.

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“Anna grew up in West Lakes, Woodville and Henley Beach and built her first home at Grange,” Labor says she boasted.

Labor won’t be highlighting the fact its “local” candidate, Cressida O’Hanlon, grew up in Sydney and lived in NSW before moving here. But she’s the one who wiped the floor with Marshall’s margin at the 2022 state poll.

She’s already been on hundreds of Stobie poles in Dunstan. Finizio hasn’t, and now courtesy of her leader, her smiling dial won’t grace a single one.

All major political parties now run sophisticated campaign software targeting key voters in marginal seats, harvesting metadata to reach voters with texts, emails and social media posts.

Corflute posters may be old-school, but it would be a mistake to think they don’t work. They remain an important, if annoying, part of the election armoury, designed to hit their targets where it hurts.

In the 2022 election, Labor festooned Adelaide’s Stobies with its “We’ll fix ramping” posters.

When its internal polling showed Marshall’s big promise of a $700 million riverbank stadium was going down like a lead balloon, Labor attacked it as an over-priced basketball court and plastered Stobies with “wrong priorities” posters featuring a deflated basketball. They were killers.

Former federal Liberal MP and incurable stirrer, Michael Pratt, revealed to this column a fortnight ago he had secured a sponsor for 1000 corflutes in Dunstan featuring Premier Peter Malinauskas and his ramping promise.

He now says they can be used on private property, the Britannia Roundabout and as A-frames at polling booths. But you can’t beat a good Stobie.

Labor will be quite happy to duck a ramping poster war in Dunstan.

The Premier’s naff, Xenophon-lite stunt this week – using hundreds of cardboard cut-outs of people to demonstrate improved ambulance response times – shows just how jumpy he’s getting about the ramping attacks.

When I asked one trusted Labor source if Speirs would have wanted to use corflutes to spruik Finizio, they replied: “You’d think so. His colleagues aren’t very happy with him.”

Make of that what you will.

Former Liberal Premier John Olsen once used a media conference on the ground floor of the Hilton Hotel on Victoria Square to announce a strange warning – to his own rebellious, chronically disloyal troops.

If the white-anting of his leadership didn’t stop, he’d quit, he thundered.

The late Greg Kelton, long-time political reporter with The Advertiser, wrote that this threat was like the scene from Blazing Saddles, where the town’s black sheriff threatens to shoot himself if the lynch mob heading for him doesn’t back off.

David Speirs wants the voters of Dunstan to send Peter Malinauskas a message.

What if the message is “Keep up the good work, Pete”?

Speirs says banning plastic corflutes is an environmental move.

It’d be cruel if in trying to save the planet, the Liberal leader lost a seat.

Shooting yourself in the foot isn’t a crime, even if Big John Bowling is the jailer. But it’s never a good idea.

Matthew Abraham is InDaily’s political columnist. Matthew can be found on Twitter as @kevcorduroy. It’s a long story.

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