The political bells are about to toll in Dunstan. But for whom?

With just over a week to go before the Dunstan by-election, Matthew Abraham analyses the high stakes for one leader and offers a sneak peek at what voters will see on election day.

Mar 15, 2024, updated Mar 15, 2024
The clocktower of the Norwood Town Hall where our columnist once dined on pasta and gave some unwanted advice to a local politician. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

The clocktower of the Norwood Town Hall where our columnist once dined on pasta and gave some unwanted advice to a local politician. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

The clock in the Norwood Town Hall clock tower was donated by Sir Edwin and Lady Smith. Which was jolly nice of them.

Not only did Ed and his missus Elizabeth donate the clock, they also shelled out £2000 to secure the freehold of the Norwood Oval for the hoi-polloi.

This was back in the day when private individuals, not taxpayers, kicked in cash for sports stadiums and other nice things for public use.

A brewer by trade, a crack rifle shot, Sir Edwin was mayor of Kensington and Norwood from 1867 to 1873 and served terms in both houses of the South Australian parliament as an independent MP.

Beer, footy, a free clock and handy with a gun. What’s not to like?

If he was running as an independent in next Saturday’s Dunstan by-election in his old stamping grounds, he’d romp it in. Sadly, he is not. Nor is anyone else. We’ll return to this point shortly.

Dunstan, previously Norwood, has always been a colourful electorate.

It is, of course, named after former Labor Premier Don Dunstan, who won it in 1953 and held it until he gave the game away in 1979.

Our Don would still hold it today, even if he was a hologram, like Walt Disney, who enjoys eternal life in his office in Disneyland in Los Angeles.

Why haven’t they done this with Don, an ethereal presence in those shorts and long white socks, or maybe a safari suit – a reminder of simpler, happier times?

It’d be a bigger drawcard than LIV Golf.

Anyway, I can’t drive past the Norwood Town Hall without thinking of the pasta lunch the council’s then-Mayor Vini Ciccarello cooked for me in that clock tower shortly before she reclaimed the seat for Labor in 1997.

Vini loved being mayor and was agonising about running for state politics.

Between mouthfuls of mayoral fettucine, I suggested she had nothing to lose, so why not? This is my stock answer: it is why people should never ask me for career advice.

Vini ran and took the seat from one-term Liberal MP, barrister John Cummins.

She’s never forgiven me.

Now here’s a quirk of fate. Cummins won the seat from Labor’s Greg Crafter in 1993.

But the Liberal MP for Norwood was almost the Labor MP for Norwood.

Crafter originally defeated Cummins for Labor preselection for Norwood in 1979, as both comrades vied for the plum seat vacated by Dunstan’s retirement.

Fast forward 45 years to today and the “scandal” deployed by the Labor dirt unit in a bid to damage the Liberal candidate in this by-election, Anna Finizio.

Finizio’s crime was to apply for a policy research job in the office of the now Attorney-General Kyam Maher when he was in Opposition.

David Speirs Michelle Lensink Anna Finizio

Opposition leader David Speirs, government accountability spokesperson Michelle Lensink and Liberal Party Dunstan candidate Dr Anna Finizio speaking to the media. Photo: Thomas Kelsall/InDaily

Just imagine the outrage from Labor’s political hit-man, Transport Minister Tom Koutsantonis, if a former Labor member had run for the Liberals in Dunstan. He’d implode.

The voters didn’t seem to mind. They gave the Labor-Liberal Cummins a go for one term at least.

I’m indebted to the ABC’s election analyst, sage and national treasure Antony Green, for reminding us of this and other gems about the seat in his Dunstan by-election guide.

The campaign for Dunstan, one of the nation’s most dodgy seats on a Liberal margin of just 0.5 per cent, seems to have gone on forever but it’ll come to a crunch next Saturday.

Booths opened this week for early voting. If the odd national trend that sees Australians using any excuse to avoid voting on the actual election day continues, we can expect roughly 20 per cent of Dunstan voters to vote before the big day on March 23.

With just over a hundred votes to decide the outcome, for all we know it may already be all over, red rover.

The Liberals are billing the by-election as a “referendum on ramping” and in the final fortnight have ramped up the push on this front.

The poster the Liberals plan to roll out at Dunstan polling booths.

Former one-term federal Liberal MP for Adelaide, Michael Pratt, ever helpful, on Wednesday sent me a “world exclusive” photo of the posters the party is using to festoon pre-poll stations.

The black posters carry a full-size image of the “Labor will fix ramping” corflute from the 2022 election campaign, featuring a smiling Premier Peter Malinauskas. One word, “REMEMBER”, in white, sits above it.

Given the Premier’s Colgate smile, this may not be the winner the Liberals think it is.

Pratt says the party is letterboxing 11,000 leaflets that feature a message from Brenda.

It says Brenda is the aunt of a Hectorville man who “passed away while waiting 10 hours for an ambulance”.

“Mr Malinauskas, you promised South Australians you were gonna fix ramping,” she says in the leaflet. “You have failed big time. Please don’t vote Labor at the Dunstan by-election. Send Labor a message that you expect them to keep their promise.”

The Liberals see Brenda the Aunty as their version of Labor’s potent 2022 ramping ads featuring Ash the Ambo.

Brenda, meet Ash. Ash, meet Brenda.

I’m not so sure that ramping will be the silver bullet the Liberals need to hold Dunstan.

The seat covers the classic inner eastern bullnose belt – from Norwood, College Park, St Peters to Kensington Park and all leafy stops in between.

As one Liberal insider put it, the seat has many “soft Liberals” who need a reason to give the Liberals another go. For many of them, ramping is something that happens to other people. They’re more interested in the pain of a $200 grocery shop.

“If the brand was Anna (Finizio), it would be over,” they said.

But it’s not.

Will Aunty Brenda’s plea resonate with “soft Liberals” who didn’t vote Liberal two years ago?

If not, what then?

The Liberals could have done with a Sir Edwin running in Dunstan, getting a lift from independent preferences. Labor already has the advantage of Greens preferences.

And what will “soft Liberals” make of a messy Liberal Senate preselection scheduled for this weekend, a slug-out between moderates and conservatives, in the Dunstan countdown?

“Couldn’t they just have waited a couple of weeks and held this shit then?,” this Liberal asked.

The Liberals will need a stonking big win for the Dunstan vote to be seen as a referendum on ramping. They should be happy with a narrow victory.

Liberal leader David Speirs is dossing down at a mate’s house in Norwood during the campaign, cutting out the long commute from his southern suburban electorate of Black.

The alarm clock is ticking. If the Dunstan bells toll badly, it will toll for him.

And another thing

Speaking of the Liberal leader, the word is many traditional business donors aren’t loving the vibe, and it’s hurting the party’s bank balance.

As one Liberal contact put it: “Everyone’s taking notice of who’s pulling money in, and who isn’t.”

Before last Christmas, I reported that David Speirs blithely told a packed gathering of the hospitality industry he wasn’t interested in “the big end of town”. Eye rolls from 20 paces.

Remarks he made at a recent Future SA function reportedly also went down like a fake royal photo with some donors.

This contact says their leader seems to “piss off” traditional supporters, including his jibes about “leafy suburbs”.

“I get the whole battler thing,” they said. “But it’s like he resents what the Liberal Party formally is.”

Enter the Liberal MP for Hartley, Vincent Tarzia, looking every bit a traditional Liberal leader-in-waiting on social media.

Tarzia held a fundraising knees-up at the hoity-toity Magill Estate on Thursday night – to mark his 10-year anniversary as an MP – with 50 guests paying to hear him speak.

The ticket price? Five hundred dollars a pop.

It sold out.

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

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