A biblical bashing in Dunstan

The catastrophe for the Liberals in the Dunstan defeat isn’t that once again they’ve snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, writes Matthew Abraham, it’s that they have now anointed Labor Premier Peter Malinauskas as Captain Unbeatable.

Mar 28, 2024, updated Mar 28, 2024
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

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

Heavens above. It was never a good idea to hold a by-election rolling into Holy Week.

The trouble with Easter by-elections is they turn non-believers into true believers and true believers into traitors.

And the religious imagery of crucifixions and resurrections gets all mixed up with the politics.

Take this text from former Labor Senator Chris Schacht sent on Sunday afternoon, the day after the Liberals had once again snatched defeat from the jaws of victory to lose their seat of Dunstan to Labor:

“After Dunstan result Malinauskas is walking on water from Glenelg to Ardrossan! Extraordinary result.”

For the record, the account of Jesus walking on the sea is drawn from Matthew’s Gospel (14: 22-33) and isn’t part of the Easter ceremonies.

But Schachty, as he is universally known, is not just a former South Australian Senator and Minister but before that the ALP’s state secretary. The lifelong Labor True Believer with a capital T and B is on the money.

The catastrophe for the Liberals in the Dunstan defeat isn’t just the loss of a seat held by a former Liberal leader, nor even the fact that it is the first time in 116 years any government has stripped a seat off an opposition in a by-election.

It’s not even the Liberal HQ mounting yet another shambolic campaign littered with avoidable boo-boos, including by the party’s now doomed, foot-in-the-mouth leader, David Speirs.

Each taken on their own is bad news enough.

But they have now anointed Labor’s Premier Peter Malinauskas as Captain Unbeatable.

The politician whose 2022 election campaign began with a shirtless plunge into the Adelaide Aquatic Centre pool, is now out of the pool and tap-dancing all over the heads of his Liberal opponents, as joyfully as a tongue-lolling border collie bounding across the backs of sheep.

The Liberals wanted the Dunstan by-election to be a “referendum on ramping”. Opposition Leader Speirs repeated it like a mantra throughout the campaign.

This meant the by-election had to be a referendum on Malinauskas, because it was the unequivocal Malinauskas promise to fix the chronic ramping of ambulance at our hospital emergency departments that won the Labor leader the 2022 state election.

Speirs vs Malinauskas. Did the Liberal leader even realise that’s what his “referendum on ramping” meant? Talk about self-sabotage.

If the Dunstan by-election was a referendum on ramping, the votes are in. The No votes won.

After an almost 7 per cent swing at the March 2022 state election, former Premier Steven Marshall clung to Dunstan by 260 votes.

The margin of 0.5 pc made it the state’s most marginal seat.

That took some doing, but at the declaration of the poll, the former Premier did at least jokingly admit he was probably the worst candidate in the state.

That’s no laughing matter. Dunstan, covering many of Adelaide’s most well-heeled suburbs, should be a safe Liberal seat.

Instead, despite a few straggling postals left to be counted – the cut-off for these has been extended from Good Friday to next Tuesday after Easter – Labor’s Cressida O’Hanlon has Dunstan in the bag.

She will end up winning the seat by roughly 400-something votes, or a shade under 51 per cent of the two-party preferred vote against Liberal candidate Anna Finizio.

Labor won the “referendum on ramping” with a two-party swing to it of 1.5 per cent.

Where does this leave the Liberals?

Ramping was the glaring weak spot in the Malinauskas government’s armory.

It is worse than it has ever been and will continue to yap at the Premier’s heels all the way to the next election two years off, as it should.

But the Dunstan result takes the bite out of that junkyard dog. The significance won’t be lost on the Malinauskas team.

The by-election was a doozy on so many other fronts.

I was talking to the ABC’s election analyst, the gifted Antony Green, on Tuesday night and he observed as we signed off: “It’s not often the rest of the country is watching a South Australian by-election, but there you go”.

Most federal eyes are on the Greens vote in Dunstan – after an election night high of 24 per cent it has fallen to 19 per cent – reinforcing the weird trend of “soft Liberals” voting for a party that despises them.

But Australians do understand how our system of preferential voting works. In Dunstan, the Greens second preferences didn’t run to the Liberals, they overwhelmingly went to Labor.

The Greens now boast that on the Dunstan result they’ll take the federal seat of Sturt – it overlaps Dunstan – at the next federal election.

I very much doubt it.

As Labor Minister Tom Koutsantonis tweeted on X, the Greens cockiness about taking Sturt is “ambitious for a party that came 3rd”.

Before they had even formally lost the seat – the margin narrowed dramatically during this week as pre-poll votes strongly favored Finizio – the Liberals launched not one but two post-mortems into what went wrong.

They’ll have plenty of source material.

One of my rules of journalism is that all news is local. The same applies in politics.

Finizio was a pretend local. She’d marketed herself as a western-suburbs local in her failed tilt as a “Captain’s pick” candidate in the federal seat of Hindmarsh barely two years ago.

The mud-slinging between the Labor and Liberal camps over the business foibles of their candidates ended up a nil-all draw. It’d be all waa-waa-waa for most voters.

But the early hit on Finizio, with Labor revealing she’d applied for a research job in the office of Attorney-General Kyam Maher while in Opposition, would have stuck.

The March 1 front page of The Advertiser with the headline “DUNCE-TAN POLL PICK” reporting on her Labor job wish was a killer at the start of the campaign.

And let’s not forget the Liberal leader’s stunning own goal. His Private Members’ Bill to ban election corflutes was unexpectedly supported by the government.

The Liberals surrendered the Stobie pole real estate that could have spruiked the face of their largely unknown “local” candidate to tens of thousands of voters, sitting in their cars, waiting to take their lives in their hands on the Britannia Roundabout.

It may also explain why more than 20 per cent of enrolled voters didn’t bother to cast a vote at all. By-election? What by-election?

But the Liberals have a bigger problem. They need to work out who or what they are.

The completely pointless Senate preselection stoush that saw Senator Alex Antic roll moderate colleague Senator Anne Ruston for the top spot on the ticket for the next election campaign was staged in the last week of the campaign.

It was a perfect reminder to wavering Liberal voters of the party’s “women’s problem” and the turf war over ideology, far removed from the everyday worries of real people.

George Harrison sang “if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there”.

More often than not it takes you into the deep end, not drowning, just waving.

And another thing

Liberal MPs now must confront the “What do we do about David?” question.

Since last Saturday night, the Liberal leader has had the look of a haunted man.

On Monday, he declared: “My leadership is 100 per cent secure – I won’t be challenged”.

No, it’s not and yes you will be.

“I canvassed my colleagues extensively over the last 48 hours and the views were very resolute that I need to stay in the job.”

They’re fibbing, David.

Then he really made a meal of it.

“If I thought there was someone better to lead this party, I would stand aside.” So, the rest of your team are duds?

It’s admirable that David Speirs often appears to have chugged a mug of truth serum, but sometimes a minder needs to step up behind him in media interviews, open a hatch in his back and change cassettes, inserting a blank tape.

Finally, this will be my last column for InDaily for now, a casualty of Facebook’s decision to pull out of paying for Australian media content it uses on its platforms.

Thank you for reading my sometimes flawed opinions.

Who knows what the future holds. Only one resurrection counts at Easter, and it’s not mine.

A safe, happy and holy Easter to you all.

Matthew Abraham can be found on X as @kevcorduroy. It’s a long story.

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