On 17 March, South Australians will head to the polls, in what should prove to be a delicately poised election. The long-standing Labor Government will be seeking a record fifth term of office, and the Liberal Opposition, under Steven Marshall will be searching for a way out of the electoral wilderness, where it has been for the past 16 years.
After each election, the electoral boundaries are re-drawn to reflect the so-called fairness clause – trying to distribute seats along the two-party preferred lines. At the 2014 election, the Liberals won the popular vote (53 per cent to Labor’s 47 per cent), but not enough seats. The upshot of the redistribution is that four seats have become notionally Liberal; which would have put Steven Marshall firmly on track to become Premier.
Yet, the ‘X factor’ has now changed all that. Nick Xenophon’s decision to return to state politics is a potential political earthquake. The December 2017 newspoll had Xenophon and his SA Best team sitting on a remarkable 32 per cent of primary votes to the Liberals 29 per cent, with Labor languishing at 27 per cent.
Xenophon, running for the lower house in the seat of Hartley, could prove to be a game-changer. Not since the 1998 Queensland election, when One Nation made its electoral breakthrough, have we seen such a significant challenge to the established two-party system in Australia. Generally, smaller parties, indeed Nick Xenophon in his early career, tend to target the upper houses with its proportional representation system to make a political impact.
Over the past decade or so, the vote for the major parties has been steadily declining, but until the Xenophon surge, we have not yet seen a centrist challenger to clearly threaten the major parties. By election night, we are unlikely to know who will form government, but we will know if the Xenophon surge has kept up.
A range of factors might mitigate the Xenophon surge. First, to some extent, the initial political honeymoon seems over for SA Best and, despite their jaunty political ad, they will need to get a stronger handle on policy detail. Xenophon’s gaffe over the health budget was symptomatic.
Second, the SA Best team lacks something that the public care little for, but is so instrumental in modern, professional politics – a machine. The rapid growth of SA Best is putting pressure on the organisational strength of the party. At the end of 2016, Xenophon seemed to suggest that about 20 candidates would run for the lower house; but this has grown to 36. A party needs a machine to keep discipline, impose clear messages and offer strategic direction – all vital for serious parties.
A third key factor which might play against Xenophon is uncertainty about his role. Xenophon has made a fine career out of being a watchdog, but the popularity surge has changed this. If the election leads to a hung parliament then we only have some clues about what Xenophon wants.
Early on, the SA Best leader indicated that he (and his candidates) would not take a ministerial position, if offered it. Xenophon has also trotted out the main line that he just wants "as many of my colleagues...to win seats." Xenophon is still setting out the conditions to the major parties for the cost of his support.
Most recently, he suggested that as part of his energy plan, that unless there was a reduction of energy costs of 20 per cent within two years (and no blackouts), then whoever is Premier (presumably with SA Best support) must resign. South Australians might well find themselves at the polls within two years.
Xenophon has also not ruled out becoming Premier if his party wins the most seats, or he becomes the dominant partner in any future coalition, which fuels confusion about his watchdog role.
Yet, a fourth factor might also play against Xenophon’s chances of a strong electoral impact – the distribution of preferences. The full preferential system for SA’s lower house usually entails most candidates needing a kind flow of preferences to win the seat; candidates need over 50 per cent to get elected. But Labor’s strategy of offering a split ticket – preferencing the Liberals over Xenophon in half the seats (and vice versa), might limit Xenophon’s impact, especially in his target seats.
With just over two weeks to run in the campaign, it is unclear if the Xenophon surge will continue, and more crucially, who will be leading the state.