An incumbent falls at last

Travel prevented me from posting a preview of Saturday’s South Australian election, but you can read some of the background in these stories from late last year on the woes of Steven Marshall’s Liberal Party government. It went into the election lacking a parliamentary majority, needing to win seats to be sure of retaining government for a second term.

Instead it was defeated rather heavily. The Labor opposition, starting with 19 of the 47 seats, has gained at least seven seats to give it a clear majority. Counting is still continuing, with (among others) Marshall’s own seat still in doubt, but Labor leader Peter Malinauskas has already been sworn in as the new premier.

The Liberals look like holding at most 16 seats, and there will be between four and six independents. You can follow the latest figures at the ABC’s website, and Kevin Bonham has his usual very detailed and helpful analysis of the doubtful seats.

This is the fourth state election in Australia since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, but the first in which a government has been defeated. None of the others were even close: Labor was not troubled in Queensland in late 2020 and then won an almighty landslide a year ago in Western Australia, while Tasmania’s Liberal government was comfortably re-elected last May.

And it’s not just Australia; around the world we have found that governments with even a half-way competent response to the health crisis usually got an electoral boost from it. And Marshall was no outlier in terms of his Covid strategy – South Australia followed basically the same approach as the other states, apparently with great success.

So why the different result? There are broadly three possibilities:

  • Voters have tired of aggressive anti-Covid measures and are now willing to turn against the parties that implemented them;
  • The Marshall government was punished for its own problems, including those that led to last year’s parliamentary shenanigans, unrelated to Covid;
  • The election was decided more by federal issues, and Marshall was collateral damage from voters’ dissatisfaction with the federal Coalition government.

The first option would be good news for prime minister Scott Morrison. While his government has tried to take credit for the fight against the pandemic, it is honeycombed with denialists and can expect to benefit from any swing of public opinion in that direction – if only by way of preferences from explicitly denialist and anti-vax parties.

Conversely, the third option would be very bad news for the federal Coalition. Morrison has already had a bad couple of months, and the closeness of the federal election, expected for 14 May, makes federal politics more than usual a suspect for poor performance at state level.

My feeling, however, is that the second option is the most likely. Voters may be starting to move on from Covid: not in the sense of disavowing the measures that were taken against it, but no longer treating it as the overriding issue. Malinauskas had also made a point of giving the government’s Covid policy his full support, helping to neutralise the advantage of incumbency.

And the fact remains that none of the other state governments had fallen into the sort of problems that Marshall had, with desertions from his ranks, a deputy premier accused of corruption and high drama on the floor of parliament. In normal times, that would be enough to account for a government’s defeat without searching too far afield for other explanations.

Perhaps what the voters are saying is that they’re ready to start behaving as if normal times are here again. Morrison may have to take such consolation as he can from that.

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PS: Rob Manwaring has a good report on the result in the Conversation, but I think he understates the significance of the (possible) advent of post-Covid politics. He also mentions that South Australia is a case of “fragmentation of the right,” particularly in the way that the absence of the National Party has led to more bitter factionalism among the Liberals. This is true, but it’s been true for half a century and still didn’t prevent the Liberal Party winning a majority of the vote (two-party-preferred) at seven of the previous eight elections.

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UPDATE, midday Friday (South Australian time): Counting has not yet finished, but there seems to be no remaining doubt about the results. Labor has won 27 seats (up eight on 2018) to the Liberals’ 16 (down nine), with four independents (up one). In the Legislative Council, Labor is set to take five of the 11 seats on offer, with the Liberals four and the Greens and One Nation one each.

3 thoughts on “An incumbent falls at last

  1. I think the opposite – reopening isn’t as popular as the political class imagines. Marshall lost a commanding lead when he reopened, getting the label “the man who ruined Christmas”. That returned to the pre-Covid situation where the Libs trailed badly

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    1. Thanks John – that’s an interesting thought. I don’t take the pre-Covid polls very seriously, since first-term governments are often behind mid-term but rarely go on to lose, but maybe they’re worth something here.

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