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Rann runs into bumpy patch

sent in November 6 2005
By Phil Robins

Five months out from an election, the Rann Labor Government in South Australia was cruising serenely until last Friday, when it struck it struck a couple of nasty, though not totally unexpected, snags.

In the morning, Attorney-General Michael Atkinson was scorched by his nemesis, former colleague Ralph Clarke, in a statement made to a Legislative Council investigative committee. In the afternoon, beleagured Health Minister Lea Stevens was moved from her contentious portfolio, officially on the grounds of ill health.

Swapping Stevens with the media-savvy Environment Minister, John Hill, may well turn out to be a plus for the government, but the political corruption allegations strongly denied by Atkinson are more problematical. In truth it's a B grade scandal that does not rate with, say, Tony Windsor's claim that he was offered an overseas posting to persuade him to give up his seat to the National Party. But while the Howard Government was able to brush Windsor's claim aside, the Liberal Opposition and the Adelaide media are making the most of one of the rare blemishes in the Rann Government's record. It's doubtful whether the average punter is really interested if Clarke, the dumped former deputy Labor leader, was offered positions on government boards in return for dropping legal action against Atkinson, but the Liberals are desperate for a ministerial scalp and will push this affair to the limit. 

Until these events, the traditional wisdom was that Premier Mike Rann would be untroubled to lead Labor to victory with a clear majority on March 18.

Indeed, the latest Morgan Poll has Labor on a two-party vote of 55 per cent, which would give it 11 extra seats for a total of 33 in the 47-member House of Assembly and reduce the Liberals to a cricket team (minus a 12th man).

No-one expects that to happen, however. It may, in fact, be a very close election, despite the reckoning that voters are usually unwilling to admit they may have made a mistake last time and therefore almost always give a government a second term.

Against that, the truth is that Labor did not really win the 2002 election, either in terms of seats (23) or votes (49.07 per cent). But while the Liberals gained more than half of the two-party vote, they won only 20 seats and would have needed the support of the three Independent Liberals and the sole National Party MP to form a government.

It's now ancient history that one of the Independent Liberals, the maverick Peter Lewis, decided instead to back Labor and as a reward was made Speaker. Lewis eventually lost the confidence of both sides and resigned the speakership this year. But by then it didn't matter because, one by one, the other independents had come on board the Rann ship of state - Bob Such as Deputy Speaker and now Speaker, Rory McEwen and the Nationals' Karlene Maywald as ministers.

Labor on the other hand lost energetic backbencher Kris Hanna, who was passed over for the ministry and switched his allegiance to the Greens. Thus the state of the parties in the run up to the election is: Labor 22, Liberal 20, Independent Liberal 3, National 1, Greens 1.
South Australian elections are usually tight contests unless there is some extraordinary vote-changing issue (such as the State Bank collapse which left Labor with just 10 lower house members in 1993). Electoral boundaries are redrawn after each poll to try to reflect the principle of one vote, one value. Minor changes to a handful of electorates after the 2002 election appear marginally to help the Liberals, but what happened last time is no indication of how voters will play it again.
What we do know is that Rann enjoys sky-high approval ratings (around 90 per cent) and is firmly in the driver's seat. Rann and Treasurer Kevin Foley have worked hard to re-establish Labor's economic credentials, which were in tatters after the State Bank fiasco. Rann and Atkinson have relentlessly bashed criminal lawyers, the parole board and similar 'do-gooders' to prove they are strong on law and order. These traditional Labor weak spots are now a clear positive for the government, however much Rann's populism and inclusion of non-Labor forces in the ruling hegemony may upset the True Believers.
On the other side, Liberal leader Rob Kerin has struggled for recognition in opposition. 'Mr Nice Guy' recently shrugged off a botched leadership challenge and does not have a lot going for him. While Stevens, like other health ministers around Australia, took a lot of flak before her shift on Friday, voters remembered that it was her Liberal adversary, Dean Brown, who ran down services as premier and health minister. Similarly, while the government is vulnerable on the issue of electricity charges, voters have not forgotten that it was the Liberals who broke a key election promise and privatized the electricity service.

With the Morgan Poll of October 29 showing a 10.4 per cent swing to Labor since the last election, the Liberal seats of Morphett, Heysen, Unley, Newland, Bright, Morialta, Light, Mawson, Stuart and Hartley theoretically could be at risk. Other polls, however, indicate a smaller swing to Labor. The Advertiser poll of October 31, for example, gives Labor only a 52-48 two-party percentage lead overall, although the margin in the city (43-32 on primary votes) would not be far short of the Morgan assessment.

While Morphett and Heysen are metropolitan seats, they will not swing anything like 10 per cent and will stay Liberal.

Unley takes in much more conservative territory than of yore and is just a chance for Labor for two reasons only - that sitting Liberal member Mark Brindal is retiring under a cloud and that Labor has recruited as its candidate the popular Mayor of Unley, Michael Keenan. Even before Brindal admitted to consensual sex in his electorate office with an intellectually handicapped male, he was facing preselection defeat at the hands of local businessman David Pisoni. Keenan, a former Labor federal candidate (for Boothby) and twice an independent challenger for Unley, has been readmitted to the ALP for his latest quixotic joust (he needs 9.1 per cent).

Newland, in Adelaide's outer north-eastern suburbs, gives Labor a bit of a sniff because of the pending retirement of its sitting Liberal member, former minister Dorothy Kotz, who first won it from Labor's Di Gaylor by just 47 votes in 1989. It's a more conservative area these days and Labor's Tom Kenyon needs a hefty 5.5 per cent swing to defeat the Liberals' Mark Osterstock..

Bright, a coastal seat in the south-western suburbs, presents a fascinating contest. Soon to be vacated by yet another former Liberal minister, Wayne Matthew, it pits the photogenic and articulate Chloe Fox (daughter of Mem) against Liberal upper house attack dog Angus Redford. Fox made up ground for Labor as its federal candidate for Boothby last year. Redford is gambling on his political career by forsaking the red leather and trying for the green. 

Morialta is an eastern suburbs seat held by former Liberal minister Joan Hall, wife of one-time premier and senator Steele Hall. Although her margin is down to 3.6 per cent, she has been considered vulnerable before and has always won pretty well. This time, against a former Labor candidate for federal Sturt, Lindsay Simmons, it could be harder but it will be no surprise if she hangs on.

Mawson, in the outer southern suburbs, has supported Liberal frontbencher Robert Brokenshire since 1993, when new boundaries transformed what had been a marginal Labor seat. Although his margin is now down to 3.5 per cent, the active and aggressive Brokenshire will stay on the front foot against feisty Labor staffer and former journalist Leon Bignell. 

Light, based on the town of Gawler but taking in burgeoning northern suburbs of Adelaide, is held by 2.6 per cent by another former Liberal minister, Malcolm Buckby. Last election Buckby held off then Labor deputy leader (and now senator) Annette Hurley, who quit her safe seat of Napier in a vain quest for glory. Now the Mayor of Gawler, Tony Piccolo, is having another crack at what is proving a hard nut for Labor.

Stuart encompasses a vast amount of the state's northern Outback. Veteran Liberal Graham Gunn, first elected in 1970, got a shock in 1997 when knockabout pastoralist Ben Browne almost snatched the seat for Labor despite the indifference of the party machine. Encouraged by Browne's performance, the Labor Right put in their own candidate, Quorn-born Justin Jarvis, in 2002 and mounted a big campaign. But Gunn was ready for them and held his ground (his margin dropping by just 59 votes to 504). Labor's unpopularity in the bush and the loss of Port Augusta's air service will not help Jarvis as he again battles it out.

Hartley is an eastern suburbs seat where in the past two elections Labor's Quentin Black was declared the likely winner on election night, only for the Liberal sitting member, Joe Scalzi, to sneak over the line on the strength of absent, pre-poll and postal votes. This time Labor has decided to fight on Scalzi's ground, substituting government staffer Grace Portolesi for the hard-working but hapless Black in a seat where the Italian vote is all-important. The redistribution has given Scalzi a fraction more breathing space - a margin of 2.1 per cent - and he is confident.

All this means that there are no easy pickings for Labor, except perhaps the south-west suburban seat of Mitchell, where Hanna (denied a tilt at the Legislative Council by the blinkered Greens) is likely to go down to the former Mayor of Brighton, Rosemary Clancy. Hanna's loss will be felt by the parliament as he has been a progressive MP who, as a Labor backbencher, was responsible for introducing four-year parliamentary terms.

Whereas the Liberals would lose six seats with swing against them of 5 per cent, the same swing the other way would cost Labor eight seats.

Are there any real prospects for the Liberals? Well, for a start, they should pick up the Mallee seat of Hammond with farmer Adrian Pederick, whether or not Lewis decides to contest it again and regardless of whether Labor again gives him preferences. 

In addition, the Liberals would dearly like to wipe out the other 'traitorous' country independents who have got into bed with Labor - Maywald in the Riverland seat of Chaffey and McEwen in Mount Gambier. McEwen in particular has a fight on his hands in the redneck South-East, where health and bus services are issues. The Advertiser poll of November 2 put McEwen on 23 per cent, trailing Labor (which has not yet chosen a candidate) on 26 per cent and the Liberals' Peter Gandolfi on 34 per cent. McEwen will need Labor to run very dead and finish third on primary votes so that he can benefit from its preferences. Maywald, too, has dropped back from a primary vote of 49.2 per cent at the 2002 election to 36 per cent now, but she still leads the Liberals' Anna Baric by five points and should scoot home on Labor preferences.

With The Advertiser poll showing the Liberals leading 51-25 on primary votes in country areas, they could be a chance in Giles, centred on Whyalla but with the addition of a vast Outback hinterland which has almost halved the putative margin of Labor's Lyn Breuer (now down to 5.3 per cent). Tina Wakelin, wife of the federal member for Grey, Barry Wakelin, is making a big push and is helped perhaps by a newly approved Whyalla steelwork development which means more jobs but threatens to raise the city's pollution level.

It will be tougher for the Liberals in Adelaide and environs. Such looks safe in southern suburban Mitchell and only two Labor seats are thought to be in any danger at this stage.

In 2002, Labor's Jane Lomax-Smith was a political newcomer (apart from a stint as Adelaide lord mayor) and she won the seat of Adelaide by just 417 votes from big-spending Liberal Michael Harbison, the current lord mayor. Lomax-Smith is now a high-profile Education Minister and a very active local member, yet while the Liberals were struggling to find a candidate she still had only a 3 per cent two-party lead (according to The Advertiser poll). This electorate is turning more conservative and the Liberals' Diana Carroll, an experienced public relations consultant, is campaigning hard. Expect another cliffhanger.

Last time, Labor's Vini Ciccarello scraped home in Don Dunstan's old seat of Norwood by a mere 189 votes. The Advertiser poll has shown her to be doing quite well against the Liberal candidate, former Adelaide Crows footballer Nigel Smart. This is not surprising: Ciccarello is a former mayor of Kensington and Norwood; Smart is a ring-in from the other side of town. Still, Norwood is becoming more and more gentrified. Ciccarello has led handsomely before, only to escape by the skin of her teeth in a late rush to the Liberals. Smart is trying to make the Britannia Corner roundabout - a traffic hotspot - an major issue. It will be a tight contest again.

Whatever the polls say now, the next South Australian election, like the Battle of Waterloo, will be a close-run affair. The result may well be much the same as last time, with perhaps one or two seats in it either way. A run of power failures would be manna for Kerin. In Rann's favour, however, is the fact that the election campaign will be overshadowed by a plethora of arts, motor sport and horse racing festivities. Ah, yes, and by John Howard's IR revolution.