by Paul RussellNews Weekly
South Australia: Close contest looms in SA Election
, February 9, 2002
As South Australians prepare to go to the polls on February 9, what looked decidedly like a Labor landslide three months ago is again looming as a close contest.
In October 2001, the South Australian Liberal Party was in the doldrums. Many within their ranks seemed resigned to the inevitability of the party filling the opposition benches at the next election. A series of scandals involving senior ministers and the then Premier, John Olsen, plus the possibility of a long hot summer peppered with supply-related electricity blackouts seemed to spell doom to the last remaining Liberal State Government.
Yet, on January 15, Rob Kerin, who replaced John Olsen as Leader, called an election with the Liberals 10 points clear of Labor and their new leader with a personal approval rating of 51 per cent. Kerin’s refreshing, easy-going, no-nonsense style and his penchant for a "chat in the pub" while touring the State has helped South Australians warm to him and helped the Liberals bury the ghosts of leaders past, at least for the moment.
Mike Rann, Labor’s Leader in Opposition since 1994, would welcome the underdog tag as well as the challenge of chasing the five more seats he requires to gain a majority. In 1997, he led Labor out of the wilderness after the party’s abysmal showing in 1993 under Lyn Arnold and following the State Bank collapse.
Rann is a seasoned, professional campaigner who works well with the media. It remains to be seen whether or not a 25-day campaign will be long enough for him to gain sufficient momentum to carry the 2.8 per cent swing Labor requires.
On the other hand, Kerin seems decidedly ill-at-ease in front of the cameras and press galleries; time will tell whether or not his knock-about ‘good bloke’ image can sustain his campaign.
On policy issues, the two major parties have divided along traditional lines - Labor pushing more funding for schools, hospitals and the environment, the Liberals focussing on economic management and job creation. Rann has tried to sheet home privatisation as the main issue, calling into question the Liberal’s sell-off of the Electricity Trust and the TAB.
Negative campaigning of this sort will not sit well with South Australian voters who are clearly looking to the future. The Liberals have promised no more sell-offs and, with John Olsen’s resignation, have presented a small target on this issue.
On balance, it is difficult to see Labor winning. Not only does Rann need to gain five extra seats, he also needs to hold Labor’s own six marginals currently held by less than three per cent.
The presence of a large number of independents, some with good prospects of winning, plus two new minor parties, Family First and South Australia First, point to the very real possibility of a minority Liberal Government formed with support from these sources. Both new parties are likely to preference the Liberals - a luxury they have not known for some time that will undoubtedly affect the outcome in some seats.