Labor prays for salvation in the City of Churches
As Labor braces itself for a voter backlash in Kevin Rudd’s home state of Queensland and the dysfunctional ALP-run fiefdom of New South Wales, there are two South Australian seats which will attract close and nervous attention from both sides of politics on election night.
It’s been a long time since South Australia has been anything other than a brief whistlestop during the national election campaign, with the major parties doing little more than upholding their obligations by paying just one visit to Adelaide, more out of politeness than anything else.
This week showed how vital SA will be on election night. I returned home this week for a flying 24-hour visit and spent half the day at the ritzy Burnside Village and the other half at the much earthier Parkholme shops, just down the road from where I grew up, talking to voters about their assessment of Gillard and Abbott.
Away from the shops, it was a manic day on the hustings – it started with Julia Gillard’s visit to her old school Unley High, off the back of a glowing Advertiser front page headed “River Queen” where she promised that Labor would buy back the Murray River allocation to guarantee water for SA. A day later Tony Abbott responded in kind, trying to deny her momentum by trumping her water promise and earning himself a page one in the process.
As Gillard and Abbott were slugging it out, so too were old friends Jill Van Den Hengel and Pam Harrison, having a friendly political argument over wine at a Burnside Village café.
Pam is a retired lawyer, Jill worked in retail and was a bridesmaid at Pam’s wedding some years ago. Pam has always been more of a Labor voter, Jill is more conservative, but they’re both a bit unenthused about what they’ve seen during this campaign.
I know I should be excited about Julia Gillard and I know there has been a lot of attention on her South Australian upbringing but I must admit that I’ve been quite appalled by the way she was put into the job. I have been reading a lot about the role of the factions, the NSW Labor Party, and it just seems a bit illegitimate the way the whole thing was done..
Jill says that while she’s always been more supportive of the Liberals, she’s been disappointed by the lack of focus on issues that matter to SA and wants to see more done on issues such as water.
Which is exactly why Julia Gillard is just down the road talking about that very thing, and Tony Abbott is about to fly to Adelaide to claw his way back into the Murray debate.
Rarely does SA attract this kind of attention at election time. The reason is that Labor knows that it could offset its losses in NSW and Queensland by grabbing a seat in the Festival State.
John Howard exercised a vice-like grip over most of the state during his reign, holding former Labor seats such as Kingston, Makin, Hindmarsh and Boothby by calibrating national policies with one eye on their impact on SA. His announcement of a tariff “pause” for the car industry in 1997 when the scorched-earth free trade purists at the Productivity Commission were urging him to do the opposite was a trademark display of pragmatism which won the respect of blue-collar voters in this once-great manufacturing state.
But when the Howard era came to an end, SA lined up with the rest of the nation to jump on the Kevin07 bandwagon. Once marginal seats such as Adelaide, Kingston, Makin and Hindmarsh are Labor held and will remain so at this election. The consensus on both sides is that if any seats change hands, they will be Liberal marginals – Sturt, the posh eastern suburbs seat held by leading Liberal moderate and shadow education minister Chris Pyne, and Boothby, a seat which combines solid suburbia with gritty manufacturing, held by the conservative Dr Andrew Southcott.
Both Pyne and Southcott are the product of the frontier factionalism which has afflicted the South Australian Liberal Party, but also made it punch above its weight in terms of delivering frontbenchers to the federal sphere.
Pyne started his career by working for the genial old school moderate Ian Wilson, who was Aboriginal Affairs Minister in the Fraser Government, where Pyne did such a good job taking care of Mr Wilson’s branches that he seized control of them and knocked him off for pre-selection.
The Liberal politics of SA are such that conservatives including Corey Bernardi, Nick Minchin and former State Treasurer Rob Lucas are quite candid in not caring, and possibly even hoping, that Pyne loses his seat.
Southcott nominated for Boothby ahead of the 1993 election as the conservative spoiler candidate when former Liberal Senator and moderate Robert Hill thought he could swan into the Lower House, with an eye to the possible leadership of the Liberal Party. The conservatives mobilised and Southcott stunned Hill by knocking him off.
Clearly, both Pyne and Southcott have been in plenty of scrapes before. But this election could be the fight of their political lives. Pyne enjoys a slender 1 per cent buffer in Sturt after former Advertiser columnist and youth activist Mia Handshin almost rolled him at the Kevin07 election. Southcott’s 4.5 per cent margin in Boothby is superficially more comfortable but of the two seats many believe he’s most likely to lose, a testament to Pyne’s more paranoid work ethic, and the demographic profile of Southcott’s seat, which not incidentally is home to Julia Gillard’s parents. Pyne is also being helped by a lingering scandal involving his Labor opponent Rick Sarre, who it’s been revealed once wrote a character reference for a child molester. The emergence of this fact has been blamed on Liberal Party dirty tricks.
At the broader level, the “local girl” factor makes SA harder to read at the 2010 poll. SA has never had a prime minister – Bob Hawke only counted on a very minor technicality being born in Bordertown - and Gillard lived in SA from when she emigrated with her Welsh parents at the age of three, up to when she left the University of Adelaide for Melbourne in her 20s.
The key difference between the conversations at Burnside and Parkholme were that the Burnside folks were much more comfortable with Tony Abbott and dismissed Labor’s criticisms of his industrial policies as a scare campaign. In contrast, the less affluent voters in Parkholme were heeding Labor’s negativity over Workchoices.
Dean Lambert is at Parkholme chaining up his bike outside Bakers Delight.
I have actually just been redundant, I worked at the tax office, so I’m on a bit of an enforced holiday. I would like to see Gillard returned. To me it just seems that their policies are good for working people, not just for business people. A lot of their policies are good for business too. But I really don’t want to see Abbott get in because of his Workchoices style policies. People need job security.
But husband and wife Paul and Carol, from the UK, are more sceptical about Labor’s scare campaign. And even though Carol herself is Welsh and, obviously, a woman, she’s not jumping on the Julia bandwagon.
“A lot of what she’s doing is just slagging off the opposition and saying that we’re going forward, going forwards, but what are we going forwards with? When she first got in I thought here you go she’s really going to shake things up but she hasn’t been doing that. And she was still part and parcel of the Labor Government before, she was in with Rudd making the decisions. I think the way she got the job was a bit sneaky. They would have been better to wait until after the election. So there you go I’m Welsh and I’m female but I still probably won’t vote for her.”
Whether the Gillard factor will come through on polling day is debatable. Labor MPs and Liberals say privately, and the polls also suggest, that the ALP vote has picked up in SA. The question is whether the 2007 results were Labor’s high watermark, and that the party can never go better than it did in the midst of Kevin07 mania, or if it can enjoy one small extra bounce which could end up standing between government and opposition as the eastern states revolt.
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