Like two skilled limbo dancers, the major parties managed to stay on their feet this weekend despite the bar getting lower.
And lower the bar certainly got. Labor’s primary vote in the South Australian election fell to its second worst since the war (second only to the 1993 State Bank debacle) after what the out-going Treasurer enthused was a “fantastic” campaign. The Liberals meanwhile swept to power riding a 7% drop in their vote, which Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham described as a “new dawn” but might have once been called a “disaster”.
In many ways, the South Australian result repeated what we have seen elsewhere, the major parties touching historic lows as they lose votes to minor parties for no particular reason, all covered up by the preferential system. The difference was this time that with a new minor party coming up through the middle and so attracting the preferences of both parties, the current favouritism the preference system gives to the major parties could have snapped back the other way to the advantage of SA Best.
Dealing with this threat governed the unusual tone of the campaign with the major parties neither especially focussing on each other but sand-bagging their seats by shoring up their own supporters with “base” issues like renewable energy (Labor) and “anger” issues like the Oakden scandal (Liberals). Otherwise, the main target was SA Best to prevent it coming second – including some tawdry preference deals. SA Best responded with no particular program of its own and a victim mentality that seems par for the course for the minor non-parties currently littering the landscape.
Much has been made of the hollowness of SA Best, summed up by its infamous Bollywood ad, but it was not on such challenging terrain, especially looking at the incoming Liberal government. ABC election night host Annabel Crabb rather facetiously noted to the incoming Liberal Treasurer that a new Liberal government would mean a little longer shopping hours and the trams turning right, to which he could only helpfully add that it would also see streamlining of senior public servants’ access to Ministers and “restructuring of internal government processes”. Hang on to your hats. In reality, the main interest will be to see if the South Australian Liberals resume their grand tradition of tearing themselves apart in government.
But if the South Australian election was one of major parties trying to put gloss on a result that did not deserve it, it was nothing to the delusions on display after result in the Batman by-election.
Batman used to be a seat considered so secure that it was possible to safely leave it in the hands of electorally talentless but powerful factional hacks like David Feeney. Now here we have Labor celebrating as a major achievement its ability to save the seat from falling to a minor party while in opposition. Labor’s primary vote went up by 7% but obviously helped by the 20% of Liberals dropping out. Regardless, Labor will still be holding the seat by one of the slimmest margins in its history. What on earth are people talking about.
Politicians twisting and turning to spin a favourable light on results that don’t deserve it should not surprise. What is less expected, and perhaps more intriguing is what appears a discomfort in media commentators to challenge them on it.
Not all were as mad as one commentator who thought the weekend showed “a recent trend among voters to return to the major parties” when it clearly did not. Nor is it just confined to the way commentators insist on talking of “swings” to parties that continue to lose voters, so making the term increasingly meaningless. Nor is it just the constant focus on minor parties not meeting expectations while ignoring what is actually happening to the major ones.
Rather what is striking is the curiously passive way these shifts are being discussed – as though this is just something “happening” to the electoral landscape rather than a product of voters consciously changing their political preferences. Hence all the discussion of SA Best flopping and doing poorly relative to some Newspoll, while treating the fact that a party that barely exists as an organisation going from nothing in the Lower House to 14% of the vote in one election as almost an inevitable non-event.
A more sophisticated example of this passive approach to what is happening are the explanations for the erosion of safe Labor seats like Batman being simply due to demographic trends, and an influx of young socially liberal professionals. Yet it is precisely this section of the electorate that Labor’s whole modernisation project during the Whitlam years of distancing from the unions was meant to capture and make Labor electorally viable. It’s a process that continues but delivers diminishing returns. Ged Kearney has been given one of the least safe seats ever given to a former head of the ACTU. It’s hard now to work out if that says more about how Labor regards the ACTU, or safe seats.
This points to a basic misconception. Labor’s not “seeing off” the Greens any more than the Coalition’s seeing off One Nation or Cory’s Conservatives – mainly because none of those minor parties are a threat in the first place. The issue is that the main parties are hollowing out, not that some new political force is taking their place.
SA Best would always be a challenge to that narrative that prefers to explain the shift to minor parties as a result of the policies of those parties (anti-immigration, environment, social conservatism) rather than a negation of the major parties they actually were. SA Best’s rapid rise represents the general negation of politics in its most explicit form, a party that not only had barely any program, but could not even stand for taking any power when it briefly, for a couple of polls, looked as though it could.