For whom the bell polls in South Australia.

At the half way point in a four year term the SA Marshall Liberal government is surprisingly looking a little lost – and it’s pretty much all their own work.

In March 2020, a YouGov Galaxy poll https://www.pollbludger.net/2020/03/13/yougov-galaxy-53-47-labor-south-australia/ found 53-47 in Labor’s favour. Primary votes were Libs 39%, Lab 38%, Greens 11% and SA Best 7%. One year earlier it was Libs 52-48 with primary votes Libs 42%, Lab 37%, Greens 7% and SA best 7%.The new poll has Marshall with a bare 38-36 lead over Labor’s Peter Malinauskas as preferred premier, after leading 46-26 in last year’s poll.

So what happened? The poll was conducted in early March, just before new covid cases in SA had taken off. It would be interesting to see how things stand now, as Premier Steven Marshall has presented a calm and reassuring presence following the guidance of a competent public health team managing the pandemic locally. But against that is a recent history of the government’s own goals. These include:

  • a debacle over thwarted land tax reforms
  • a clumsy and as yet incomplete attempt at changing urban planning zoning systems which strip power and influence away from local government and local communities alike with a new online planning and design code which appears to favour developers and leave little room for protecting tree canopy or heritage
  • a proposal to cut bus routes and stops cancelled by the Premier following a popular outcry, including from his own backbench
  • scandals involving government members; one facing an assault charge and the President of the Legislative Council under investigation by the state ICAC over very dubious allowance claims
  • continued privatisations (sorry, ‘outsourcing’) of ‘public’ transport – trams, trains and buses

Labor opposition Leader, Peter Malinauskas is doing remarkably well – mainly by having a united team and not saying too much. The government continues to poison the well of public opinion with a remarkable dedication to continued privatisations. This week Minister Knoll (he of the bus stops and planning and design code) announced that all main roads maintenance would be outsourced. In reality most of this had already been done (by a Labor government of course) with only 150 road workers still employed by the Department. But privatisations don’t play too well with the punters anymore.

The earlier debacle over land tax reforms was weird. It seemed to me that the proposed reform by Treasurer Lucas to prevent landholders from disaggregating holdings in order to keep below the tax threshold was a change that should have been supported by those in favour of progressive taxation and opposed by the privileged. In fact in played the opposite way and the government was forced to back down after Labor capitalised on opposition from land owners with multiple investment properties.

Meanwhile in the health care sector there are major rumblings. At a time when the public anxiety about a Covid-19 resurgence makes cuts in hospital services “courageous’’ that is exactly what the government is doing. Following major budget blowouts for the Central Adelaide Local Health Network (CALHN) and the opening of the grand new Royal Adelaide Hospital the government appointed financial advisers, Korda Mentha, a firm who describe themselves as specialists in restructurings, receiverships, administrations and liquidations to take over management of CALHN. In late 2019 SA Health offered voluntary redundancies for staff including doctors and nurses. The State Government budget identified 11,000 jobs in SA health that could go and while the Department was coy about numbers, a target of 700-800 positions was rumoured. By late February 377 staff had volunteered to go, but a month later SA was getting around 30 new COVID-19 cases daily and the redundancy program was put on hold. In June as COVID-19 restrictions were being eased and new cases reduced to almost zero, it was reinstated. So now, just as the second wave is looming the redundancy program has been restarted. Unfortunate timing, and the nurses’ and doctors’ unions are restless.

At the same time proposed amendments to the Health Care Act are about to go before parliament. These propose the abolition of the health department’s own watchdog, the Health Performance Council without offering any replacement with for the Council’s statutory oversight and public reporting powers.

Meanwhile a major upheaval in the organisation of natural resource management is underway with the abolition of Natural Resource Management Boards and their replacement with Landscape Boards effective from July 1, 2020. Changed boundaries depart from natural catchment patterns and there is an increased emphasis on engagement with local volunteer organisations and partnership programs in delivering on ground works.

There is a pattern here. When Steven Marshall’s team campaigned successfully to end 14 years of Labor state government in 2016 they did so with an ambitious agenda to reorganise key sectors including health, planning and the environment. In each case they designed and attempted to implement major structural changes without a great deal of preparation or research. They built on a growing perception that Labor had been in office too long and it was time for change – and that was what they were going to deliver. Two years later the reality and complexity of these tasks is beginning to bite.

The whole state electoral scene is also under two significant clouds: The Electoral District Boundaries Commission is currently considering a review of boundaries. In October last year Labor and the cross benches united to defeat a proposal to reinstate what was called the fairness clause. The fairness clause was designed to ensure that the party that gets the most popular votes wins government. It was this that drove some of the decisions in the last redistribution that shifted some Labor Seats into Liberal territory. In the 2018 election Labor actually improved its primary vote, but lost government. So the current redistribution due to be completed at the end of this year is likely to shift the balance back Labor’s way.

The other cloud is a foreshadowed proposal by the government Attorney General Vicki Chapman to introduce optional preferential voting. Peter Malinauskas has stated Labor would be against it, but the real losers from a first past the post system would be the Greens, SA Best and the independents. Greens support rose remarkably in the March poll, but SA leader and long time and well-respected MLC member Mark Parnell has announced he will not stand at the next election, so that may count against them.

Currently the Government holds 25 of the 47 seats in the House of Assembly but only 9 of the 22 in the Legislative Council. They rely on support from the cross benches to get across the line in the upper house – and that is by no means guaranteed. While COVID-19 may be a wild card, it looks likely that the Marshall government will not get an easy ride for the next two years.

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Paul Laris is a semi-retired health and human services policy tragic, health care users advocate, medical regulator, community activist, gardener and sailor.

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