An “old” government, an opposition leader many people find lacklustre, and a popular centrist player adept at exploiting discontent – that’s the confusing choice facing “soft” voters in next Saturday’s South Australian election.
It’s little wonder that observers are unwilling to predict the election’s outcome.
In focus group research last week, participants were divided over whether SA – which often sees itself as the poor relation among states – is headed in the right or wrong direction. On the positive side they noted the technology industries, renewable energy, and defence contracts. But then there is the pain – the decline of manufacturing, lack of jobs, low wages, high cost of living, and many young people leaving the state.
Four groups of nine to ten “soft” voters – people still to decide how they will vote – were run on March 7-8, two each in Adelaide and Murray Bridge, a regional city of some 20,000 population. The work was done by Landscape Research for the University of Canberra’s Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis.
There was a mix of gender, age and socio-economic backgrounds. In Adelaide voters were drawn mainly from the marginal Liberal seat of Hartley (where SA-Best leader Nick Xenophon is running) and Dunstan (also marginal Liberal, held by opposition leader Steven Marshall). Both seats are within federal cabinet minister Christopher Pyne’s seat of Sturt. Murray Bridge is within the state seat of Hammond (safe Liberal); it is located in the federal Liberal seat of Barker, which saw a strong Nick Xenophon Team vote in the 2016 federal election.
Among the election issues, health – including the cost and teething problems of the new Royal Adelaide Hospital - was a prominent concern for these soft voters, especially older ones. The plight of the Murray River and the management of the Murray Darling Basin resonated in Adelaide as well as obviously in the river city. For the regional voters, inadequate public transport servicing Murray Bridge (cost and availability) was important.
Across all groups a common catch-cry was that “the government should do more to keep young people here” in South Australia.
Premier Jay Weatherill was seen as the better performer during the campaign, when compared with Marshall.
Weatherill, premier since 2011, was perceived as the stronger leader of the two; he has to a degree escaped the blame for SA’s decline that is directed at the 16-year-old government.
“He speaks with more authority than Marshall,” said an older Adelaide voter, while an older participant in Murray Bridge thought “the current mob have given us a clearer idea of where they want to take the state than the Liberals”. But there was as well a strand of criticism from the older cohort – that Weatherill is “weak” and “insipid”.
Among the soft voters there was also a compelling sense of “change for change’s sake”, as one participant put it. “Labor has been in power long enough,” said a retiree; another wanted “new faces”.
Going against Weatherill is that, while he was seen as the better political performer, many of these soft voters had no great regard for him or his record in government. “Weatherill is just coasting along on what he thinks he has achieved and bullying tactics,” was the view of one Adelaide participant.
While many soft voters didn’t think Labor deserved re-election, they were hesitant about the Liberals under Marshall.
“If you look at Marshall, how can you ever call him a leader?” said an Adelaide real estate agent, while a retiree said “he hasn’t imploded yet but that could happen any day given past experience with the Liberal Party.”
Xenophon was regarded widely as standing up for SA - a number of these voters could spontaneously bring to mind examples of this.
He was seen to have run a “positive” campaign, in contrast to the major parties - this adds to his appeal when soft voters are disappointed with the sniping of the big parties, with which they are deeply disillusioned anyway. People judged the major parties were worried about Xenophon by the fact they were attacking him. “Both parties are seeing him as a real threat and are putting the boot in,” said one participant.
Xenophon, who started his political career as an anti-pokies campaigner, has adopted a pragmatic approach on the issue at this election. Some of these voters regarded this as selling out and becoming “just like the rest”, but for others it was a sign he understood “the need for compromise”.
The Hotels Association campaign against Xenophon has penetrated people’s awareness but also to a degree appears to have backfired with some of these voters taking the view this was a “big lobby with deep pockets” targeting him for their own nefarious ends.
Soft voters, reacting against the major parties, are attracted to the idea of Xenophon’s party having the balance of power as an antidote to their disillusionment. For those leaning towards voting for SA-Best, it represented a genuine alternative to the majors.
On the other hand, there was some disappointment with Xenophon. His hokey election advertising had not impressed the critics, and they viewed him as superficial. “He’s been exposed when he’s tried to be serious,” said one; another said: “People are beginning to understand Nick is just a showman”.
In Adelaide, SA-Best was seen largely as something of a one-man show, with not much in the way of policies, its attraction being as a vehicle for a protest vote rather than for what it represents in positive terms. There was also the issue that while Xenophon was a household name, outside the seat of Hartley his supporters would be voting for candidates who were often unknown quantities. As a young Adelaide voter put it, voting for SA-Best was “an awesome gamble”.
In Murray Bridge, a relatively small community, SA-Best has fielded a candidate described in the discussion as a “strong young woman” and the competition appears fierce, with Liberal incumbent Adrian Pederick facing a serious threat.
Participants acknowledged upsides and downsides in the prospect that SA-Best might hold the balance of power. An older Murray Bridge voter said it would “take the arrogance out of decision-making”. But another feared it would mean “South Australia will be stuck in quicksand, no movement, mired”.
Unlike quantitative polling, focus group research has no statistical validity. But for interest, here is the vote-leaning breakdown of these soft voters, in the penultimate week of the campaign.
Of 38 participants in total, eight remained firmly undecided. Of those who could say to which party they were leaning, the Liberals and SA-Best were neck and neck on 11 and 12 respectively, with five leaning to Labor and two thinking of voting for an independent or party other than these three. The Liberals fare more strongly in Adelaide seats, while SA-Best is the frontrunner in Hammond.
Notwithstanding their own leanings there was a feeling among some soft voters that Labor might win “by default” because Xenophon would split the Liberal vote and “people will forget the crap”.
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra