South Australian election: everything you need to know about Saturday's vote

For those who have been following, this has been a fascinating race. For those who haven’t, here’s what you missed

On 17 March South Australia goes to the polls to elect the state’s 54th parliament. Up for grabs are 47 seats in the state of assembly (lower house) and 11 of 22 seats in the legislative chamber (upper house).

Is Labor or the Coalition going to win?

Interestingly, the answer could well be: neither. When Nick Xenophon quit the federal Senate last year to lead his SA Best party in the state election, polls placed him as the clear preferred premier, an unprecedented situation for a minor-party leader. For most of the period since bookies have had SA Best neck and neck with Labor and the Liberals to win, but polling over the past two weeks indicates support for Xenophon is softening.

Regardless, the SA Best factor still makes it difficult to predict who will win between the Labor premier, Jay Weatherill, and the Liberal opposition leader, Steven Marshall. The three-way contests around the state are a pollster’s nightmare – many seats are likely to come down to a complicated web of preferences.

A statewide Newspoll conducted from 27 February to 1 March has the Liberals at 32%, Labor at 30%, and SA Best at 21% (although that moves up to 27% when only counting the 36 seats Xenophon’s party is contesting).

In the final week Weatherill is a slight favourite to continue as premier, with the most likely outcome a hung parliament where the two major parties have fallen short of a majority and are forced to cut a deal with SA Best and/or a gaggle of independents to decide who gets to form government. Typically a hung parliament sees independents stick with the status quo but after 16 years of Labor in government the case for change is there.

What are the main issues?

With high electricity costs and a series of power outages including a statewide blackout triggered by a storm, it might seem a surprise that the Weatherill government chose to put energy front and centre of the campaign. However, Weatherill’s green energy strategy is popular with voters, and Labor has subsequently increased its state renewable energy target to 75% by 2025 and introduced a storage target of 25%, complemented by various funding mechanisms that have encouraged an array of projects, including the world’s largest battery storage system, world’s largest virtual power plant and world’s largest solar thermal tower.

Marshall is urging an end to Labor’s “experiments”, promising to kill off the state-based renewable energy target and build a second interconnector to the eastern states enabling the state to import energy from the coal-intensive New South Wales grid, and also export green energy. In addition the Liberals are doing a little experimenting themselves, promoting a plan for $100m in grants for home battery storage systems. Xenophon has promised a not-for-profit retailer to provide cheaper energy to lower income households and pledged that any government that has failed to reduce power prices at least 20% by 2020 would lose SA Best’s support.

Just as transitioning to a new energy system is a hot topic, so too is transitioning to a new economy. This is the first state election since Adelaide closed down its car manufacturing industry last year. Labor has staked its reputation on a medley of employment generating projects, including the creation of more than 1,000 jobs by luring hi-tech factories that manufacture cutting-edge products including cancer proton machines, battery storage devices and cybersecurity components. The Liberal jobs pitch is grounded in stimulating growth through cuts to regulations, eliminating payroll tax for small businesses and cutting land tax. Xenophon has offered support for elements of both platforms.

Another important issue is elder care and mental health, largely thanks to the mid-election campaign release of independent commissioner against corruption Bruce Lander’s damning report into the Oakden scandal. The review sternly criticised the former mental health minister Leesa Vlahos, who quit days before the report’s release. The abuse of elders at Oakden hit close to home for South Australians who live in a state featuring the second-oldest population in the country. Over-50s represent more than half of voters. Marshall and Xenophon savaged Labor over the revelations, and both have pledged to force the release of cabinet documents to the Icac investigation and to increase funding for mental health and aged care.

Other policies to attract attention include Xenophon’s plan to halve the number of pokies in the state, a $35m Labor proposal to roll out high-speed internet 10 times faster than the NBN across Adelaide, and a Liberal plan to consider construction of an underground CBD rail line.

Where are the key battlegrounds?

Seats that have been safe Labor and Liberal strongholds for generations are in play for the first time, in part thanks to SA Best’s arrival and partly due to an extensive redrawing of electoral boundaries in 2016, made after the Liberals lost four elections in a row despite winning the popular vote in three of them.

This is particularly the case along the eastern fringes of Adelaide, where the city meets the hills. A prime example is the new electorate of King in place of the working-class north-eastern suburbs electorate of Napier, which had been a safe seat for Labor in the since its creation in 1977. King adds more rural territory to the mix, reducing Labor’s margin to 0.1% from Napier’s 9% buffer. SA Best’s arrival has disrupted Liberal ambitions for the area however, and both challengers have a chance at unseating the Labor incumbent, Julie Duncan.

On the south-eastern fringes, a long-term blue-ribbon Liberal seat – Heysen – is under threat. Retiring Liberal MP Isobel Redmond’s margin of 12.2% has been whittled away by SA Best candidate John Illingworth, who according to a 25 February Galaxy poll narrowed the gap down on a two-party preferred basis to 49% to 51%, behind Liberal candidate Josh Teague.

Bordering the hills directly east of the city is the Liberal marginal seat of Hartley, where Xenophon will be pitting his personal popularity against incumbent Vincent Tarzia, former Labor education minister Grace Portolesi and a tide of Greens preferences and pokies lobbying.

The central seat of Adelaide is a more traditional two-party battle, with SA Best nowhere to be seen and Labor throwing significant campaign resources and a $538m pledge for inner suburban tram extensions at Liberal member Rachel Sanderson.

In the south-east of the state, popular independent Troy Bell, a former Liberal, is attempting to hold Mount Gambier despite being charged with 26 criminal offences related to alleged misappropriation of more than $2m in taxpayers’ money. He denies the allegations. Bell remains the favourite despite the allegations and a strong challenge from the Liberals, who have matched Bell’s commitment to a 10-year moratorium on fracking in the area.

What about the upper house?

The legislative assembly is a veritable logjam, with 10 seats likely to be divvied up between Liberal, Labor and SA Best, leaving just one seat hotly contested by Greens MLC Tammy Franks and Robert Brokenshire of Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives, which has secured an unlikely third-place preference deal with Labor.


Max Opray

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Liberals triumph in South Australian election – as it happened
State to have new government for the first time in 16 years. Join us as we follow the night’s developments

Amy Remeikis

17, Mar, 2018 @12:15 PM

Article image
Why the South Australian election is the nation's most gripping contest
Political editor Katharine Murphy and photographer Mike Bowers join a campaign that is surprising even seasoned observers

Katharine Murphy

09, Mar, 2018 @5:00 PM

Article image
South Australian state election first big opportunity for Cory Bernardi’s party
Australia Conservatives could prove highly influential in a fractured legislative council

Max Opray

24, Feb, 2018 @8:00 PM

Article image
South Australia heads to the polls for unpredictable election
With Nick Xenophon’s SA Best party running an open ticket, pollsters can only guess at whether Labor or the Liberals will get enough preferences to win

Max Opray

16, Mar, 2018 @7:00 PM

Article image
SA election: Weatherill comes out swinging in final leaders' debate
Xenophon, Marshall and Weatherill battle for votes ahead of Saturday’s state election

Max Opray

14, Mar, 2018 @11:15 PM

Article image
Can Nick Xenophon end two-party politics in South Australia? | Ben Raue
Xenophon’s SA Best could come in the top two in enough seats to make this election a rare three-way race

Ben Raue

19, Feb, 2018 @5:00 PM

Article image
South Australian Liberals claim victory after 16 years in opposition
Party led by Steven Marshall looks almost certain to achieve a majority, while Nick Xenophon’s SA Best is disappointed

Max Opray in Adelaide

17, Mar, 2018 @12:49 PM

Article image
Everything you need to know about the Australian election now it's finally here
You do realise there’s an election on, don’t you? Here are 20 key questions answered to make sure you are ready for Australia’s festival of democracy

Paul Karp and Nick Evershed

30, Jun, 2016 @8:38 PM

Article image
South Australia's pokies lobby takes a bet each way to stop Nick Xenophon
The SA Best leader is promising a crackdown on pokies but the gambling industry is fighting back

Max Opray

05, Mar, 2018 @2:16 AM

Article image
South Australia election: Xenophon’s party to force ice users into rehab
Liberal opposition accuses Labor government of abandoning the most vulnerable in society

Max Opray

27, Feb, 2018 @3:25 AM