SA election: Weatherill comes out swinging in final leaders' debate

Xenophon, Marshall and Weatherill battle for votes ahead of Saturday’s state election

Three nights before the South Australian state election, three party leaders awkwardly shifted about on the stage of the Central Districts football club function room in Elizabeth.

They had no podiums to lean upon or hide behind, standing in the open before 106 undecided voters tasked with the final interrogation of a month-long campaign.

The Labor premier Jay Weatherill wasn’t in the mood for hiding, in any case. His very first sentence was a quiet utterance of his “standing up for SA” slogan, made with eyes wide and head swinging side-to-side as if trying to find a federal energy minister to tear into.

Weatherill settled for a state rather than federal Liberal, looking past SA Best leader Nick Xenophon to target opposition leader Steven Marshall about the latter’s refusal to apologise over an independent finding released earlier in the day that his campaign had misled thousands of voters in October last year, via robocalls falsely claiming a $302 electricity bill saving under the Liberal energy plan.

Marshall, his dark eyebrows accentuated by thick-framed spectacles, was his usual nonplussed self, reluctantly offering a qualifier-laden apology after extensive pressing by the Sky News moderator David Speers.

The Liberal leader defended his energy price plan as the only one to be independently scrutinised, his scoffing at Weatherill’s subsequent explanation drawing a response from a premier spoiling for a fight.

“Please don’t lecture me about numbers,” Weatherill exclaimed. “You’ve just been told by the electoral commission of South Australia that you’ve misled the whole of the community and you won’t even retract it!”

South Australian Liberal leader Steven Marshall (right), SA Best leader Nick Xenophon and premier Jay Weatherill at the debate in Adelaide.
South Australian Liberal leader Steven Marshall (right), SA Best leader Nick Xenophon and premier Jay Weatherill at the debate in Adelaide. Photograph: Tracey Nearmy/AAP

Xenophon tried to inject himself into the conversation by pledging to “look into” reducing power bills, urging the need to listen to what welfare groups had to say. Speers observed that, three days out from the election, SA Best had surely had plenty of opportunities to look and listen already, and pushed Xenophon for policy detail that refused to emerge.

It would be a theme of the evening: Marshall unwilling to reveal if his plan to slash land tax would prompt a cut to teacher and nurse numbers, and Weatherill refusing to concede government ministers should have been more “inquisitive” about what was taking place during the Oaken aged care home abuse scandal.

The questioners, hand-picked by Galaxy, were largely speckled with grey in an appropriate representation of Australia’s second-oldest state. The audience offered up plenty of issues of particular interest to older citizens, including healthcare, disability support, euthanasia (all pledged support for a conscience vote), and even cemetery leases.

Law and order was another, particularly in relation to South Australia’s high rates of ice use. Both Weatherill and Xenophon took the opportunity to brag about upsetting civil liberties activists by their hardline approach, the premier boasting of his ice taskforce “catching the bastards that actually sell this stuff”. He then took his fighting spirit to constitutionally questionable places in declaring he was “sickened” by a recent domestic violence court decision.

Xenophon promoted his release earlier in the day of $10m in legal aid for victims of crime to ensure they had legal representation in plea bargaining. Marshall suggested mandatory sentencing of ice addicts under 18, short of Xenophon’s plan for mandatory sentencing of users of all ages.

Asked to highlight their own failures, Weatherill pointed to Oakden, and Xenophon volunteered his past attempt to freeze penalty rates for small businesses.

Marshall used the question to make an unusual pitch to voters, suggesting he hadn’t been given the opportunity to stuff up given the Liberal party’s 16-year stint in opposition.

Whether a Premier Marshall will have some errors to answer in election debates four years from now, or Premier Weatherill will be answering for some fresh mistakes, is to be determined on Saturday – or more likely by Xenophon in the hung parliament negotiations that could follow.

The debate could be the boost the SA Best leader needs to revitalise his campaign. Of the undecided voters in attendance, 30% nominated Xenophon the debate victor, 22% opted for Marshall and 19% chose Weatherill.


Max Opray

The GuardianTramp

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