Abbott effect saves Labor in South Australia, but hard lessons in Tasmania

The Coalition was expected to march to victory in both Tasmania and South Australia’s March state elections. Yet Labor, with the support of one independent, will hold onto power in South Australia, defying predictions. It was a case of the “Tony Abbott effect”.

But hatred for the Liberals at a federal level wasn’t enough for the Labor-Greens coalition to hold on in Tasmania after disappointing their supporters during their last term. They lost in a landslide as the Liberals reclaimed majority government.

The Liberals have complained about unfair electoral boundaries in South Australia, after winning 52.5 per cent of the vote, but not a majority of seats. But the swing to the Liberals was also far less than expected after 12 years of right-wing Labor government, just 0.6 per cent.

Labor’s charge that Liberal leader Steven Marshall would “set up a branch office in South Australia for Tony Abbott” struck a chord, given the contempt Abbott has shown for the thousands of Holden workers in South Australia who are losing their jobs.

But Labor’s return is hardly inspiring, with their promise to simply cut jobs and spending slightly more slowly than the Liberals. Labor is planning 4000 public sector job cuts over the next four years, compared to the Liberals’ figure of 5170 job cuts.

In a sign of dissatisfaction with the mainstream parties, in the upper house Nick Xenophon’s independent ticket won almost 13 per cent of the vote. Sadly The Greens’ did not realise the opportunity to attract new, disaffected Labor voters. Their vote in the upper house held steady at 6.4 per cent, seeing them retain their one seat.

Tasmania troubles

In Tasmania, the Labor-Greens coalition government was punished for adopting a neo-liberal diet of budget cutbacks in an effort to “balance the budget”. The Liberals secured a large swing of 12.4 per cent.

In 2011 the government moved to implement austerity with $1.4 billion in spending cuts including 1700 job cuts in the public service, $100 million in cuts to health, $190 million in cuts to education and an increase in public housing rent. But there was not even a thought of increasing taxes on business or the rich.

Voters punished The Greens for their decision to join a coalition government for the first time, with two Greens ministers in the Cabinet of Labor Premier Lara Giddings. The Greens vote dropped by a third, going backwards by 8 per cent.

The Greens were part of championing the budget cuts and conservative policies of the right-wing Labor government. Greens leader Nick McKim even defending the cuts, saying, “Just as the Greens supported previous Labor and Liberal minority governments when tough remedial budget action was required, we have rolled up our sleeves to take on a similar responsible role once again”.

As Education Minister, Nick McKim was responsible for implementing the closure of 20 government schools. The government only backed down after a union and community backlash, but instead forced the Education department to find $24 million in savings elsewhere, meaning a slow trickle of job and program cuts.

Before the election McKim told voters The Greens wanted to be part of a coalition government again—presumably with the Liberals, who were expected to beat Labor, saying, “We’ve done our apprenticeship in government and now we are ready for more responsibility.”

This experience is a warning for The Greens and the left. Forming coalition governments and taking the reins of power is not the way to bring change—in this instance The Greens’ acceptance of the limits of running the system saw them attack the very people that they should be representing.

Tasmania, where the party has historically enjoyed its greatest electoral success, has been the model for many within the party on a federal level.

The idea that influence and change can come through minority governments, Cabinet positions, balance of power arrangements and so on, however, has seen The Greens support minority governments in Tasmania, and federally with the Labor government in 2010. In all these instances the position has changed The Greens more than they have won real change over key political issues like budget cuts, refugee rights and climate change.

The Tasmanian Greens spent the final weeks of their election campaign in an unabashed pitch for Liberal voters, even launching an appalling website claiming The Greens were the only party with “real Liberal values”.

The focus on winning elections and power over political principles will only shrink The Greens support base. If The Greens are going to be able to influence politics, it will be through mobilising their supporters outside parliament in protest movements and grassroots campaigns.

By James Supple


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