Challenges and Opportunities for South Australian Politics in the 21st Century

South Australia has a bicameral legislature with a House of Assembly and Legislative Council. In 1894 women gained the vote in the lower house, and in 1973 property qualifications for the upper house were removed allowing full adult suffrage.

The research finds that the prevailing neo-liberal economic policy orientation shut down the small space available for equity, and underpinned and constrained government thinking and priority setting. As a distal goal, equity is unlikely to have a significant impact through the SA HiAP approach.

Electoral politics

In Australia, electoral politics is a complicated affair. While the Coalition won the 2013 election, the Greens gained seats and the Nick Xenophon Group emerged as a significant challenger to the Liberal Democratic Party. The result is a fragmented parliament, and the coalition government is struggling to govern.

Electoral politics also involves political campaigns, which are highly competitive and involve a lot of money. The Australian Federal Election Commission spends over $145.3 million on advertising for the upcoming election, which is significantly more than the typical annual advertising budget of companies such as Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, and Qantas.

South Australian voters are typically well engaged with the democratic process, with enrolment rates at over 96% and participation rates above 90% for state elections. However, enrolment and participation rates are lower among certain groups (youth, First Nations peoples, and culturally and linguistically diverse Australians), and this is largely due to lack of knowledge about how to enrol and vote. Getting the message out about the importance of voting to these audiences requires a comprehensive campaign, with an emphasis on advocacy and outreach.

To promote the upcoming state election, ECSA launched a new ‘Your vote, your voice’ campaign. The campaign included social media, radio and television advertisements. It also featured community ambassadors who contacted local communities to encourage people to enrol and vote. The campaign was particularly effective in reaching culturally and linguistically diverse groups, as the community ambassadors could deliver information about enrolment and voting in their native languages.

In addition to the campaign, ECSA also worked with community groups to educate voters about the measures being taken to ensure that the election would be safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. These included a joint briefing session with SA Health and SAPOL, which was attended by media outlets. This helped to control the narrative about the safety of the election and to reassure the public.

Interviews with other sectors of the SA government revealed that they understood that HiAP offered tools to improve intersectoral policy development. The focus on equity, however, was less well-understood and garnered little traction. This is partly because the more distal outcome-focused intent of improving inequity is outside the scope of the SA government’s responsibilities, which are focused on economic goals.

Institutional politics

South Australia has a long list of parliamentary “firsts”. It was the first Australian colony to extend voting rights to women and the first in the world to abolish property qualifications for the upper house. It also pioneered social reforms, such as allowing trade unions and allowing women to become police officers and public servants. It was the first Australian state to adopt a uniform rate of taxation. It also pioneered social insurance and a national health system. Its constitution incorporated principles of democracy, including the right to free assembly and the prohibition on religious testification. In the late nineteenth century, the South Australian state government began to introduce a number of social measures that were ahead of its time. These included a universal pension, free health care for the poor and old, and compulsory education.

Despite these successes, political progress in South Australia remained fitful. For example, it took a decade to extend full adult suffrage to women in South Australia. Other reforms were more successful, such as the emancipation of Aboriginal people, the elimination of child labour and the introduction of a minimum wage. Nevertheless, there were many controversies over the nature of government.

In this context, it is important to understand the role of institutions in shaping political behaviour and limiting the range of policy options available to politicians. Koelble and Cairney describe institutional theory as the “set of underlying rules and norms that shape individual and organisational choice”. These constraints have implications for the way in which politicians pursue their interests and can limit the effectiveness of public policy.

To examine the impact of these limits on South Australian politics, this paper analyses the experiences and assessments of the SA HiAP initiative. It draws on five years of research comprising document analysis, a log of key events, detailed interviews with 64 policy actors and two surveys of South Australian public servants.

The study found that HiAP was supported by a wide range of sectors and a highly knowledgeable policy network in government. However, its commitment to the nexus between research and policy was challenged by the rapid shift of government priorities. It was particularly difficult to maintain its legitimacy when new “shiny things” were introduced with leadership changes in the government. These new initiatives would compete with HiAP for the attention of other sectors.

Political parties

Political parties are the dominant form of governance at the state level in Australia. They are the vehicle for aggregating political interest groups and coalescing around a particular ideology or goal. As such they play a crucial role in shaping political agendas and policy outcomes, as well as influencing electoral outcomes. They are also key players in the wider political process, including the formation of coalition governments and the influence of interest groups on government policy. The development of new parties, particularly at the state and local levels, is a reflection of the changing dynamics of the Australian political landscape.

The political system in South Australia is a multi-party system with three permanent ‘Majors’—Labor, Liberal and Nationals—plus a few add-on ‘Minors.’ These political parties are in competition for power and the resources needed to govern. Their governing philosophy is shaped by their ideological beliefs and their ability to attract voters. These competing ideologies are reflected in the policies they put forward.

Tackling inequities requires challenging existing powerful political and economic interests as well as dominant ideologies. It is important for policy actors to be aware of these limitations when considering their approach to policy. In the case of HiAP in South Australia, the neo-liberal economic policy orientations that underpinned its priority setting shut down “small policy space” for equity considerations.

This was exacerbated by the government’s response to the state’s economic crisis, which was primarily focused on maximizing its chance of re-election and prioritising economic development opportunities and short term job creation strategies over longer term social policy concerns like equity [45].

The institutional constraints on HiAP’s capacity to work on equity explicitly mean that the strategy it has pursued to date is unlikely to improve equity in the long run. This is despite its clear emphasis on intersectoral collaboration and the emphasis it places on co-benefits.

In order to improve equity, policy makers need to shift their focus from a problem-focused approach to one that addresses the drivers of health inequities. This will require a complex and sustained policy response that spans multiple government departments and agencies. It will also involve tackling the deep structural factors that underpin health inequities.

Public policy

The hegemony of neo-liberal ideas and the dominant policy environment in South Australia impacted the availability of policy space for advancing health and social innovation. However, there was a willingness by other government sectors to work on intersectoral policies that would improve the wellbeing and equity of people in the state. The challenges of achieving the aims of these inter sectoral policies were highlighted in a five year study that involved document analysis, a log of key events, detailed interviews with policy actors and surveys.

The initial success of the Health in All Policies (HiAP) initiative in South Australia was partly due to its clear approach to promoting intersectoral work. HiAP aimed to improve health by influencing the work of other departments in ways that were consistent with health outcomes. Its premise was that health is influenced by social determinants that are largely outside the scope of the Health Department, and that the best way to address these determinants is through an integrated policy response.

A strong knowledge base and an established policy network helped the HiAP project to gain the commitment of other government sectors. HiAP was able to maintain this commitment despite changes in the leadership of government departments and competing policy initiatives. A knowledge network was formed, facilitated by the HiAP project staff, that provided access to senior decision makers and informed by expert advice from across the broader community of practice.

HiAP’s knowledge network was also effective in ensuring that the work of intersectoral cooperation was recognised and valued within government. It positioned HiAP as a mechanism for breaking down siloes and working collaboratively across government to deliver the goals of the Strategic Plan for South Australia (SASP). A focus on equity was clearly articulated in the SASP targets, particularly between 2007 and 2011.

However, the increasing pressure of economic challenges in the state forced the government to shift its priorities towards economic development. As a result, the hegemony of neo-liberal policies shut down the small policy space available for equity. This shift was most pronounced when the State faced financial crisis in 2013 and introduced its 10 Economic Priorities with a clear emphasis on job creation and economic growth.