The Rise of Independent MPs in South Australia

Despite winning 55 percent of the two-party vote at this election, and the biggest margin since the end of the Playmander, the Liberals were only able to hold onto 16 of Adelaide’s seats.

Many of these independent electoral victories occurred in formerly ultra-safe Coalition seats. They reflect the growing electoral attractiveness of non-party candidates whose policies are focused on regional Australia.

History

South Australia’s Old and New Parliament Houses hold a central place in the history of Australian democracy. It was here that a series of radical reforms to political laws and processes, including secret ballots, one person/one vote, universal manhood suffrage, and the office of premier were first introduced.

After achieving self-government and an elected Parliament in 1856, the colony of South Australia drafted the most democratic constitution then seen in the British Empire, incorporating universal manhood suffrage, secret ballots and a bicameral Parliament. The role of the governor was also transformed into that of prime minister, requiring the support of the majority of the members of the lower house to remain head of government.

In the years leading up to the 1910 state election, South Australia’s two independent conservative parties merged to form the Liberal Union. At the election, Labor formed Australia’s first elected majority government and the Liberal Union folded into the Liberal Party of Australia.

The state election of 2022 saw the rise of teal independents. While the election saw no new ‘Country’ or rural conservative parties emerging, a number of independents who make climate action and political integrity key planks of their campaign, have been boosted by funding from the Climate 200 group, established by Melbourne philanthropist Simon Holmes-Anthony. Several of the teal independents, including Zali Steggall, who won Warringah at the 2019 state election, have been endorsed by this group.

The election also saw the appointment of a new Speaker of the Legislative Council, Tom Cregan. He was formerly a member of the SA Labor Party, having been elected to the state Parliament in 1997 at the age of 26. He was elevated to the ministry in 2009 and served as Minister for Youth and Volunteers, Small Business, Transport, Planning and Infrastructure, Housing and Development, Education and Training, Mining and Energy and State Development. He has a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Adelaide and has worked in a number of local businesses, with his own IT consultancy firm. His wife Anthea and young daughter Tia live in Torrensville.

Electoral Attractiveness

The election of Malinauskas marks the emergence of a significant new independent force in Australian politics. He has a broad political base, including support from the Greens and SA Best, and has proven himself to be a formidable political operator. He has the potential to become one of Australia’s most effective MPs, as he works to ensure the interests of his constituents are represented in parliament.

The South Australian House of Assembly consists of 47 members, each representing an electoral district. State elections are held every four years and the party or coalition of parties that wins the most seats forms government. The leader of the winning party becomes Premier of South Australia.

In the past, the majority of members of the SA House of Assembly have been members of the governing party. Currently, there are 10 Liberal, 5 Labor and 3 SA Best Members of the House of Assembly. The term of an SA MP is 4 years and they are up for re-election at the 2022 State Election.

Traditionally, the South Australian Government has used its dominant position in Adelaide to control the state’s legislature. The parliamentary tradition is that the Government nominates and elects its own Member as Speaker of the House of Assembly. During the early twentieth century, this practice was modified. Following a 1912 win by the Liberal Union, the Peake Government elected its own Member as Speaker, beginning a trend of nominating and electing only its own members as Speakers.

At the 1962 election, Labor won a two-party preferred vote of 54.3 percent to the LCL’s 45.7 percent, but suffered a small swing and was left short of a majority in the state. The resulting hung parliament was resolved by the throwing in of two independents, who threw their support to Labor, allowing Walsh to form a government.

The Xenophon team’s success in South Australia has made many observers think that the national contest is set to tighten. In particular, former South Australian Premier Mike Rann believes the halo around major party leaders is starting to fade.

Voters’ Expectations

The 2022 election will be the first since COVID-19 to feature a full house of lower house seats, with 47 seats up for grabs and half of the upper house, the Legislative Council. The Liberals are currently favourites to win the lower house and a bare majority in the Legislative Council. But the big prize is the speakership and it remains to be seen whether voters’ appetite for independents will see them win this coveted post.

The role of the Speaker is not without controversy. While the position is primarily an honourary role, it offers a $150,000 pay increase and a personal driver and the role of Speaker is coveted by many politicians. The perks of the job also mean that the Speaker is unlikely to be truly independent, even if they relinquish their party membership upon becoming Speaker.

As it stands, the Speaker must remain a member of the parliament during the ‘relevant election period’ which is defined as the nine months leading up to an election. This is to ensure that they meet the Electoral Commission’s funding and disclosure threshold reporting requirements relating to political party returns.

But even this does not guarantee true independence because the speaker is still required to contribute to debates, and if they do not agree with their colleagues, they must vote against them. This makes it difficult for them to take the ‘high ground’ on issues that have been negotiated with the other parties.

Moreover, they are also expected to attend committees and to participate in contested divisions and motions. This is in addition to the work they do in their electorate and at community meetings. The work load is likely to be far greater for independent MPs than for those from major party machines.

It is also likely that some of the teal independents will be funded by the wealthy Melbourne philanthropist Simon Holmes a Court’s Climate 200 initiative, which will only fund candidates who are committed to “climate action, gender equality and political integrity”. The organisation has previously provided funding for independents like Zali Steggall who defeated former NSW premier Kristina Keneally in the Sydney seat of Fowler at this year’s federal election.

Political Dilemmas

The Parliament of South Australia consists of the 47-seat House of Assembly (lower house) and the 22-seat Legislative Council (upper house). A state election is held every four years, with all lower house seats and half of the upper house being up for grabs at each poll. The state’s bicameral system of government is based on Westminster tradition.

The state’s non-Labor opposition is the Liberal Party, which was formed in 1932 and changed its name to the Liberal and Country League (LCL) when it merged with the Country Party in 1945. The LCL was one of the main opponents of Labor at the landslide victory in the Federal election in 1931, when it took six of the state’s seven seats in the House of Representatives. The LCL also won the state’s three seats in the bloc-voting winner-take-all Senate.

At the 1962 state election, the Electoral Act was amended to abolish the ‘Playmander’ electoral malapportionment scheme that had been in place since 1936, and reduce the size of the House of Assembly from 46 members elected from multi-member districts to 39 members elected from single-member district seats. The changes were designed to give rural districts a 2-to-1 advantage over urban ones, even though Adelaide now accounted for two-thirds of the state’s population.

A major political issue in South Australia is the level of wages and allowances paid to parliamentary representatives. The current remuneration is $169,250 per year, with Premiers and Ministers earning twice that amount. Shadow ministers and committee chairmen receive a smaller premium on the basic salary.

The upcoming 2022 state election will be crucial to the future of independent MPs in South Australia. Some of them may choose to join the Coalition, which will need a total of 25 seats in the House of Assembly to retain control, or go on the crossbench to support an opposition-led coalition. This could see the Liberal and National parties move further to the right in their policies. In contrast, the Greens are likely to move further left. In recent polling, a majority of South Australians are significantly happier with the performance of their leaders now than they were earlier in the year. This is reflected in the fact that both the Liberal and Opposition Leaders have higher net approval ratings now than they did at their lowest points.