By Antony Scholefield
Publish 25/02/2016

Most Australian elections, state and federal, are about jobs. The 2018 South Australian election will be even more of a “jobs election” than most, as the state’s unemployment rate continues to wander above seven percent.

South Australians are facing many other issues and there’s a lot context around the “jobs jobs jobs” focus, but fundamentally, whether South Australia elects a Labor or Liberal government in 2018 will hinge on the ability of each major party to produce a comprehensive, credible plan to address the state’s jobs crisis.

In some ways it’s an unexpectedly even contest. After nearly 15 years in government and a seven percent unemployment rate to show for it, you’d think Labor would be staring down the barrel of electoral oblivion.

Most South Australians, however, attribute the jobs crisis to factors beyond the state government’s control. Plummeting coal prices continue to drive job losses in the mining sector. A nationwide shift away from manufacturing is affecting South Australia disproportionately. Many voters blame the federal Liberal-National government for the loss of car- and submarine-building jobs, so these losses actually work in favour of the state Labor government.

Premier Jay Weatherill seems to understand that mining and manufacturing cannot carry the state forever, and is making positive noises about moving to a future economy based on research, culture, education, services, and innovation – such as inviting smart car manufacturers to test in Adelaide.

If you accept that voters don’t blame Labor entirely for the current situation, and neither major party has a serious handicap in the jobs-and-growth race, Weatherill’s forward-thinking puts Labor at least a smidgen ahead of the Liberals as they look towards 2018.

Sometimes incumbency is a liability, as voters blame the government for everything and decide to let the other side have a go. Remember the adage: Oppositions don’t win elections; governments lose them. Yet whatever the situation, South Australia – with its emphasis on traditional labour industries and predisposition towards social justice – tends to view Labor as the default vote.

The Liberals cannot play the small-target game. Leader Steven Marshall seems to have overcome the internal dysfunction of the last decade, but he needs to promise more than mere stability. If the Liberals think they can lie low and wait for the election to fall into their hands, they’re wrong. It didn’t work in 2014 and it won’t work in 2018.

The closest the Liberals have to an economic policy is a stump speech about lowering taxes and investing in productivity-boosting infrastructure. Maybe they’re underestimating the crisis. Maybe they really have no ideas. Either way that’s bad. The only positive slant is if they’re planning to introduce a more comprehensive jobs-and-growth package within the next two years. If so, Marshall is damaging himself by heralding his stump speech as a genuine policy suite.

The Liberals are trying to dictate their own set of battlelines for the 2018 election. Unfortunately for them, whichever party crafts a genuine, plausible jobs solution could lose every other skirmish and still emerge victorious.

Many politically-inclined individuals would like to see state parliaments abolished. (I’m one of them.) But a big point in their favour is the focus on “real” policy issues, such as jobs, health, education, and law enforcement.

When the average voter’s livelihood is under threat, she or he is unlikely to give a damn about “Canberra” issues such as Stuart Robert’s holiday activities, Eric Abetz’s recurring complaints about ABC bias, arguments about the credibility of the Human Rights Commission, or whether faction X is backing candidate Y in the pre-selection wars. That’s if she or he ever gave a damn about those issues in the first place (and it’s a big IF).

The South Australian Liberals are attempting to attack the state government on tiddly issues, such as the cost of Weatherill’s international camera crew. It’ll mean nothing if Labor offers up a better plan for jobs. Weatherill could eat a raw onion, blow $5000 on a helicopter trip, and face an AFP investigation – heck, all on the same day – and still win the election, so long as he outdoes Marshall on jobs.

A few other issues will colour the 2018 South Australian election, including the development of the new Royal Adelaide Hospital, fresh failings regarding child protection, and the ongoing conversation about nuclear waste storage. Yet the major parties need to keep one idea at the front of their political minds: it’s “jobs jobs jobs.” Whichever party sticks to that motto best should be rewarded with electoral victory.