It was billed as a provincial election, in a part of the country that rarely receives any national attention. But on Saturday, 1.7 million South Australians will vote in what many are describing as the most exciting electoral race in a generation, as maverick insurgents look to overturn the state’s traditional two-party political system.
In the months before the vote, it was assumed it would be a contest between the ruling state Labor Party, which has held government for the last 16 years, and the Liberal opposition, which famously lost an unlosable election in 2014 when it won the popular vote, but failed to secure enough seats to form government.
This time around, things are different.
Thanks to a redistribution of electoral boundaries, a series of outsider minor parties are threatening to break the stranglehold of Australia’s two major parties.
The chief election disruptor is former federal Senator Nick Xenophon, a centrist figure who resigned his seat in Canberra to contest the South Australian election with his fledgling political party SA Best in a risky gambit that has spooked the major parties.
It was Xenophon’s SA Best party that was behind a popular, but cringe-worthy viral campaign showing the party leader and his candidates singing and dancing, complete with Bollywood-style dancers.
Early polls said Xenophon’s SA Best had the potential to take enough seats for him to become Premier, but recent surveys have caused pundits to question his support – with some suggesting he may not even win his own seat.
A second start-up political party, the Australian Conservatives, is led by Federal Senator Cory Bernardi, who generated headlines when he launched his party’s campaign in February by ridiculing Tesla CEO Elon Musk.
“Elon Musk, I’m convinced, is the monorail salesman from The Simpsons,” Bernardi said. “There is an ideological obsession, there’s been an infection in the federal parliament, and it’s been here in South Australia, that renewables are somehow going to power our way to the future. It’s not. That’s not how it works.”
“When the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow, the power doesn’t flow,” he added.
Bernardi started up his own political party to appeal to the Christian right and small government conservatives after having traveled to the US to personally witness US President Donald Trump’s election campaign.
Bernardi is promising to build a radioactive waste dump and to clear local regulatory hurdles stopping nuclear power generation.
While South Australia maintains a ban on nuclear energy operations within its borders, it is also home to the Olympic Dam, the single largest known uranium deposit in the world.
Only a portion of it has ever been utilized but its potential has not gone unnoticed by state policy makers.
Former Labor Premier Mike Rann was the first to highlight the possibilities in 2007, when he said in a radio interview that it was the “fuel of the future.”
“To put it into perspective, if uranium is the fuel for the future, we’re not the Texas, we’re the Saudi Arabia of it in our state,” Rann said.
South Australia, which now draws much of its electricity from renewable sources, has previously debated building a radioactive waste “repository” within its borders.
A state-based Royal Commission investigated but ultimately rejected the idea of building a nuclear power plant, saying it would not be “commercially viable.”
The Commission did however support the idea of building a radioactive waste storage facility, suggesting it could raise as much as $257 billion for the state government in revenue by taking 13% of the world’s radioactive waste.
Sweden and Finland are two other countries which operate their own storage facilities, though neither accept contributions from other countries.
Last year, the state Labor government shelved the proposal for lack of popular support and the idea is now considered so politically damaging that Premier Jay Weatherill, who’s fighting to retain his job, is reluctant to discuss it publicly.
“I had to ask some big questions about what is the future of the South Australian economy. How do we create jobs in an economy where we’re facing all these external threats?” Weatherill said in an interview on March 13.
Weatherill said one of the “big questions” he’d asked was whether the state should take a bigger role in the nuclear fuel cycle.
“People said no, we didn’t want to do that.” he said.
The big questions
This election has run against a backdrop of industrial closures, putting infrastructure issues at the heart of the election with much debate around the state’s electricity grid, expanding the tram network, high speed internet and social issues including a proposed ban on slot machines.
Amid all this are a whole host of other independents and minor parties, including the Greens, who have managed to peel away Labor’s vote elsewhere, and the left-leaning Dignity Party’s Kelly Vincent, who at the age of 21, became the youngest woman elected to any parliament in Australia at the 2010 election while running on a disability-rights platform.
This raises the possibility of a fracture, with neither major party fully able to claim an outright majority and many independents in the mix helping to make up the balance.
Online bookmakers are currently favoring Labor to be re-elected in a hung parliament with SA Best to win just one or two seats.
But with hours to go before voters go to the polls, analysts and commentators have been pouring over polling to game out possible combinations but the number of variables really makes the outcome of the South Australian election anyone’s guess.