South Australia votes: The three man race to the top

South Australia’s state election is shaping up to be a three-way battle, with SA-BEST emerging as a threat to both the Liberals and Labor.

The upcoming South Australia election is shaping up to be the Nick Xenophon show, complete with a rap video featuring the man himself trying to dance his way to parliament. The former federal Senator could emerge the kingmaker on March 17 if his SA-BEST party polls strongly on election day. 

Key players 

After 16 years in charge, the Labor Party is seeking a fifth term in government. Such a long reign would be hailed historic if it can be achieved. But Labor under Premier Jay Weatherill would have to work hard to stay in power.

Few voters will forget the state-wide blackout of 2016, which sparked a national debate about energy policy. The Weatherill government was also heavily scrutinised over its roll in the Oakden aged care scandal, and pressured into contributing to a national redress scheme for victims of child sexual abuse.

South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill.
Source: AAP

Politics professor Carol Johnson from the University of Adelaide said Jay Weatherill has so far been able to weather these storms without seeing major damage to his party’s reputation.

“Weatherill has been Teflon-coated, to some extent, so far, but it will be very interesting to see whether that’s beginning to wear off,” she told SBS News.

“He’s tried to depict himself as a fixer, as someone who will acknowledge that there are problems but then go on and fix them, and what happened with SA power is a classic example of that.”

The upcoming election is Steven Marshall’s second as Liberals leader. His party narrowly missed out in 2014, despite winning the popular vote. Labor was tipped to lose back then, but rallied hard, winning a handful of marginal seats. The result was a hung parliament, with two independents backing Labor to form government. 

Steven Marshall is hoping South Australians are ready for a change, and wants to prove he is ready to take control. He has released 100 new policies, and is hoping an electoral redistribution that took place in 2016 will tip some marginal seats in his favour.

South Australian Liberal leader Steven Marshall with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
Source: AAP

The X Factor

Nick Xenophon is set to throw the cat among the pigeons this election. The well-known former federal Senator’s return to state politics could prove devastating for both Liberals and Labor. His SA-BEST party is running candidates in more than 36 out of 47 electorates.

Theoretically, he could become Premier if he wins enough seats but election analyst William Bowe, who runs the PollBludger blog, told SBS News such an outcome is unlikely.

“The more realistic expectation for him is that he wins the balance of power and emerges as the kingmaker.” 

Any more than four seats, he said, would put SA-BEST in a strong position to decide who will form government.

“At that point, it would be extremely unlikely that you would have either party winning a majority."

“In theory, it could happen with as few as one though, if Labor and the Liberals win the same number of seats,” he said.

SA-Best leader Nick Xenophon wears a sandwich board to launch his election campaign in Adelaide.
Source: AAP

The centrist politician and former lawyer entered politics as an anti-gambling advocate and has since become a political powerhouse.

Mr Bowe said SA-BEST's entrance into the state election could shake two-party politics in South Australia.

“I think Labor would be one way or another looking at an inevitable defeat if it wasn’t for the disturbance that Nick Xenophon has brought to the picture,” he said.

Key issues

Jobs, jobs and jobs. The closure of Holden late last year was a visible reminder that the manufacturing era is coming to an end in South Australia. State leaders and would-be leaders are looking to pivot towards the future.

Jay Weatherill has said job creation is his number one priority. Labor plans to create jobs by investing in major infrastructure projects and trying to attract emerging industries to the state.

Steven Marshall equally has made jobs a key platform, and in particular is pushing for reform of the Tafe system and investment in education.

The other key focus is energy, and it is where the two major parties begin to distinguish themselves. Jay Weatherill’s pledge for 75 per cent renewables for South Australia will draw a line in the sand between those who see renewable energy as a positive, and those who see it as expensive and unreliable.

2018 voting changes 

An electoral redistribution in 2016 has altered the nature of some seats, and may tip some marginal electorates into Liberal favour. Labor will have to win votes to stay in power this election.

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Key seats to watch 


Nick Xenophon is hoping to unseat Liberal MP Vincent Tarzia in the electorate of Hartley. About 40 per cent of those who live in Adelaide's eastern suburbs seat speak a language other than English at home.


Sitting member Frances Bedford will contest her seat as an independent after losing Labor preselection.


Another case of party member turned independent, former Liberal MP Duncan McFetridge will face off against his former party to contest this coastal seat.


Sitting MP Troy Bell quit the Liberal Party after he was charged with a number of fraud offences. He is now running as an independent while contesting the charges (which he firmly denies) in court. Despite the scandal, he remains popular in his hometown and polling suggests he could regain his seat.


After Hartley, these are the seats where SA Best may have the best chance.


The electoral redistribution has notionally made these Liberal seats. Their result on election night will be worth watching to see if a strong Liberal trend emerges.


Published 8 March 2018 at 2:38pm, updated 8 March 2018 at 4:20pm
By Rhiannon Elston