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South Australia is first and foremost a political entity. Beginning as a geographically defined jurisdiction of colonial government, it soon developed into a lively arena for the public disputations and legitimate resolutions that constitute a modern political system. As South Australia continues into the second decade of the twenty-first century, it carries the political baggage – in the form of parliamentary institutions, political parties, voting habits, policy legacies and partisan memories – invented and developed over what is (under any fair international measure) a very long period of continuous democratic politics.

Duality between state and federal politics

Since federation in 1901, South Australians have been participants within two recognised political entities: at the national level, as citizens of Australia, while also, at the state level, as citizens of the state into which the former colony of South Australia had been reconstituted. This duality is central to how South Australians have understood their governmental system and their political life.

State-level politics have always been prominent. From the solemn Register commentaries in early colonial days to the evening television news clips of today, the local media have routinely reported the activities of the South Australian premier (or governor), the decisions of the South Australian cabinet, the key debates within the South Australian parliament, and the local political issues and controversies – over state development or hospital administration, school curricula, police services, prison reform, water supply and a host of other matters – for which South Australian governmental responsibility is recognised.

South Australia was granted the privileges of self-government in 1856 under a parliamentary system. The South Australian polity then affirmed continues to this day as a constitutional monarchy. Its government governs and serves its citizens with respect to a wide range of policy matters, and is in turn accountable to the citizens through parliamentary elections contested by political parties organised (for this purpose at least) at the state level. The government is subject to the full gamut of locally sourced political pressure – from the parliamentary opposition, journalists and the media, business lobbies, trade unions and professional associations, environmental organisations, community activists and a host of other groups.

Interpretations of South Australian political history

An influential interpretation of South Australian political history portrays a moderately progressive South Australian political culture developing from a nineteenth-century ‘paradise of dissent’. Evidence for this progressivism purportedly includes pioneering nineteenth-century advances in electoral reform and women’s suffrage; transformation from an agrarian to an urban-industrial profile through the avuncular and farsighted leadership of longstanding premier, Tom Playford; and the cultural transformation and modernisation of the ‘Dunstan decade’ of the 1970s.

Against this can be juxtaposed more sceptical claims. Premier Don Dunstan saw pre-Dunstan South Australian politics as conservative and controlled by an established elite. The historian Eric Richards describes it in terms of ‘provincialism, self-satisfaction, anti-intellectualism and philistinism’ (The Flinders History of South Australia: Social History). While South Australia was early in granting female suffrage, it was the last state to actually elect women to parliament. It took until 1973 for full adult franchise to be achieved for Legislative Council elections, and until 1977 for local government elections. The period since the early 1980s has seen South Australian governments and leaders struggling to adapt to changing economic circumstances.  The collapse of the State Bank in the early 1990s had a particularly debilitating effect on local political confidence over the following decade and on the state’s national reputation for policy flair.  The accession and longevity of the Rann Labor government (in office from 2002) indicates that Labor Party was eventually able to dissociate itself from the political and emotional legacy of the State Bank collapse.

South Australia in national politics

While all of these interpretations may be contentious, few observers would doubt the authenticity of their state-based focus. But they relate to only one of the two dimensions of the political identity of South Australians. South Australia has also been, since 1901, a component state of the Australian Federation, and it engages in national politics in a number of important ways.

South Australians elect politicians who sit in the Commonwealth parliament representing either local electorates (via the House of Representatives) or the whole state (via the Senate). The election campaigns that produce this representation intermix national and local issues. While local politicians who proceed to the national political stage can develop wider political ambitions and interests, they cannot afford to forget that their political base – most fundamentally, support within their own political party for their continuing preselection as an endorsed parliamentary candidate – remains firmly state-based.

Many South Australians have served in Commonwealth ministries, beginning with Charles Cameron Kingston in the first federal cabinet. But South Australia remains the only state never to have supplied an Australian prime minister, and Alexander Downer’s brief period as Liberal Party leader in 1994–95 represents the only instance of a South Australian ever being the national opposition leader. It is perhaps reflective of a wistful yearning for national leadership recognition that prime minister Julia Gillard’s school-age years in Adelaide have seen her identified in some local media portrayals (and in Labor electoral marketing) as a kind of expatriate South Australian notwithstanding her adult professional and political career being firmly founded in Victoria and her occupation of a Melbourne parliamentary seat. The Australian Democrats, a presence in the Senate for thirty years from the late 1970s, proved unusual in having a penchant for South Australians (viz. Janine Haines, John Coulter, Meg Lees and Natasha Stott Despoja) as national leaders.

South Australia also engages in national politics through the system of intergovernmental relations. Much of the output of government in Australia is mediated through intergovernmental negotiations leading to Commonwealth financial assistance for state-provided human services. Small states like South Australia arguably exercise power disproportionate to their size, their co-operation and consent being a prerequisite for the adoption of new regulatory regimes or policy reforms. In these intergovernmental forums, each state more or less counts equally.

But it is also characteristic that we tend to identify with our state premier rather than with our national prime minister in any Commonwealth–state dispute. Whether it be Premier Playford dealing with Prime Minister Chifley over funds for public housing in the 1940s, or Dunstan becoming irritated by Whitlam over uncoordinated social policies in the 1970s, or Rann trying to extract concessions from Gillard today, South Australians have recognised that it is Playford, Dunstan and Rann who have been battling for them. In the end, politically speaking, we seem to be South Australians first and Australians second.

By Andrew Parkin

This entry was first published in The Wakefield companion to South Australian history edited by Wilfrid Prest, Kerrie Round and Carol Fort (Adelaide: Wakefield Press, 2001). Edited lightly. Uploaded 30 June 2015.

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