Robin Hood and the Dunstan by-election duel for South Australia’s most marginal state seat

Robin Hood and the Dunstan by-election duel for South Australia’s most marginal state seat
  • PublishedMarch 24, 2024

Two years and five days ago on a humid autumn night, a then South Australian Liberal premier, Steven Marshall, mounted a makeshift stage at the Robin Hood Hotel in Adelaide’s inner east.

“Today the people of South Australia have spoken. They’ve elected a new government,” the one-term state leader conceded, before hastily exiting the pub.

The 2022 state election result represented a significant electoral defeat for the SA Liberals.

The party lost six seats to Labor, while Mr Marshall came within just 260 votes of losing his own eastern suburbs electorate of Dunstan, rendering the seat the state’s most marginal.

A superstitious Liberal supporter might have cautioned their party against returning to the Robin Hood Hotel, wary of any negative electoral vibes.

But on Saturday night, that’s where they gathered once again as opposition leader David Speirs faced arguably the biggest test of his tenure thus far – viewing the results from the Dunstan by-election.

While the Liberals converged on the Robin Hood, it was the Greens who might have best embodied the fabled outlaw’s “steal from the rich to give to the poor” philosophy.

Stained glass at the Robin Hood Hotel.
The Robin Hood Hotel has become a favourite haunt for the SA Liberals.(ABC News: Che Chorley)

Party members were bullish about their chances of electoral success early in the piece, surprising some political insiders with the scale of their campaign.

“We’re not here to make up the numbers, we’re absolutely in this to win,” Greens candidate, Katie McCusker, said on Saturday ahead of the close of polling.

Kay Moncrieff secured more than 13 per cent of the vote at the 2022 state election – a swing of over 4.5 per cent on the 2018 result.

Early counting in the Dunstan by-election shows the Greens are likely to secure a much bigger swing this time around.

So far, the party has received more than 20 per cent of first preference votes, with their preferences likely to heavily favour Labor.

For the Liberals to hang onto their seat, insiders say their primary vote needs to reach in the mid-to-high 40 per cent range.

While early results show that’s currently unlikely, the party is yet to concede defeat.

Liberal candidate for Dunstan Anna Finizio.
Liberal candidate for Dunstan Anna Finizio with party leader David Speirs.(ABC News: Che Chorley)

Instead, Mr Speirs said that the results were “not looking too promising for the Liberal Party”.

“There’s been a big shift towards the Greens, I think a lot of people predicted that in recent weeks,” he said on Saturday night.

“That’s going to make our pathway to holding this seat exceptionally difficult going forward.

“For that result, I apologise.”

Labor win could bolster government ranks

In the lead up to polling day, Premier Peter Malinauskas said Labor would campaign “like we’ve got nothing to lose … because we don’t have anything to lose”.

A political observer checks the Dunstan by-election count.
A political observer checks the Dunstan results on their phone on the night of the by-election.(ABC News: Che Chorley)

Labor last picked up a seat at a by-election while in government in December 2014, when current Human Services Minister, Nat Cook, secured a nine-vote win in the Fisher by-election following the death of independent Bob Such.

The party is hopeful a victory in Dunstan would once again bolster its majority in state parliament’s Lower House.

“The people of South Australia, including the people of Dunstan, just want a united team to get on (with) the job with progressing our state forward,” SA Premier Peter Malinauskas said on Saturday night.

Labor candidate for Dunstan Cressida O'Hanlon with SA Premier Peter Malinauskas.
Labor candidate for Dunstan Cressida O’Hanlon with SA Premier Peter Malinauskas.(ABC News: Che Chorley)

Labor viewed the Dunstan by-election result as a litmus test, coming at the halfway point of the political term.

While the Liberals hit out at the government’s performance on health – describing the by-election as a “referendum on ramping” in reference to Labor’s key election promise to “fix the ramping crisis” – Labor accused the opposition of lacking health policies.

In the final days of the campaign, both parties ramped up their attacks on health, with Labor holding a press conference to spruik its progress, while the Liberals campaigned alongside the aunty of an Adelaide man who died while waiting 10 hours for an ambulance.

Arrows fly in ugly battle

Health proved a key focus in the lead up to the by-election, but both Labor and the Liberals also spent significant time digging into their opponents’ histories.

While it is not unusual for political parties to launch attacks on their rivals during election battles, the Dunstan by-election campaign was particularly personal and grubby.

Anna Finizio looks.
Liberal candidate Anna Finizio.(ABC News: Che Chorley)

Labor raised questions about Liberal candidate Anna Finizio’s involvement with her family company, while the Liberals’ questioned contact between Labor candidate Cressida O’Hanlon and her husband when she worked for a Labor MLC.

That both sides pooled significant resources into such attacks was a sign of how important they viewed the by-election result.

Labor candidate for Dunstan Cressida O'Hanlon.
Labor candidate Cressida O’Hanlon.(ABC News: Che Chorley)

While a Labor win could bolster the government’s confidence heading into the 2026 state election, a Liberal loss could further dent its prospects and cause some within the party to question Mr Speirs’ future as leader.

Like Robin Hood, Mr Speirs is still perhaps hoping to become a prince of thieves by stealing the seat of Dunstan.

Only that way could his party perhaps remain, for the near future, a merry band.

Three people walking away from the camera.
Mr Speirs leaving a media conference with Ms Finizio during the Dunstan campaign.(ABC News: Che Chorley)


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