Coal munching Koch Bros linked company i360 behind South Australia's Liberal win

Coal munching Koch Bros linked company i360 behind South Australia's Liberal election win.
Associate EditorSydney

The South Australian election could have profound policy, political and campaigning implications for state and federal politics. An overt experiment on the limits of third-party populism, it is also a litmus test for reckless energy policies and, less obviously, a case study in digital age electioneering technology and tactics.

If the Liberals do better than expected and win majority government — as I suspect they will — it will flash a warning to Labor in Victoria, Queensland and Canberra about the perils of ambitious renewable energy targets prioritising climate gestures over electricity affordability and reliability.

It also will signal that the closer disrupters such as Nick Xenophon get to real power, the more demanding voters become. And it will demonstrate that away from the newspaper headlines, television grabs and 24-hour spin, a digitally enhanced, targeted ground campaign is lethal.

Still, if the Liberals fail — always a possibility with a host of three-cornered contests between Labor, Liberals and Xenophon’s SA-Best — it will confirm that protest vote harvesters such as Pauline Hanson and Xenophon can decide outcomes without claiming power. In that case Labor may proceed unapologetically down the path of expensive climate-related virtue-signalling and the Liberals may regret an over-reliance on a marginal seats ground game in lieu of sharp debate.

The lessons will be vital for the federal Coalition’s re-election chances — a strong win by South Australian Liberal leader Steven Marshall will light the path for Malcolm Turnbull while a hung parliament will perpetuate the aimlessness. Many issues are running the Liberals’ way in SA, from the “It’s time” factor of a 16-year Labor administration to scandals over cancer treatments, aged-care and TAFE colleges. But the destruction of the state’s energy self-sufficiency leading to extortionate electricity prices and a crisis of supply is Labor’s most egregious abrogation of responsibility.

When a government that ­prides itself on green energy ships in expensive diesel generators to get through the summer, you know something has gone awry. A state hard-pushed to save the hairy-nosed wombat or the River Murray pretends to save the planet. SA’s meagre carbon emissions reductions make the kind of contribution to global climate action that its pie floaters make to international cuisine: next to nothing. Yet the costs imposed by this delusion damage consumers, industry, investment and confidence.

Like Turnbull, Marshall has not differentiated as strongly as he might on this issue. A strong repudiation of Jay Weatherill’s Labor will add to the Coalition case for sharpened federal energy policy differentiation.

Xenophon was riding high just three months ago, leading Newspoll for primary votes and preferred premier. Now he is third in both categories. At some stage heightened expectations precipitated voter scepticism. Liberal insiders believe the tipping point was his corny, Bollywood-style television commercial. Xenophon has always been known for lame stunts, and just when he was finally asking to be taken seriously he reverted to form as a jokester.

He also spread himself thin with too many candidates, many of dubious quality, and announcing a policy agenda as mindless as the poker machines he has railed against so ineffectually for two decades. This is the lesson of personality cults turned third-party forces; real political parties need a spread of talent and an agenda for running government, not just getting a spot on the evening news.

Xenophon may not even win his seat, although whatever happens his team is likely to wield influence in the upper house. If he wins just a handful of lower house seats, Xenophon could decide who governs — an extraordinary outsourcing of the electorate’s authority to someone who has given no indication whether he favours a change of government.

En masse, voters tend to make sensible decisions, which is why my instincts suggest they will decide to change government rather than leave the call to Xenophon. We will see, but the alternative may be chaos.

Like Turnbull in 2016, Marshall and his team have been criticised for not being sufficiently aggressive about Labor’s failings. But they have run short, sharp and effective negative TV commercials (the sort that bewilderingly never came in the federal campaign) around the theme of “I’ve had enough, Jay” which neatly captures the mood for a corrective change. This is a good example of how paid advertising can deliver tough messages if politicians are reluctant.

Yet a sense of coasting has worried many Liberal supporters and observers. When I told a group of Adelaide Liberals last month that Marshall and his team seemed insufficiently combative towards Labor and Xenophon, a front­bencher pulled me aside afterwards and showed me his phone. He argued I misunderstood their methods, that public assertions and media debates were not the main game. He showed me his i360 app, a new campaigning tool that has revolutionised the Liberals’ marginal seats campaigning.

Through i360 the SA Liberals believe they have progressed to a new level of targeted campaigning, leaping far ahead of what has been used before by either major party in Australia. If they perform well, we can expect a technological and tactical quantum leap forward at the next federal campaign.

In his quick demonstration, the MP called up a marginal seat, much like finding a suburb on Google Maps, then zoomed in to a street where pins identified addresses deemed to house swinging voters. Deeper dives on households contained genders, ages, voting intentions or lack thereof as well as policy interests. The information is collated from the party’s existing Feedback system, updates from doorknocking and calls, responses to surveys conducted via email, online or phone calls plus census data and the harvesting of social media data. This is Big Brother meets grassroots campaigning. Neither the data nor the technology is much use without quality information fed in and strong analysis leading to the right strategies, along with diligent personalised attention in follow-up visits and communications.

This is leading-edge campaigning, as i360’s website explains. “Data is the difference,” it proclaims, describing its “extensive political identification” through information collected from “in-person, phone and online surveys, as well as through partner relationships in addition to lifestyle and consumer data” purchased from “top-tier” providers. “Our data is further enhanced by our suite of predictive models, filling in gaps and helping us build the most complete profile for every individual possible,” it says.

Billionaire US Republican sponsors Charles and David Koch are major investors in the firm, which openly canvasses only for “free-market” candidates. The SA Liberals purchased a product licence and have worked with i360 to modify systems for compulsory and preferential voting. Motivated by the frustration of 2014 where, despite a huge popular vote win, just a few hundred votes in the right seats would have made all the difference, Marshall has driven this innovative approach. He and novice Liberal state director Sascha Meldrum visited the US in Aug­ust 2016 to assess the system before other campaign strategists joined the training and implementation. If the Liberals surprise on the upside today, SA’s expertise will be immediately sought after for the looming Victoria, NSW and federal campaigns.

Long lead times help and the SA Liberals have had more than a year to build up data and, crucially, follow up on targeted voters more than once. This is where grassroots organisation, numbers on the ground and diligence are essential, lest intelligence is wasted for lack of personal politicking, but the potential for efficiency, personalised material and two-way feedback to shape policies and messages is huge. Even in an age when you can get an app for everything, no app can win you an election. And I still think public policy differentiation and aggression are crucial.

But if the Liberals form a major­ity even after the unprecedented Xenophon disruption, expect to hear a lot more about i360 and data-driven campaigning.

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