South Australia’s party leaders have traded barbs during a debate 43 days out from an election poised to shake up the state’s political scene.
Facing off against Premier Jay Weatherill and opposition leader Steven Marshall on Friday, SA Best leader Nick Xenophon refused to say where his loyalties will lie should his party win the balance of power in March.
“We will have to see what the final vote is, composition of the parliament and the policy commitments Labor and Liberals make during the campaign,” he said.
He said a list of SA Best’s priorities would also play a part in the negotiation process.
Among them would be a royal commission into the health system, with a focus on cost blowouts in the construction of the newly opened Royal Adelaide Hospital, patient waiting times and ambulance ramping at hospitals across the state.
When asked whether they would approve the commission in order to form a partnership with SA Best, Mr Weatherill refused while Mr Marshall did not answer.
But beyond the commission, voters know little of Mr Xenophon’s policies, which he promised would be announced within the fortnight.
The party has nominated candidates in 26 of the 47 Lower House seats in the South Australian parliament.
Its leader rejected recent polling suggesting he was a chance to form government with a majority of at least 24 seats and refused to say if he would lay claim to the premier’s job if he won more seats than either major party.
Referring to himself as a “political realist”, Mr Xenophon said he expected to be outgunned by the major parties with bigger campaign budgets.
In a debate that was at times tense, the three attacked each other’s record and capacity to lead.
“Vote for Nick Xenophon, lots of spin, lots of stunts but no detail on policy whatsoever 43 days out from an election,” Mr Marshall said.
Mr Weatherill said the former senator pledged he would fully fund the Gonski reforms but backed out of the commitment after the election.
The leaders also butted heads over population growth of the state.
Mr Marshall and Mr Xenophon said the state desperately needs to boost its growth rate and criticised the current government for comparatively slow expansion.
South Australia’s population grew 0.6 per cent to 1.7 million in the 12 months to June last year, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
Mr Xenophon said the state was sitting on a “demographic time bomb”.
“Ageing population, fewer young people here now than 35 years ago and our regions have actually shrunk,” he told the Adelaide audience.
But the Premier said he was “not a high population growth policy person” and neither was his government.
“The notion that we’re a slow growing state is nonsense, it’s just that the rest of Australia is growing like a chemistry experiment,” he said.