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“Elder’s just a name”: Digance looks across ‘invisible boundary’ as key MPs bow out

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EXCLUSIVE: Labor’s factional machine is whirring into top gear as two MPs prepare to bow out – one within days, prompting a casual vacancy in the Upper House. The shock retirement, effective this month, of Legislative Councillor Gerry Kandelaars comes as first-term right-winger Annabel Digance today confirmed she is contemplating crossing the “invisible border” to contest Badcoe, conceding a planned redistribution has made her seat of Elder “a challenge”.

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Digance today confirmed the prospect – reported exclusively by InDaily last month – of a shift to her neighbouring Labor-held seat, a prospect heightened today with Badcoe’s incumbent, veteran left-winger Steph Key, confirming she would not contest the March 2018 state election.

It’s understood the Labor Left has ceded Badcoe to the Right in a factional deal, although it’s unclear whether Digance has her faction’s assent to abandon Elder, which has been transformed from a marginal Labor seat to a nominally-comfortable Liberal one (with a 4.3 per cent margin) under the electoral boundaries review currently being contested in the Supreme Court.

InDaily can also reveal today that there will be a casual Labor vacancy in the Legislative Council within weeks, with Upper House right-winger Kandelaars set to formally announce on Monday that he will be stepping down for personal reasons.

Gerry Kandelaars

Gerry Kandelaars

After inquiries over recent extended leave from duty, Kandelaars today sent InDaily a statement confirming: “I recently met with the Premier to advise him that I intend to retire as a member of the Legislative Council.”

“My decision is based on personal reasons and to care for my wife who is experiencing serious health issues,” he said.

“I have many people to thank for their support, guidance and assistance and intend to do this in my final address to parliament during the first sitting week of 2017.

“It is my intention that my retirement take effect from the end of that week.”

He said he was “proud to have served in a Labor Government that stands up for working South Australians”, adding the party “and broader labour movement will always be an important part of my life”.

The move is likely to open the door for another round of factional jockeying – although the prize’s lustre is dimmed somewhat by the fact that the seat is up for re-election within a year.

Kandelaars himself entered parliament to fill a casual vacancy after the 2011 retirement of veteran minister Paul Holloway.

Today’s moves could instigate broader changes within the ALP, as next-generation hopefuls line up for plum positions.

However, Key told InDaily her decision to retire was not forced upon her, despite Badcoe (formerly Ashford) being bolstered to a 4.2 per cent margin for Labor under the proposed new boundaries.

“There’s a new seat, and it’s got a reasonable margin,” she said.

“That will give somebody from the Labor Party – hopefully a woman – the chance to run for the seat – and I’ll help them.”

Digance today confirmed she was considering nominating for Badcoe, saying of Labor’s chances in Elder: “I think it would be a challenge, if I’m really honest.”

“I’m looking at both, to be honest, because if you look at the division, Elder had 60 per cent of the current electorate removed,” she told InDaily.

“Elder is just a name – I’m looking at the areas and having discussions with the party about where best to run, absolutely.”

Digance said that “in politics you always expect anything really” but insisted the community she represented was her first priority.

“Certainly the opportunity of Badcoe being more winnable is clearly appealing,” she said.

“I’ve done a lot of work in that area, and a lot of work in what’s now Elder as well… the communities I’ve worked for are very divided, because of this invisible boundary [and] it remains to be seen, really, where I end up.

“I couldn’t be sure to be honest… I’ll wait to see when the nominations open.”

That will happen after an ALP state executive meeting on Monday.

That’s my biggest disappointment, this invisible line divides the communities I’ve represented

Confirmation of her potential move contrasts from her initial response to the boundary redraw, when she said there was “nothing like a challenge”, arguing that “from my point of view, it’s about the constituents – the people I represent, the community”.

But Digance today lamented that she had made “lots of really good connections and attachments throughout the community [and] the Elder electorate as it stands now”, which would be shunted to Badcoe under the new boundaries.

“That’s my biggest disappointment, this invisible line [now] divides the communities I’ve represented,” she said, referring to the redrawn boundaries.

“I found that quite disappointing [because] whether I stay in the new Elder electorate or cross to Badcoe, I’m going to be missing some of the community I’ve actually really connected with.”

While she remains publicly open to contesting either seat, she pointedly noted that Elder was “certainly a challenge, at the end of the day”.

“It will be up to who appeals to the community and – whoever runs in Elder – how they bring the community together and speak to individuals and capture individuals’ minds.”

Ironically, the Labor campaign in Elder at the last election was notoriously divisive, with party figures publicly refusing to apologise for a leaflet widely denounced as a “racist dog-whistle”, highlighting the ethnicity of the Liberal candidate Carolyn Habib, who has nominated to stand again in 2018.

In response to an opinion piece in InDaily last week calling for an apology on the pamphlet, Treasurer Tom Koutsantonis launched a series of tweets in which he described suggestions of racism as “rubbish” and accusing “senior Liberals” of hypocrisy.

“When senior Libs yell out speak English across the chamber I won’t be lectured by any of them,” he wrote.

Koutsantonis remains the only Labor MP to have publicly commented on the issue since the election.

When the leaflet controversy arose in the last week of the 2014 campaign, Premier Jay Weatherill told media: “This is just pretend offence to try and distract attention from the real issues at stake in this election.”

“People don’t care about this sort of nonsense… I’m not going to be lectured to about campaign ethics from a political party that made allegations about child sexual abuse which were found to be false and were calculated to damage me and the Labor Party, and for which they have had to retract and withdraw and publish an apology.”

It’s never my personal intent to offend or upset anybody

The Premier’s office today said Weatherill had “nothing to add” to his previous comments.

Asked about the ongoing debate, Digance told InDaily it would be “more appropriate if [the Premier] responds to that”.

But she insisted that “in any campaign it’s never my personal intent to offend or upset anybody”.

If she does win endorsement for Badcoe and Habib for Elder, the two will have to work closely with one another as neighbouring MPs – something Digance says she has no issue with.

“Not at all,” she said.

Steph Key today noted the importance of a close cross-party relationship with MPs with whom she shared borders, saying: “Most of the time we all spend a lot of time together.”

Parliament June 8th-2243

Retiring MP Steph Key. Photo: Nat Rogers / InDaily

Key said she “hadn’t had a chance to speak to Annabel yet to see what she’s doing”.

She said she would retire with few regrets, having entered parliament as “an accidental MP”.

“I filled in for another candidate at the last minute, with a reassurance from Mike Rann and others that I wouldn’t get up,” she laughed.

“I had to really think [about my role]… I really liked being a trade union official [at the Transport Workers Union] and then all of a sudden I’m a local member. I really had to think very seriously about how I was going to deal with that issue, so I sat down and wrote down an agenda of things I thought needed to be changed, that as an activist I could change as an MP… and I’ve got a fair way through it.”

But there were two changes she championed without success – legislation for legalising voluntary euthanasia and decriminalising sex work – that she notes she leaves unfinished, for now.

“It won’t be me that brings in the [euthanasia] legislation, but I’ll help in the fight with anybody that wants to,” she said.

However, she remains hopeful on sex work reforms that “we may get something happening there this year”.

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