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McFetridge dumping: bitter fight leaves party scars

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Liberal leader Steven Marshall has pleaded with dumped MP Duncan McFetridge not to run as an independent in the next state election, as the party deals with the fall-out from the bitter preselection row.

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Marshall today put the “cruel” result down to the vagaries of democracy, but there was nothing democratic about a key aspect of Friday’s vote, which saw Holdfast Bay mayor Stephen Patterson selected to represent the party in the bayside seat of Morphett.

Patterson and fellow contender Matt Williams tied on 14 votes apiece in first preferences, behind McFetridge on 19.

Because none of the candidates had an outright majority of electors, the vote had to go to a second round between the two lead candidates.

Under Liberal rules, the dead-heat between Patterson and Williams was broken by drawing a name from a “hat” – a random ballot lost by Williams.

Patterson went on to defeat McFetridge by a single vote – 24 to 23 – thanks to Williams’ preferences.

Several local branch members told InDaily that they believed Williams, a former federal MP for Hindmarsh, would have won the vote if Patterson had been eliminated instead.

The preselection campaign has been bitter, with a clearly angry McFetridge now considering running as an independent in next year’s state election.

He did not return calls from InDaily this morning, but said on the weekend that he would be “considering all options”.

The result has implications for Marshall, whether or not McFetridge decides to join the growing list of Liberal MPs who have run as independents over the past several decades.

Marshall campaigned in favour of McFetridge in the preselection vote, despite dumping him from his frontbench earlier this year.

All members of the Liberal Parliamentary team also supported McFetridge, although InDaily understands that Rachel Sanderson was the only frontbencher to attend the vote in support.

McFetridge said he was shocked by the result, after last week declaring he was confident of victory.

However, Williams told InDaily that he had been correct in his assessment last week that there was a mood for change among Morphett Liberals.

When asked about his view of the result, and the extraordinary fashion in which he was eliminated, he would only say: “It was an interesting process and result.”

Marshall said today that he had supported McFetridge and it was unfortunate he hadn’t been preselected.

“In fact there were three excellent candidates, three excellent speeches, and it was extraordinarily close and unfortunately Duncan wasn’t selected,” Marshall told ABC Radio Adelaide.

“We’ve selected Stephen Patterson, who will do an excellent job representing the people of Morphett and will be our candidate at the next election.”

He said he had spoken to McFetridge on Sunday and asked him not to run as an independent.

“Of course I did,” Marshall said. “Duncan has worked extraordinarily hard to do everything he can to get rid of this hopeless, tired, dysfunctional, divided Labor Government for a long period of time and he wants to see a Liberal reformist government in place just as much as any of us do in the Liberal team.”

He said he didn’t see the result coming.

“It’s a cruel decision for Duncan – he’s in shock with the result. I don’t think he saw it coming, I don’t think any of us saw it coming, but it was the decision of the party members.”

Some of those party members, who have contacted InDaily, said they were surprised by the result too, but only that McFetridge hadn’t lost the ballot by a greater margin.

Unlike McFetridge, they also believe the change has given the party a stronger chance of retaining the seat.

One member, who did not wish to be named, pointed out that only about 40 local members attended the vote on Friday.

He said the branch used to number 200-300 people but had been “left to die” by a complacent MP.

The comment matches the bitter rhetoric of the campaign.

From the start, McFetridge was angry about being challenged.

In a letter to branch members, seen by InDaily, he said the challenge he faced from the two candidates was “political stupidity and may well end up destroying everything that we stand for and have worked for together as Liberals”.

“The consequences of losing the seat of Morphett may be the deciding factor in forming a Marshall Liberal Government at the next election,” the letter said.

“To say that this pre-selection is an unnecessary waste of valuable campaigning time and resources is an understatement. The divisive nature of this challenge purely contributes to negative media commentary on the Liberal Party at a time when we should all be focussed on defeating Labor and the growing number of minor parties and independents and being in a majority government after the next State Election.”

He argued his experience would be necessary to win Morphett, which had its margin cut from 12.9 per cent to 4.7 per cent under the redistribution.

However, his opponents hit back. InDaily has seen a letter – signed by two local Liberal members and addressed to fellow party members – which was highly critical of McFetridge’s performance as a local member.

The letter, sent by Brian Peters and Peter Gilbert four days before the preselection vote, said “many” members were disappointed that McFetridge had decided to carry on, saying there was a “genuine feeling that Duncan has had his time”.

The letter cited three reasons why McFetridge shouldn’t continue: Marshall’s dumping of McFetridge from his frontbench, the fact that he did not live in the electorate, and that he was part of a generation of Liberal failure.

“Duncan is part of the generation of Liberal MPs who have failed to win four successive state elections,” the letter says. “Some members have rightly described this as an appalling performance and a more energetic younger person is required in this electorate now.”

As InDaily reported last week, some local members were annoyed that Marshall had backed McFetridge in the preselection campaign, believing he should have avoided picking sides in the three-cornered contest.

The new candidate, Patterson, is a former SANFL and AFL footballer and an electrical engineer.

He is understood to be a very new member of the Liberal Party.

His register of interests as Mayor of Holdfast Bay for 2015-16 does not mention any party affiliation.

He did not return calls from InDaily today.

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