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Decisive action needed to avoid Liberal destruction

Opinion

A new outbreak of factional plotting within the South Australian Liberal Party needs to be stamped out quickly by the party's leadership or the consequences could be disastrous, writes former longstanding Liberal MP Mark Brindal.

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The recent challenge to South Australian Liberal frontbencher and Parliamentary rising star John Gardner is political stupidity.

John Howard’s constant boast was that he led a broad church. However, what use is a broad church if its members are so preoccupied with bickering that the building falls down around them?

A few Liberals in South Australia remind me of Guy Fawkes and the gunpowder plot. So intent have they become on destroying one or two of their factional opponents that they seem prepared to destroy everything for which the party stands in the process. Worse still, in failing to learn from past experience, the organisation seems happy to let them.

History should be a reminder to them.

Bob Such was elected a Liberal. He served as a minister and had no irreconcilable quarrel with the party. Why did he run as an independent? Simply because Sue Jeanes, an ex federal member for Kingston, marshalled the numbers and made it impossible for him to be re-endorsed as the Liberal candidate in his own seat.

He appealed to his leader, John Olsen. Olsen claimed he had no power to intervene. Such had no choice but to resign from the party. To the cost of the Liberal Party, he defeated Jeanes at the election and held the seat for the next 16 years. Former Liberal leader Iain Evans has publicly labeled the episode a “mistake” and “stupid politics.”

There is a Liberal organisational structure – they should show leadership.

Having defeated ALP Minister Kym Mayes in Unley, I faced internal challenges in each of the subsequent elections. They are futile and debilitating, wasting both time and resources. While they give the media a ringside seat to an internal circus, they take the focus away from the ALP. They are counterproductive.

Nothing better exemplifies this farce than a conversation that I had with a factional opponent. He said: “It’s not about you being a good member. No-one doubts your competency. It’s simply that you are in the wrong faction.” What Did Churchill say? “My opponents sit opposite me, my enemies sit behind me.”

Joan Hall, too, when she was a Government minister, was challenged for preselection. Ironically, it was in Morialta.

And so it goes on, and on and on.

Neither side is squeaky clean. Simon Le Poidevin, the challenger, is a very able young man who could make good Member of Parliament. At the last election he sought preselection in Ashford but was not favored by local heavyweights. In my opinion he could have won but he was passed over in favor of a candidate who couldn’t.

The price now demanded for his crucifixion is his attempt at resurrection in Morialta. The cost to the Liberal Party is even higher.

In an attempt to keep unity, a deal had been brokered between the major factions. Sam Duluk (conservative) would not face a contest in the Waite preselection. The quid pro quo was that John Gardner (moderate) would not be challenged in Morialta.

The moderates honored the deal. The conservatives reneged. To be fair, senior conservatives are publicly angry, blaming the challenge on a “rogue element”.

Trust, even between opponents, is everything in politics. As a very senior and experienced moderate commented to me: “They claim to know nothing and not agree with this kind of behavior. Yet it keeps happening. It looks like they don’t want their fingerprints on it.”

Trust has evaporated.

There is a Liberal organisational structure – they should show leadership. All candidates are subject to review before they are officially accepted. Disallowing Le Poidevin’s candidature for Morialta would send a clear signal to those who put their own interests ahead of the party’s. They should act quickly and decisively.

Someone wise once observed: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

It’s past time for a modicum of order in the Liberal household.

Mark Brindal was a state Liberal MP from 1989 until 2006. He held a number of ministerial portfolios between 1998 and 2002. He is now involved in academic writing and is a public policy consultant.

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