A power struggle between leaders of micro-party deal-makers the Liberal Democrats led to the sacking of the party’s SA branch leader before the federal election, InDaily has learned.
Christopher Steele was ousted 18 months before the election, with federal LDP leader David Leyonhjelm claiming this week that the SA branch had gone “off the rails”.
Steele, however, alleges that Leyonhjelm appeared to want “absolute control of the Liberal Democratic Party as supreme leader”.
The LDP shot to prominence this year after a suite of complicated preference deals in the federal election delivered its candidate, Leyonhjelm, a Senate seat in New South Wales.
The in-fighting allegations, revealed for the first time by InDaily, raise questions about the party’s centralised power structure. The LDP runs at least two separate political parties, the Outdoor Recreation Party and the Smokers’ Rights Party, for which it handled preferences at the federal election.
Steele said he had wanted to organise his own state preference deals and prepare for a state election campaign.
“I think what David Leyonhjelm couldn’t tolerate was an SA branch of [the] LDP that wanted some reasonable and modest degree of autonomy and local decision-making, and this was at odds with his seemingly incongruous grab for absolute control of the LDP as ‘supreme leader’,” he told InDaily.
“The SA LDP had decided that our foremost quest was in aiming for SA parliamentary success and we needed at least some autonomy to achieve that.
“The SA part of the party also wanted to organise its own preference deals at state level and a few other things which are usually concurrent with operating a state branch of a political party.”
Steele has since started his own political party, The Liberal Movement.
Leyonhjelm told InDaily he was forced to move against Steele because of the way the local branch head was running things.
“He just didn’t accept that he was part of a national party. He was encouraging people to join … telling them they were members of the South Australian party but not the federal party.
“He was basically doing his own thing entirely. We couldn’t tolerate it. We put up with it for a fair while. In fact, we put up with it longer than we should have.”
Steele rejected that allegation.
“The SA party began to raise its own membership fees, as well as fees payable for federal membership. We certainly began to retain fees raised for state membership, with the aim of applying these to state campaigns in SA.
“However, we also raised membership fees for people wanting to join the federal part of the party, so none of the state branch could see a conflict in this.
“As requested by the branch, I put all these things to the federal part of the LDP, who baulked at the ideas. They wanted ‘absolute control of all finances, centrally’ and that they would ‘make all decisions concerning all activities’ from their federal branch.”
InDaily understands a significant number of members quit the SA branch in protest over his sacking.
After the head of the chapter was removed, the national office worked to rebuild the SA party. Leyonhjelm attended a branch meeting during his visit to South Australia last week, and is currently working to find a local candidate to lead the ticket for the upcoming state election. Federal party leaders have also started negotiating a formal agreement with fellow conservatives Family First.
During the federal election, the LDP failed to file the crucial group voting ticket – a form the Australian Electoral Commission requires to allow preferences to be allocated for above-the-line votes – on behalf of the Outdoor Recreation Party.
Leyonhjelm blamed the error on a faulty fax machine.
“We were too late. It’s a very strict deadline on those things; it’s absolute pressure-cooker stuff. They issue the group voting tickets and you have about 18, 19 hours in which to finalise your negotiations with all the other parties.
“Then you have to submit your group voting tickets by fax. In our case, we have a rather creaky fax machine.”
The South Australian candidates for the Smokers’ Rights Party were recruited from within the LDP’s membership, Leyonhjelm confirmed.
The organiser of the Smokers’ Party, who is an LDP member, was unable to find a local candidate – so candidates were recruited from the LDP’s own membership.
“Having done that, they then forgot that they were Smokers’ Rights candidates,” Leyonhjelm said,
“They’re only youngsters; it was the first time they’d ever run. We had to say, ‘Look, just for this election you are not LDP, you’re Smokers’ Rights’.”
We value local independent journalism. We hope you do too.
InDaily provides valuable, local independent journalism in South Australia. As a news organisation it offers an alternative to The Advertiser, a different voice and a closer look at what is happening in our city and state for free. Any contribution to help fund our work is appreciated. Please click below to become an InDaily supporter.