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Libs search for president as Downer goes to UK

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The South Australian branch of the Liberal Party is looking for a new president after the appointment of incumbent Alexander Downer as Australia’s high commissioner in London.

Downer had been a successful party president boosting its fundraising capacity and easing factional tensions.

He was installed in August last year, succeeding former senator Grant Chapman who had served the maximum three years.

Downer had a good working relationship with state leader Steven Marshall and  factional foes Christopher Pyne and Nick Minchin.

“He was a very calming influence and he’ll be missed,” a senior party member told InDaily.

With the recent election loss and a long period until the next election, finding a suitable replacement might be difficult.

The party had previously approached leading businessman Michael Hickinbotham, and he’s expected to be at the top of their list again.

One of the party vice-presidents, meanwhile, will fill the vacancy on an acting basis.

The Downer shift to London had further political ramifications with current high commissioner Mike Rann being moved to a posting in Italy.

The former South Australian premier will move to Italy as ambassador in May.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said Rann had made a significant contribution to establishing closer ties with the UK.

Downer’s widely-expected appointment was criticised by Labor in February, which labelled the removal of Rann from the post as a “blatantly political” move.

Treasurer Joe Hockey said Downer will do a fine job having already proven himself as one of Australia’s longest-serving foreign ministers.

“And I think his clipped language will serve him well in London,” he told reporters in Sydney on Monday.

He said the decision to move Rann to Rome was a case of “putting square pegs in the square holes.”

Labor MP Bernie Ripoll said Downer’s appointment “smacked of hypocrisy,” accusing the government of shunting former Labor ministers in favour of its friends.

He pointed to the removal of former Labor state premier Steve Bracks as consul-general in New York as an example of the Coalition’s “specific program”.

Rann was doing his job well and was “shoved aside” before his time.

“What we’re seeing from this government is jobs for the boys,” Ripoll told Sky News on Monday.

But Liberal senator Simon Birmingham said Downer had proven his skills and ability for the job beyond question.

“This is about putting the best people in the best place,” he said.

Stephen Brady, former governor-general Quentin Bryce’s secretary, has been appointed Australia’s next ambassador to France.

Brady, who will also have non-resident accreditation to Morocco, Monaco, Algeria and Mauritania, will assume his new role in September.

– with AAP

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