A revolving door caucus meeting today rubber-stamped the elevation of right-winger Chris Picton and the Left’s Katrine Hildyard – who have both been long earmarked for promotion – to replace the outgoing Jack Snelling and Leesa Vlahos, who both quit their respective ministries yesterday.
But while filling ministerial vacancies was a fait accompli, Labor faces a tougher task in replacing Snelling in his seat, after he shocked the party by declaring he would retire from parliament at the March election – just months after he led a preselection challenge to oust left-winger Bedford from her northern suburbs stronghold of Florey.
Snelling was last night followed out the door by fellow right-winger Leesa Vlahos, who has been under intense pressure for several months in her Mental Health portfolio over the Oakden aged care facility scandal.
Bedford returned from a trip to London late yesterday to a frenzy of phone calls and missed messages, but it’s understood Weatherill first met with her before her departure to offer her a return pass to the ALP, which she quit in March after losing her endorsement to Snelling, whose right-faction colleague Michael Brown was elevated into the former Health Minister’s current seat of Playford.
But speaking exclusively to InDaily today, Bedford suggested Weatherill had little hope of convincing her to return to the Labor fold, although it’s expected she will still be a candidate for Florey at the March state election.
“If I’m running, I’m running as an independent,” she said.
“That’s how it stands today.”
It’s believed the party will re-open the preselection process for Florey straight away if Bedford can’t be persuaded to change her mind, with Weatherill due to speak with her after this morning’s caucus meeting.
“At this stage we’re working on the basis that Frances might come back,” one insider told InDaily.
But Bedford herself is still smarting from her treatment and is unconvinced her key concerns – including internal party reform and restoring services such as a high dependency unit to the Modbury Hospital, along with “a couple of other issues” – will be met.
She said she was “still full steam ahead in this electorate, making sure I’m in touch with the community”.
But even if she does run successfully as an independent, Labor will still need to handle her with a diplomatic touch, as her support from the crossbench would still likely be contingent on the Government meeting her demands.
“I’m looking forward to working with the new Health Minister to deliver for my community,” she told InDaily.
It’s understood that new Health Minister will be Peter Malinauskas, with party insiders keen to install a “good communicator” to sell Labor’s controversial health reforms in the lead-up to the election.
While not confirming the appointment, party whip Tom Kenyon told reporters that “even in six months [the new minister] will be able to make a great contribution”.
“Peter would be excellent…he’s a very capable person,” he said.
Weatherill made light of the drama as he entered today’s meeting, telling reporters: “We’re all in very good Health.”
Vlahos did not attend the meeting, with Kenyon explaining she was “not very well” and was “also visiting relatives interstate”.
“She’s recuperating,” he said.
Kenyon acknowledged the bloody Florey preselection challenge fallout had been an unhelpful distraction.
“It certainly got a little bit untidy – we can’t deny that,” he said.
“But it’s almost worked out for the best in a way, as it’s prompted some thinking out of Jack [about his future].
“Was it untidy? Yes, it was untidy. Would we rather handle it more cleanly? Of course we would. But it is what it is.
“Jack has made that decision, and it’s the right decision for him.”
Kenyon said he would “personally” welcome Bedford back if she could be persuaded.
“I’ve always got along very well with Frances Bedford, and if she decided to come back I would be very pleased to see her back,” he said.
“She’s still got a very strong contribution to make to the Labor Party.”
InDaily understands Picton will assist Malinauskas with aspects of the Health portfolio, while responsibility for the related Health Industries agency will be hived off to Liberal defector Martin Hamilton-Smith.
Backbenchers Nat Cook and Annabel Digance were today elevated to parliamentary secretary positions.
Full portfolio allocations are set to be unveiled at a swearing-in at Government House later this afternoon.
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