Bell, who resigned from the Liberal Party in August after being charged with multiple counts of theft and dishonest dealing, today confirmed he would run as an independent in his seat of Mount Gambier, in what looms as a fresh blow to an Opposition facing an uphill battle to form majority government.
The decision sets up an unprecedented scenario: a candidate who could determine the next government while facing serious charges in court.
Bell has consistently denied the charges. He next faces court in February, around a month from polling day.
Mount Gambier has been an independent stronghold for a generation, with first McEwen and then Don Pegler keeping it out of Liberal hands. Ironically, Bell’s victory in 2014 was the first time the party had claimed it back since 1997.
But McEwen, who confirmed he spoke to Bell regularly and gave him advice, threw his support behind him today, telling InDaily: “I think it would be fair to say that the community at large supports him.”
“He’s very well-regarded as a local member, and people would have a view that they wouldn’t make judgements based on an allegation and no more than that,” he said.
He said Bell’s decision to run as an independent at the March election was “the only decision he could have made”.
“The community is delighted that he’s made that decision,” he said.
“Do I talk to him regularly? Yes… I think he’s a wonderful local member.”
Bell says he could “definitely” follow McEwen’s lead and throw his weight behind a Labor Government if he holds the balance of power as an independent, as long as the party supports his “non-negotiable” – a 10-year fracking ban in the south-east.
“The community will decide whether they want an independent who may hold the balance of power,” Bell told InDaily today.
“I understand that there will be a number of people who won’t vote for me for whatever reason, and one of those might be the allegations that have been levelled against me,” Bell said today.
“But I’ve always professed my innocence and look forward to my day in court, where I can prove that.”
He said he held no bitterness towards his former party and conceded he would have preferred to remain in the fold.
“I obviously would have liked that, but in the end, it was my decision to offer my resignation from the party,” he said.
“I didn’t want my situation to be a distraction at that period of time [but] since then I’ve reflected a lot on whether I was going to stand… and I came to the decision that I was.
“In life, you get dealt different hands from time to time… you can either choose to accept it or choose to deal with it the best way you can.”
He said it was “a real possibility” that a “small collection of independents” would wield the balance of power, adding that he had “always put my community first”.
“My priority’s always been my family, the community and then the Liberal Party – my community always came before the party.
“I’d like to be dealing with Steven Marshall, but if that’s not to be I’ll be working for the best outcomes for my community.
“I can’t support any party that doesn’t put a 10-year ban on fracking in the South-East – that’s my bottom line, my non-negotiable… we need to protect the water supply.”
Asked if he could back Labor, whose Energy Minister Tom Koutsantonis has been a vocal critic of the Liberal policy – championed by Bell – to ban fracking for a decade in the region, he said: “If they put a 10-year ban on fracking in the South-East, then yes, definitely.”
But Koutsantonis wasn’t backing down today, telling InDaily in a statement that “imposing these types of conditions before the election just proves that Troy Bell is still Steven Marshall’s man in the South-East”.
“Blanket moratoria such as this are bad policy and are especially ignorant of the positive impacts on jobs – especially at a time when the nation has high gas prices and potential supply shortages,” he said.
Marshall said today that “everybody’s entitled to run”.
“We have an excellent candidate and obviously we’re going to be doing everything we can to retain the seat for the Liberal Party,” he said.
Real estate agent and former local weatherman Craig Marsh has been endorsed as the seat’s Liberal candidate.
But the man Bell beat to the seat in 2014, former independent Don Pegler, gave the incumbent his tacit endorsement, saying: “I’’m assuming innocence until proven guilty – if ever proven guilty.”
“I certainly support the fact if he wants to remain in parliament he’s quite free to stand as a candidate,” said Pegler.
“Given the fact I think it will probably be a hung parliament or very close, particularly with the Xenophon factor, I think it’s going to be extremely important that Mount Gambier has somebody there with preferably a lot of local experience, and definitely some political experience.
“Because at the end of the day it’s basically a hung parliament, an independent person will have a lot more sway with who forms government…
“I’d prefer to see a strong independent person elected to the seat of Mount Gambier.”
Asked if Bell fit that description, he said: “He’s certainly become independent, he’s certainly had some experience… whereas the Liberal candidate has had no experience whatsoever.”
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