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Libs scour replacement candidates as Duluk waits

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Liberal factional tensions are simmering as insiders mobilise to secure an alternative candidate for the southern suburbs seat of Waite, with incumbent Sam Duluk facing a charge of basic assault over a parliamentary Christmas party incident.

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Several names have been canvassed within influential Liberal circles as prospective candidates, with Duluk suspending his party membership ahead of a looming court hearing, scheduled for early October.

He faces a charge of basic assault stemming from a complaint made by SA Best MLC Connie Bonaros about his behaviour at a corridor party at parliament house.

Duluk has publicly apologised for his behaviour on the night, undertaken to undergo counselling for his alcohol use and suspended his Liberal membership.

Even a potential guilty conviction would not meet the constitutional threshold for expulsion from parliament, but his political fate nonetheless remains clouded as influential Liberals mobilise to find a replacement candidate – with several fellow Right-wingers understood to have been touted.

It’s understood Narelle Hards – a former staffer for both Duluk and federal conservative Nicolle Flint, who now works for moderate-aligned Health Minister Stephen Wade – has been sounded out as potential nominee for preselection, while other names canvassed include lawyer and federal Young Liberal president Jocelyn Sutcliffe and current Women’s Council president Laura Curren, who has nominated for the party’s Upper House ticket but is yet to be guaranteed a winnable spot.

Another name being touted is former Law Council of Australia president Morry Bailes, whose recent senate run was thwarted by outgoing Legislative Council president Andrew McLachlan.

One source suggested if Bailes was convinced to run and the Marshall Government is returned, he would be considered the frontrunner to replace Vickie Chapman as Attorney-General at some point during the following term.

Moderate Cara Miller, who lives in Waite, has also been suggested as a potential challenger, although she told InDaily today: “I really don’t have a comment.”

Asked if she had been spoken to about running for Waite, Sutcliffe said: “I’m not going to answer that question,” while Bailes similarly declined to comment.

Boothby FEC president John Hepworth, prominent as the former Traditional Anglican Communion primate and retired Archbishop, told InDaily he believed Duluk retained “considerable local support both in the hills and down on the plains”, but conceded “there’s a mood that we don’t want this to degenerate into Sam becoming a totally independent member for Waite”.

“I’ve had several real stalwarts…who have said to me: ‘We’re Liberals first and Waite second’,” he said, suggesting there was concern that the conservative-leaning branch wanted to ensure the party retained the seat.

However, he added, “I suspect in a contest with a ‘Greenhill Road’ [party headquarters] candidate, Sam at this stage would probably win”.

Others, however, are adamant that Duluk “can’t run”, regardless of the court outcome, either politically or potentially logistically, given he would be unable to stand while his membership remains in limbo.

The party is likely to open nominations for preselection once the electoral boundaries are finalised, expected before the end of the year.

“There are other people who are likely to put their names forward,” one insider said.

There is also a broad feeling that Premier Steven Marshall has already publicly played his hand in declaring that the Duluk scandal had “rendered his position in the Liberal Parliamentary Party untenable”.

However, moderates are adamant “it’s a conservative faction seat [but] all the more reason to keep it very defused, and not create a factional war”.

“The broader conservative group will be happy as long as one of their own is the candidate,” one source said.

But there remains considerable support for Duluk among key members of the conservative right, one of whom said: “The situation here is moderates want to take this opportunity to kick him out of the party.”

“It’s heading for some grief between the conservative and moderate groups,” they said.

It’s understood Duluk, who did not return calls, hopes to return to the party-room fold and has strong support from various MPs who have continued to back him both politically and personally.

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