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Birmingham declares war on "pathetic factional cronies" as stoush over Liberal gathering explodes


EXCLUSIVE | South Australia’s most senior federal Liberal has dropped a bomb on his party’s “factional cronies”, accusing them of “pathetically and shamefully” exploiting the Coronavirus pandemic to “undermine democracy within our party” – while defending a controversial meeting of hundreds of Liberal members that has suddenly become the epicentre of the SA party’s internal war.

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While the Marshall Liberal Government has capped funerals and weddings at 100 attendees, up to six times that number are expected to attend the SA Liberal Women’s Council AGM at Adelaide Oval tonight.

The event has been thrust into the public spotlight with party members briefing media that it is “hypocritical”, given tougher COVID-19 restrictions limiting at-home gatherings to just 10 people and weddings and funerals to 100, according to the latest advice on the SA Health website.

One insider told InDaily the meeting “failed the pub test”, while another told The Australian newspaper “it looks like there’s one set of rules for us and another for the punters”.

Similar meetings to elect new presidents for the Young Liberals and the Rural and Regional Council are also likely to go ahead in coming weeks, in the lead-up to the party’s state AGM – currently scheduled for the end of September.

Party insiders say the public controversy is just the latest assault in a spate of recent factional ructions, blaming elements of the Hard Right – which has become known colloquially as ‘The Taliban’ in party circles – for stirring up dissent about the Women’s Council ballot.

But the enmity is laid bare in an extraordinary email sent by Federal Trade Minister Simon Birmingham – the leader of the moderate faction in SA – a copy of which has been leaked to InDaily.

The email, understood to have been sent to all members of the party’s ruling state executive, is scathing of the Right’s alleged efforts to thwart the meeting – which Left-faction insiders argue is merely a bid to defer the ballot on the assumption that the Conservative candidate – incumbent president Laura Curran – will lose to moderate mainstay Sue Lawrie, a past staffer of influential former minister Christopher Pyne.

“This has become a pathetic game by so many of you,” Birmingham wrote.

The fact that you seek to use COVID as an excuse to distort, disrupt, delay or defer democracy within our party is shameful

“You should be ashamed for the manner in which you have spent months seeking to destroy every opportunity for party members to seek to come together to simply exercise their right to conduct AGMs.

“COVID has caused so much disruption – people have lost their lives, their jobs and their businesses… thankfully, in our state, good management has allowed the state government to set rules that allow many activities to safely continue.

“This includes the conduct of AGMs, so long as they are within COVID-safe guidelines.”

Birmingham argued that “the fact that, again and again, many of you seek to use COVID as an excuse to distort, disrupt, delay or defer democracy within our party is shameful”.

“Why are you so afraid of simply allowing party members to vote?” he railed.

“The president [John Olsen] in his earlier email set out plainly the basis on which the Women’s Council AGM has been validly called and will be safely conducted in full compliance of the guidelines.

“Just because a bunch of people on the executive stacked the constitutional committee with their factional cronies doesn’t mean that a majority resolution of that committee is accurate… it has stooped to a low that I’ve never seen before in more than 20 years of debates within this party.”

He said he opposed “Morris’s resolution” – understood to refer to a motion by current Liberal vice-president Morry Bailes to defer tonight’s Women’s Council ballot – “and I urge all of you to pause and reflect on the way in which you seek to undermine democracy in our party, rather than facilitate and protect it”.

The email – and its leaking – exposes the fraught state of factional tension within the SA Liberal Party and is likely to exacerbate the friction going forward.

Asked to comment, Birmingham said the email was “in response to issues being raised at the State Executive”.

“I won’t comment on State Executive discussions, which are expected to remain confidential,” he said.

The election of a new Women’s Council president is fraught within Liberal ranks as it will shift the balance towards the moderates – who currently hold four of 11 voting positions on state executive.

It will also shift delegate numbers ahead of the party AGM next month – which will determine the factional balance heading into a crucial senate preselection.

Several sources have told InDaily that a previous deal that allowed Curran to be elected to the winnable fourth spot on the party’s Legislative Council ticket for the 2022 state election also compelled her not to stand again as president of the Woman’s Council – although she is understood to be contesting tonight’s ballot.

However, it’s unclear whether she will attend the meeting, having told Women’s Council members by email that she has had to take a COVID test and is currently self-isolating.

“It is with regret that I write to advise you that I will, unfortunately, be unable to attend and chair tomorrow’s Liberal Women’s Council AGM in my capacity as LWC President,” Curran wrote to delegates.

“Following a trip to Mount Gambier late last week, I have recently developed flu-like symptoms that fit the criteria of COVID-19.

“While I am sure I am fine, I have taken medical advice and been tested for COVID-19 which means I am required to remain in self-isolation until a negative result is received.

“Unfortunately, the advice is that I will not receive my results before [the] AGM.

“Should my circumstances change, and I be cleared to attend, I will, of course, endeavour to attend the meeting.”

She added that it was “in these moments that I find a deep appreciation for those in our community who are working on the front line to make sure we are all safe”.

“It is important that in return, we protect their safety and stay home when we are unwell,” she said.

“Despite the pandemic and challenges we have all faced collectively over the past year, I am immensely proud of all Liberal Women’s Council has achieved.”

Curran did not respond to questions about whether she had entered a deal to secure her spot on the Legislative Council and whether she supported tonight’s meeting continuing.

Labor has poured fuel to the fire by demanding Premier Steven Marshall – a moderate colleague of Birmingham’s – step in to cancel the Women’s Council event.

“I appreciate the desperate need for the Liberal Party to address its extraordinary level of female under-representation in the Marshall Liberal Government, but I wonder if the timing of a 700-person indoor gathering sends the wrong message considering re-imposition of restrictions in SA this week,” Opposition spokesman Chris Picton said.

But Marshall today denied the meeting sent the wrong message, telling reporters: “My understanding is that this is held every year and it’s not so much a sit-down dinner as an annual general meeting where some refreshments are provided.”

“It’s a meeting that goes for a couple of hours… there are strict guidelines that we have in South Australia that must be adhered to and they will be adhered to,” he said.

“We put these guidelines and these rules in place for a reason. Every single organisation in South Australia is expected to abide by them. The Stadium Management Authority has done a mighty job in putting a COVID-safe plan in place. They probably have a high level of scrutiny than just about anywhere else in the state.

“I’m confident that all of those strict guidelines will be met.”

Insiders say the event is likely to see more than 300 attend on any given year, but there could be up to 600 if all delegates show up.

It’s scheduled to be held in the Oval’s Magarey Room – the same venue at which last night’s usual Adelaide Crows post-match function was cancelled due to COVID restrictions.

Liberal state director Sascha Meldrum said in a statement that “the same rules apply to the Liberal Party as anyone else”.

“The meeting complies with all current restrictions, will follow an SA Health-approved COVID Safe Management Plan, the one-per-two-square-metre rule, social distancing and hygiene requirements,” she said.

“Less than 600 are expected to attend.”

Asked whether similar meetings will be held in coming weeks for the Young Liberals and Rural and Regional Council, she said: “I would expect so.”

-Additional reporting by Stephanie Richards 

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