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A party divided: Libs in turmoil as factions declare war

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SA Liberal divisions threaten to undermine the Marshall Government’s installation of parliament’s two new presiding officers, with three federal MPs firing an extraordinary shot at the state party’s nominee for Upper House president ahead of a factional showdown at this month’s AGM.

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At the state party-room’s ironically-dubbed ‘love-in’ in Hahndorf, MPs yesterday endorsed first-term MP Josh Teague and long-time MLC Jing Lee as their nominees for parliamentary Speaker and Legislative Council president respectively.

Lee, who beat rival John Dawkins seven votes to two, has been in the spotlight this week after The Australian newspaper ran a series of articles highlighting her ties to the Xinjiang Association of SA, which reportedly denies any persecution of China’s Uighur ethnic minority, claiming she had warned fellow MPs against meeting with the banned Falun Gong group for fear of offending Beijing, and revealing she had spoken in support of SA signing up to China’s One Belt, One Road initiative.

But the issue exploded today when a letter penned by hard Right-aligned SA federal MPs Nicolle Flint and Tony Pasin, along with SA senator Alex Antic – calling for an independent investigation into Lee’s reported Chinese “links” – was circulated within hours of her party-room endorsement.

The trio has written to the SA state executive, including president John Olsen and state director Sascha Meldrum, “to express our grave concerns about the [reported] links between the Hon Jing Lee MLC, the Chinese Communist Party and the United Front Work Department”.

“Given the federal government’s strong position on foreign interference, we consider any Liberal member who is reported to have links to the Chinese Communist Party and the United Front Work Department is operating contrary to fundamentally important Liberal Party policy and Party principles,” they wrote.

“We consider these links must be independently investigated as a matter of urgency by the Liberal Party of Australia (SA division) to ensure the integrity of our party and our party organisation, and we call on state executive to ensure this occurs.”

None of the three responded to inquiries today, but one senior Liberal told InDaily: “If we investigate everything the media wrote about is, that’s all we’d do.”

Premier Steven Marshall today strongly backed Lee, telling reporters he would “not tolerate any criticism” of her.

“She is the hardest working member of the SA parliament, she’s passionate about multiculturalism… she has my 100 per cent support,” he said.

“She’s an outstanding Australian (and) she loves her country.”

Lee also received strident support from a former Liberal leader – Martin Hamilton-Smith, who later left the party to serve of Labor’s frontbench.

Hamilton-Smith, for whom Flint once worked as a trusted staffer, told InDaily Lee was a “terribly decent, hard-working MP” who was “very astute to the internal dynamics of the multi-cultural community and no doubt provides advice accordingly”.

“But her heart is in SA,” he said.

“She’s one of the greatest assets the state Liberal Party have and she should be celebrated…

“For her to be getting this sort of criticism from her own party is very sad.”

The revelation comes at a difficult time, with Lee’s ascension to the Upper House presidency yet to be ratified by the parliament, and Dawkins still considering standing as a candidate without Liberal endorsement.

“I’m considering my options [and] I’ll let people know in due course,” he told InDaily today.

Dawkins could well get the support of the Labor Opposition and enough crossbenchers to snare the ballot.

It comes after Lower House independent Frances Bedford late yesterday announced she would challenge the Government’s nominee as Speaker, calling herself “a truly Independent Speaker… not a Factional Favourite”.

As few as one Liberal MP backing her in a silent ballot could see her defeat Teague, which would be a major embarrassment for the Government – doubly so if neither of its endorsed nominees is installed.

Neither Teague nor Lee responded to inquiries today.

The fracas comes after a tumultuous week for the Liberals, after three state MPs – Terry Stephens, Adrian Pederick and Fraser Ellis – yesterday confirmed they had been asked for documents as part of an ICAC investigation into “a potential issue of corruption in public administration in respect of the Country Members Accommodation Allowance”.

All three will seek to invoke parliamentary privilege with respect to certain documents requested, with parliament to vote on the matter next week.

But factional tensions appear set to continue in Liberal ranks, with a crucial and long-delayed meeting of the party’s governing state council set to see a contested ballot for the role of state president, replacing Olsen, after the moderate faction – empowered by recent wins in the Liberal Women and Young Liberal ballots – switched support to former long-serving MLC Legh Davis.

The nomination period for the presidency had been extended to today after the AGM was delayed until September 26 due to the ongoing COVID crisis, with Davis, who served as an MLC from 1979 to 2002, confirming to InDaily he would stand.

“Yes, I have nominated,” he said this morning.

The long-time ally of Olsen said he would follow the former leader’s “model” in the role if elected, by being “a person of the organisation, keeping it on a steady path”.

“We’re well-placed federally, and I believe Steven Marshall is doing an extraordinarily good job as Premier,” he said.

“I’m happy to serve, if elected, to consolidate the Liberal Party’s position in SA.”

Centre-Right-backed Max van Dissel, who had already nominated, said he still intended to contest the ballot.

Van Dissel had himself previously garnered the Left’s backing to block the candidacy of Right-winger Morrie Bailes, who chose not to run.

But the faction appears to have switched its support to Davis.

“I welcome the democratic process, and will allow the state council to make their decision,” van Dissel told InDaily today.

“I’m a little perplexed that after nominations have been extended for seven weeks, an alternative candidate has been put forward at this late stage.”

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