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Lib backdown on membership purge, but tensions still simmer


UPDATED | State Liberal powerbrokers have moved to avert “mutual assured destruction” amid an escalating factional war with a stunning backdown on a bid to exclude more than 100 new members from largely Pentecostal Christian communities – but tensions remain high as insiders warn “our party is on the line” amid an “ugly sectarian takeover”.

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The party’s state executive last week took dramatic action after InDaily revealed Right-aligned MPs had signed up hundreds of new members from Evangelical church communities – a project known as ‘Believe In Blue’ – cancelling all membership applications from the past month and issuing ‘show cause’ notices to around 400 more.

Applicants whose memberships were cancelled, with their fees sent back, were told they could reapply if they signed a statutory declaration that they supported the party’s policies and candidates.

That’s despite conservative SA senator Alex Antic publicly declaring the membership drive gave new members “the opportunity to cast their vote on policy matters [and] pre-select candidates that share our values”.

But after a week dogged by infighting over the decision, a meeting of the state executive last night resolved to back down on their hardline stance, withdrawing the requirement for statutory declarations.

Party president Legh Davis said in a statement today: “An independent investigation is underway and the party will not be accepting membership applications until the investigation is complete.”

However, it’s understood the additional 400 members will no longer need to justify themselves to party headquarters, although there will still be a cursory audit of the newest applicants, which is understood to involve a telephone conversation to tick off their membership.

Davis insists “the party’s position remains [that] the party has not suspended or expelled any members of the Liberal Party, nor has it moved to suspend or expel any member”.

“The steps that have been agreed to are not focussed on the faith of an individual or a specific church, but relate to the conduct of individuals which, if proven, may breach the party’s constitution,” he said.

“Any person who clearly support the Party’s constitutional objectives and endorsed candidates will be welcome as members.”

That’s despite an email sent from state executive to recently-joined members last week saying they may reapply if they provide a statutory declaration that they support the Liberal Party and its objectives, be bound by its constitution, back its candidates and are not aligned with any other organisations “that may be detrimental to the interests” of the Liberal Party of SA, and declaring their membership fees would be refunded in the meantime.

Davis sent an email to members late today saying membership issues “continue to be the subject of misleading media reports”.

“In recent weeks, the Party has received a number of serious allegations which, if proven, may amount to material breaches of the party’s constitution,” he writes.

“The State Executive has initiated an independent investigation to investigate those allegations.

“Pending the outcome of that investigation, the party will not be accepting new membership applications.”

Today’s move may however dampen expected tensions at tomorrow’s state council meeting in McLaren Vale, although one source said there remained “white hot anger at this course of action”.

“They’ve avoided Mutual Assured Destruction – it’s a win for the grassroots democracy of the Liberal Party,” they said.

The insider argued the executive’s hand was forced by the threat of legal action, “which would have been a very bloody public fight”, along with “a desire from the Left to avoid any cross-examination of the process by which they undertook this action, because it was shambolic”.

It’s understood the compromise was brokered by Barker MP and Right-winger Tony Pasin, as tensions were further inflamed midweek by the moderate faction forging ahead with a key vote, with conservatives labelling the move a bid to consolidate moderate-faction control.

Party sources have long argued they believe the ‘Believe In Blue’ membership drive to be targeting the forthcoming Women’s Council AGM, with a likely bid to unseat moderate-faction council president Sue Lawrie and provide a dozen more conservative delegates to the party’s state council.

But Right-wingers were incensed when Liberal head office issued a call for nominations to all Women’s Council members, just days after the new memberships were put in limbo.

Outgoing federal Boothby MP Nicolle Flint – a Right-winger who had strongly criticised the cancellation of membership applications, told InDaily: “It seems more than a coincidence that just days after hundreds of members are rejected by the Liberal Party, the Women’s Council elections are called.”

An email sent to eligible members this week reads: “On behalf of the Liberal Women’s Council president Sue Lawrie, thank you for registering as a member of the SA Liberal Women’s Council for 2021/22.”

“The Liberal Women’s Council is calling for nominations for elective positions on the Council for the coming year,” it said, urging those interested to lodge their forms by next Tuesday, June 22.

“After nominations have closed, the notice of the Women’s Council AGM will be distributed along with the details of nominees,” the email continued.

Liberal state director Sascha Meldrum told InDaily that “the timing of the Women’s Council AGM is set by the Women’s Council Executive”.

“The constitution states that the Women’s Council AGM needs to be held in July and nominations must be called for not less than 28 days prior,” she said.

It could mean newer members are unable to influence the ballot ahead of the AGM, with voting rights dependent on having signed up to the forum before May 31.

The 400-odd new members who joined earlier than a month ago will still have a vote at the council, but the newer members’ status will remain in limbo until the end of the month, when Meldrum is expected to report to state executive.

Premier Steven Marshall today hailed the executive’s backdown as a “good compromise”, saying it had “decided an investigation was the way to go” but that there “won’t be a requirement for people to sign a statutory declaration”.

Antic, who has issued a blanket refusal to speak to InDaily, today told ABC Radio he understood “that the requirement for statutory declarations to been taken was no longer required”, saying the executive had “avoided a lot of angst”.

“I don’t think it’s been a good look… I don’t think this has been a very good PR exercise, and I’m glad to see that minds have been changed in state headquarters,” he said.

Of tomorrow’s state council meeting, he said the matter would “still be a topic of discussion but they seem to have found a way through”.

However, he suggested he would continue the membership drive, saying: “I’m going to encourage people who share our values to join the Liberal Party – the more the merrier, as the Premier said last week.”

However, others in the party have blasted the backdown, and the influx of Pentecostal recruits.

What could be more undemocratic than using a minority religious group to influence a major party

“These people are single issue crusaders and don’t support the Liberal Party,” said one source, who declined to be named.

“What could be more undemocratic than using a minority religious group to influence a major party – it needs to be called out or what it is,” they said.

“This takeover has been planned for a long time – discussions were being had with the Victorians and WA hard-right three years ago… our party is on the line here.

“Anybody who thinks the hard-Right knows what they are doing needs to think again… [the party] lost control in Victoria and that will happen in SA too.

“This is an ugly sectarian takeover – people need to wise up fast.”

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