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Libs contender emerges as leading moderate backs out of contest

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A divided Liberal party-room will attempt to unify behind a new leadership team tomorrow, with interim deputy premier Dan van Holst Pellekaan confirming he will seek to keep the job – but leading moderate John Gardner bowing out.

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Van Holst Pellekaan – known as ‘DVHP’ to his colleagues – confirmed in a WhatsApp message to Liberal MPs before 7am today: “I will nominate for Deputy Leader of our Parliamentary Team when we meet on Thursday afternoon.”

“I seek the support of each and every one of you, and will reach out to discuss why I believe this would be the best outcome for our team – Sincerely, Dan,” his message read.

The Energy and Mining Minister, who was yesterday quietly appointed as Deputy Premier in a move that ignited tensions within the party, was the first of three presumptive contenders to confirm his nomination.

Environment Minister David Speirs is yet to clarify his position since earlier this week telling the ABC he would nominate for the deputy leadership, but confidants maintain he was “intent on running” as of yesterday.

He did not answer his phone this morning.

Sources close to Premier Steven Marshall have suggested the leader’s preference was for a sole candidate to stand unopposed.

That put pressure on Education Minister John Gardner – a leading figure in the party-room’s dominant moderate faction who was yesterday considering his position – not to contest the ballot, a decision he confirmed at 12.30pm today.

“I believe we have two outstanding candidates who have put themselves forward and I will be proud to serve alongside either, should they be successful in the ballot,” he told InDaily in a statement.

“I will not be a candidate tomorrow.”

His statement suggests Speirs has already told colleagues he will run.

Both Speirs and van Holst Pellekaan are seen as non-moderate contenders, but without formal ties to the Right faction.

Sources said Speirs could expect to get support from within both factions, but that Left MPs would likely lock in behind van Holst Pellekaan – who was not widely expected to garner broad support in a three-cornered contest – if he was seen to have the Premier’s endorsement and Gardner did not run.

In his own media statement, van Holst Pellekaan pushed his credentials as a regional-based MP.

“I believe I have a great deal to offer to the State Government and the South Australian community as Deputy Premier,” he said.

“As a long-standing regional MP and senior Minister I have a balance of experience that is particularly well suited to the role of Deputy Premier.

“Integrity, capacity and reliability are traits which South Australians, the State Government and our Liberal Team deserve to be able to count on.

“A city based Premier and a country-based Deputy Premier is the right mix for all South Australians.”

He also spruiked the Government’s broader achievements, citing “protecting the community from COVID-19, delivering 3.9 per cent economic growth over the last financial year,  more people in jobs than ever before, reversing Labor’s devastating electricity cost increases, delivering a $303 per year reduction to households; and reducing cost of living pressures by almost $1000 for the average household”.

“The positive and tangible results our Government is delivering must continue in a strong and reliable way,” van Holst Pellekaan said.

Tomorrow’s ballot was brought on after the resignation this week of former Deputy Premier Vickie Chapman, who has also quit as Minister for Planning and Local Government – but will stay on as a member of cabinet, albeit without attending meetings, and take leave from her role as Attorney-General pending an investigation by Ombudsman Wayne Lines into conflict of interest and misconduct allegations.

Insiders say the appointment of van Holst Pellekaan as interim Deputy Premier was seen by Speirs supporters as an attempt to push him as the heir apparent, with one saying the move “has sent David Speirs off the deep end”.

“He’s very, very unhappy with what’s transpired,” they said.

“He wouldn’t be impressed,” said another.

Speirs is said to be pushing his credentials as a marginal seat campaigner who would appeal to MPs in vulnerable electorates as a deputy leader who would oversee a campaign focussed on sandbagging their seats.

But one insider argued the election of an unaligned candidate would not equate to striking a factional ‘balance’ – and in fact would do the opposite, effectively delivering the moderate camp an extra vote.

“The notion that the elevation of either Speirs or DVHP would even things up or somehow renders balance and order is just risible,” the source said.

“This is already officially the most [factionally] imbalanced cabinet in history – how does that change anything? It’s risible to try and somehow pretend this is all squaring things up – it’s actually making it worse.”

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