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Libs to field new candidate against exiled MP

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EXCLUSIVE | The SA Liberal Party will cut its first-term MP for Narungga adrift, with the state executive last night voting to seek a new candidate for the safe seat – but Fraser Ellis has vowed to forge on as an independent.

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Ellis exiled himself from the Liberal party-room last February when he was charged, after an ICAC inquiry, with misusing parliamentary entitlements relating to the contentious country members allowance.

The Liberal governing executive has left the seat in limbo ever since, despite Ellis in October demanding the party “confirm that I remain the endorsed Liberal Party candidate for the seat of Narungga”, after his trial was delayed until after the March state election.

But at a meeting last night, the state executive “agreed to open nominations for Narungga, closing at noon on Monday 24 January”, state director Sascha Meldrum told InDaily today.

The narrow timeframe gives prospective candidates less than a week to nominate for the Yorke Peninsula electorate – one of the state’s safest Liberal seats, with a nominal margin of 17.9 per cent – and less than eight weeks to campaign for the March 19 poll.

Ellis said he was disappointed but would continue to campaign as an independent.

“I’m aware that they’ve decided to open preselections and not consented to me returning as their endorsed candidate for the upcoming election, and I can confirm I’ll be nominating as an independent,” he told InDaily.

“I would have much preferred to have returned to the party – I believe I’ve got strong support in the local branch and I know they’ll be disappointed by this news.

“But the decision is up to the state executive.”

Ellis said it would be “business as normal in Narungga”.

“I’m out there campaigning, always put the community first, whether as a member of the Liberal Party or crossbench,” he said.

“I’ll be out there continuing to operate as normal – this is just confirmation of what colour shirt I’ll be wearing on election day.”

It’s unclear whether Ellis – who had already been confirmed as the party’s preselected candidate before he moved to the crossbench – would be eligible to contest a preselection ballot. Like fellow Liberal exile-turned-independent Sam Duluk in Waite, he has continued to pay his membership fees but is not aware of his party status, and Meldrum did not respond to inquiries about whether he could contest the preselection.

However, Ellis said he had “no intention of nominating for the preselection” in any case.

“I’ve asked to be confirmed as their endorsed candidate – that request was denied,” he said.

“I’ll move on to campaigning as an independent.”

That campaign will include lobbying both parties to pledge a new entrance road into Wallaroo – but unlike ex-Liberal independent Dan Cregan in Kavel, he’s not flagging a difficult choice should he be left holding the balance of power.

“There’s no point trying to propagate a big charade – I’ve been a Liberal member for quite some time, and I’m far more likely than not to support a Liberal Government if I find myself in that position,” he said.

Ellis has been more inclined to break ranks from his fellow crossbenchers to back the Marshall Government in recent months, although he was one of 25 signatories demanding the recall of parliament last week, to deal to with the Omicron outbreak.

But he has also exhibited an independent streak even before his exile, leading a cohort of backbenchers to cross the floor in a series of votes against the Government’s Mining Bill.

However, he said he had “genuinely not considered” holding the balance of power – or whether he would contemplate a return to the party fold if he is re-elected and cleared by the courts.

“The first step is winning the election, and I’d never presume to take the seat for granted,” he said.

“The first step is to run and secure the support of the community – and then there’s a couple of other hurdles to jump,” he said, referring to the looming legal battle.

“I don’t want to put the cart before the horse.”

Ellis will be one of four ex-Liberals running as independents at the March poll, alongside Duluk, Cregan and Mount Gambier’s Troy Bell, who is himself contesting charges relating to the use of the country members allowance, in addition to theft charges dating back to before he entered parliament.

The latter case will be tested in the High Court in February, with Bell arguing that the ICAC exceeded its powers in its handling of the investigation.

That appeal delayed Ellis’s own trial, as the outcome could affect a number of ongoing cases related to ICAC investigations.

Bell was re-elected as an independent in 2018 after leaving the party-room when he was initially charged – with his situation now echoed in the party’s decision not to back Ellis for another tilt.

“I appreciate the precedent is there,” Ellis conceded.

“I would have much preferred to re-join the party – I think that’s the will of the local branch, to have me as their endorsed candidate – but they’ve made their decision.

“It is what it is.”

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