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Ex-Liberal MP backs independent for blue-ribbon seat

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A former long-serving South Australian Liberal MP is backing an independent candidate over his Liberal successor in the sprawling federal seat of Grey, saying he has become disillusioned by the Morrison Government’s economic management and plans to build a nuclear waste dump near his hometown.

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Barry Wakelin, who served as the Liberal member for Grey between 1993 and 2007, told InDaily his party membership had lapsed about four years ago and he was now supporting independent candidate Liz Habermann to contest the blue-ribbon seat held by Rowan Ramsey.

“You get to a point of your life when you want to make decisions yourself and not rely on a party-political process,” he said.

“I’m just in a stage of my life when I’m saying, ‘no, I’m not able to support the Liberal Party and their candidates in the way they supported me in previous years’.”

The Kimba farmer was the first non-Labor member in 53 years to be re-elected to Grey in 1996 and is credited for turning the seat, which covers over 92 per cent of the state, into a Liberal safe haven.

Despite securing a 13.3 per cent margin at the 2019 federal election, the Liberals’ future in Grey is vulnerable, given Habermann’s strong March state election campaign.

The independent candidate, who oversees the family-owned Wudinna Bakery on the Eyre Peninsula, secured a surprising 23.1 per cent swing in the Liberal-held state electorate of Flinders, but narrowly missed out on winning by just 1263 votes.

Wakelin described Habermann as a “fine woman who has known hardship and who is really quite determined to offer herself for this job”.

He said electing an independent to the seat would be a “healthy response” to the current divisiveness in politics, adding a woman MP would “send a lot of messages about the contribution of not only women but families have made to Australia’s history”.

The 76-year-old added his decision to support Habermann’s campaign was fuelled by the Morrison Government’s decision to build a nuclear waste dump at a property called Napandee near the town of Kimba.

The site was chosen following a six-year consultation process, but the Barngalla Traditional Owners have taken the federal government to court arguing they were not included in that process.

Wakelin has been a vocal critic of the plan, warning it could damage surrounding agricultural land and would contradict the government’s own guidelines.

He also criticised the Morrison Government’s debt handling over the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think many of us who served with Howard and Costello, we worked pretty hard to pay off the national debt,” he said.

“When we left there was $100 billion in the kitty… and in five minutes almost, the current Liberal Government has built up a huge debt.

“I know dear old COVID will get the blame, but the restraint shown by the Liberal Party on its debt control is to me pretty appalling.”

Asked if he had spoken to Ramsey about his decision to back his rival, Wakelin said: “We’re not close and I think we do see things differently”.

“We certainly had a different view about nuclear waste,” he said.

Habermann told InDaily she first met Wakelin while campaigning in Kimba for the state election and he and his wife had later offered to help her hand out how-to-vote cards.

She described Wakelin as a “very respected man” in the community, whose support had bolstered her campaign.

“When I was getting frustrated and disillusioned by politics thinking it shouldn’t be this way, it was very reassuring when someone who had lived it was also feeling the same way,” she said.

“I thought, it’s not just me – people are sick of how the major parties are doing things.

“I thought it was extremely telling that someone who was so Liberal back in the day also thought these things.”

Habermann said voters in Grey were most concerned about rising cost-of-living pressures, climate change, telecommunication issues, doctor shortages and child care.

Asked whether she would support Labor or the Liberals in the event of a hung parliament, Habermann said she would make a decision after consulting voters.

“I can’t say because I don’t know what they (the major parties) will be standing for,” she said.

“I’m there to negotiate for the people of Grey, so I’ve got to take it back to the people I want to represent to find out what policies are out there that have been put out by these two major parties to find out who’s best going to help Grey.”

Ramsey has held the seat of Grey since 2007.

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