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Party divided as SA Libs ponder second loss in two months


State Liberals are divided over the reasons behind their party’s federal election loss, with moderates blaming an environmental protest vote while conservatives point the finger at a policy drift to the Left.

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In the eastern suburbs seat of Sturt – a traditional Liberal stronghold – Steven Marshall’s former chief of staff James Stevens is increasingly confident of hanging on, currently leading by more than 700 votes as pre-poll and postals continue to trend his way.

Stevens has suffered a near -6.5 per cent swing – greater than the 4.7 per cent two-party lurch that saw his neighbouring seat of Boothby fall to Labor for the first time since 1949.

But he says nearly all of that came from a huge primary swing to the Greens – with the primary vote of Labor’s Sonja Baram increasing by just a little over one per cent on the previous campaign.

Stevens told InDaily today swings against the government were “pretty consistent” across the country, noting that a projected “aberration” in SA, on the back of March’s state election loss, “hasn’t happened”.

“We’ve had a bad result but unfortunately that’s in line with the rest of the country,” he said.

“Seats like mine, such as Higgins and Kooyong [where Katie Allen and Josh Frydenberg lost their seats] had significant swings [and] the increase in the Green vote has come from the Liberal Party.”

“The Labor Party barely got any swing to them at all [in Sturt] – Liberals voted Green in Sturt … they got a five per cent swing and that’s all come from me.”

The leading SA moderate has suggested Liberal divisions on climate change and an inability to sell its environmental message led to the malaise, saying: “The message is loud and clear, I don’t think anyone’s disputing it.”

But members of his own party are doing just that, with leading Right-wingers taking a very different view of the prevailing political winds that hurled the Morrison government from office.

“On Saturday night, the South Australian division of the Liberal Party was subjected to its second embarrassing defeat in two months,” senator Alex Antic told InDaily.

“Since taking control of the Party 12 to 14 years ago, the Left-wing of the party has damaged the party to the point of electoral irrelevance.

“In 2004 we had eight federal lower house MPs. We now may have as few as two.

“In the coming period, we are going to hear from the same people who told us after the recent state election that it was an ‘aberration’ relating to COVID, and that the Liberal Party must push further to the Left – both of these statements are fundamentally wrong.”

Antic, who was not up for re-election in the weekend’s poll, said that Morrison’s 2019 victory was built on “the quiet Australians who delivered the federal election for the Liberal Party”.

“They did so on the basis that those elected would promote the party’s core values,” he said.

“This objective was not met.

“In order to become relevant again, the Liberal Party must return to its rightful place as a centre-Right conservative party.”

That’s a view echoed by his factional colleague, Barker MP Tony Pasin, who told ABC Radio Adelaide: “There’s a need for the Liberal Party to get back to grassroots.”

“I was able to limit the damage [in Barker and] I think a lot of that is about people knowing what I stand for, my values are consistent with those of the Liberal Party,” he said.

Pasin said “increasingly the Liberal Party is the party of people who need to work for a living and increasingly the Labor Party, counter-intuitively almost, is becoming the party of people who don’t necessarily have to, either because they’re so wealthy it doesn’t matter or because they’ve decided not to otherwise”.

“I think the old traditions are breaking down but I think one thing stays forever and that is if you are someone who reflects the values of your community, you work hard in your community, you will get there,” he said.

“At the end of the day if you want to be Labor-like then people will vote for the Labor Party. We’ve got to enunciate our differences, make it clear why we’re different.

“The reality here in South Australia is the moderate-led Liberal Party has now been repudiated twice by the South Australian people and the suggestion that you lurch further to the left as a result is one that you might want to take with a grain of salt,” Pasin said.

However, he said: “I just don’t want people reading too much into what’s occurred in this election.”

“True enough, no conservatives lost their seats effectively and a series of moderates did,” he added.

That’s a reality the party’s moderate leaders are grappling with, as a host of ‘progressive’ Liberal incumbents were removed across the country, marking a Right-ward shift in the federal party room’s power structure.

“There are not many James Stevens-es left,” Stevens said of the moderate wipe-out.

“I’ve lost a lot of good friends [so] I’m sad at a personal level, and seats like Sturt across the country are no longer represented by a Liberal.”

He added there was “no way we can be in government in future if we don’t have a plan to win seats like Sturt back”.

“I’ve got to be a part of making sure the Liberal Party connect back with the people that have left us entirely in seats like Sturt around the country,” he said.

“There are voices that won’t be in the party room in there telling what their communities are telling them in those sorts of seats… I know having been out there campaigning for the last six weeks, a regular refrain has been ‘we usually vote Liberal, we’re not going to vote Labor but we’re voting Greens’.

“The Greens was a place they could vote to send a message that on environmental issues, they weren’t happy with the Liberal Party…

“If we want to be a party of government, we can’t let a big chunk of Liberals leave the party and just say ‘see you later’.

“We have to say ‘we hear you’; I hear that message, it’s very clear, and if I want to keep representing my community, I’ve got to make sure the Liberal Party is in tune with those issues that they’re raised.”

But Labor SA senator and frontbencher Don Farrell gave this assessment short shrift, saying: “I think he misunderstands the nature of our preferential voting system.”

“If they voted Green and voted Labor second it’s going to be a Labor vote,” he said.

“James Stevens is the genius that gave us Steven Marshall and his disastrous campaign – I wouldn’t be believing anything he says about an assessment of political readings at the moment.”

Farrell said Labor would be sticking to its climate change policy of a 43 per cent emissions reduction target by 2030.

“We’ve got a significant climate change policy and we’re going to stick to it,” he said.

“The Greens or so-called Teals can make up their mind as to whether they do or don’t support it, but that’s the policy we’re going to implement – 43 per cent.”

State Liberal Leader David Speirs said today the result represented a “great opportunity for the Liberal Party of Australia and the Liberal Party of South Australia to listen, to learn, to reflect on the future direction of the party and to move forward from here”.

Speirs said he hoped the party would be able to “move forward in a sensible centre-right position”.

“When you’re looking at balance within a party, losing so many of the progressive voices does pose some risks so I hope that that balance will be able to be struck going forward,” he said.

Speirs said both state and federal elections were “not great outcomes of course but you’ve got to find the silver linings, you’ve got to make the silver linings”.

“We have to refresh, renew, reinvigorate and move forward,” he said.

He said there were “significant falls in the primary votes of both major parties” in the federal election result.

He said while it was “very disappointing” to lose Boothby, where he resides, he praised Rachel Swift as a candidate, saying “I do know that the loss wasn’t as significant in terms of the swing against the Liberal Party as perhaps was possible”.

He said Sturt was “looking pretty good for the Liberal Party, albeit a significant swing against us”.

“I think James will have a significant contribution to make in terms of rebuilding the party,” he said.

Asked if he was now concerned about the party’s chances in the upcoming Bragg by-election, Speirs said: “Of course there are going to be moments for reflection around the Sturt/Bragg crossover and we will certainly be paying very close attention to what people in the seat of Bragg are after.”

“But that seat is very winnable for us and we will be giving it a very serious campaign over the coming weeks,” he said.

Reflecting on the “big Greens vote in Sturt”, he said: “I hope that many people who vote Greens look at me as a four-year environment minister, a leader of a real progressive environmental agenda”.

“I hope those voters in Bragg would look at me and think, ‘well the Liberal Party that David Speirs leads in South Australia has got a good reputation and a good policy platform around environmental and conservation issues’,” he said.

Speirs said there were “bigger things at play than local politics here” in the federal result.

“I actually think we might have seen bigger swings against us but for the quality of those candidates in those seats (Boothby and Sturt),” he said.

“Political parties, they get knocked around. There’s clearly a cyclical process involved here as well. There is a great opportunity for this party to refresh and renew and that’s what we’ll be doing.”

Asked if he would be happy for Rachel Swift to run as a candidate in the seat of Bragg, he said: “I wouldn’t be unhappy. This is a decision for the preselectors in the seat of Bragg.”

The dichotomy between a Green wave and a conservative rearguard was echoed in the Senate, where the Greens Barbara Pocock was elected to join SA’s Sarah Hanson-Young, bolstering a bloc likely to hold the balance of power in the upper house.

But One Nation’s Jennifer Game remains a chance of snaring the final seat, after garnering 4.1 per cent of the vote.

Game was downbeat this morning, and will face a similarly drawn-out wait that her daughter Sarah endured before winning through to the state parliament’s Legislative Council at the declaration of the poll in April.

“I think it’s unlikely [but] I still remain a technical possibility,” Game said today.

“I think our vote was split amongst some other similar parties – the so-called freedom parties, but our vote went backwards by 0.7 of a per cent compared to 2019 when I would have expected it to go up.”

She said One Nation voters “that used to be disaffected Liberals are probably now disaffected Labor”.

She also cited a fierce CFMEU campaign against the party, whose leader Pauline Hanson also faces a wait to find out if she will retain her Queensland seat.

“They had a lot of posters up showing Pauline’s face inside Scott Morrison’s head,” Game said.

“We need to do a bit of soul-searching… to find out why our vote wasn’t better.”

Greens senator-elect Barbara Pocock rejected any suggestion the senate vote suggested voters were breaking both left and right, saying “there’s a big difference between a possible 13 per cent vote [for the Greens] and very small proportions of the vote going to conservative parties at the other end of the voting spectrum.”

“I saw a lot of people looking for progressive outcomes – I didn’t see a lot of people asking where the One Nation card was,” she said.

Pocock insists her feedback on the hustings was that “it was a climate action election”.

“People want to see action, South Australians have been frustrated by the last decade of inaction,” she said.

“It’s also about integrity in our federal parliament… [people] want honest government and a strong anti-corruption body with teeth.”

She also cited inequality and cost of living, with “housing a really strong talking point, especially for anyone under 45 and anyone in the rental market”.

“The outcome is a Greens balance of power, quite probably, so we’ll be able to push a Labor Government to act on all those issues – it’s a clear mandate to move quickly on these things,” she said.

The economist, an emeritus professor from the University of SA, said as “a girl from a Lameroo wheat and sheep farm” it was an “honour to represent the whole state” in Canberra.

“I know plenty of families from rural communities up the river, they want action on climate change,” she said.

“I want to speak for what South Australians want to see.”

Farrell told InDaily the more than four per cent garnered between former colleagues-turned-rivals Rex Patrick and Nick Xenophon – neither of whom won election to the senate – could have blocked One Nation’s potential rise if either man had entered into preference deals.

That could have seen Labor win a third SA senate seat, a prospect that remains in play.

“Patrick and Xenophon could have stopped Hanson from winning that seat… if Hanson ends up winning it, blame Xenophon and Patrick,” he said.

The SA veteran and former union boss and convenor of the state party’s Right faction is in the frame to return to Labor’s senate deputy leadership under factional rival Penny Wong – a role he relinquished for former NSW Premier Kristina Keneally, whose attempted shift to the House of Representatives ended in disaster when she failed to win the safe seat of Fowler.

“I’ll be speaking with my colleagues about it, and will obviously consult with the leader [new PM Anthony Albanese] about what his wishes might be in terms of the senate leadership,” Farrell said.

-additional reporting by Jemma Chapman

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