The concerted push to re-establish the Nationals brand – which has been all-but-invisible in SA since their sole state MP Karlene Maywald lost her Riverland seat after serving on Mike Rann’s frontbench – has included sounding out high-profile Port Augusta mayor and former Xenophon sidekick Sam Johnson to run in Liberal-held Grey.
Johnson told InDaily he had refused the suggestion, and this week took to social media to rule out any plans to run for state or federal politics as he seeks mayoral re-election after his ill-fated bid to enter the Legislative Council on the SA Best ticket in March.
But Nationals state president Jonathan Pietzsch told InDaily there was “certainly” a concerted move to lift the party’s presence in SA.
“The Nationals federally are always looking for opportunities and we believe there’s a positive story to talk about, with being a specialist party solely focussed on the regions,” he said.
The SA branch of the party walked an awkward tightrope during the years the former Labor Government courted Maywald, who remains a party member but today declared herself “well and truly retired” from politics.
Pietzsch concedes there was “certainly a disagreement between certain people about how that was handled” but suggests there is now a greater spirit of cooperation with the federal party.
“We’ve got a good story to tell… there are a couple of very supportive federal MPs that have been working with us [and] there’s a younger generation now within the party that’s keen to move things forward,” he said.
“You don’t get involved unless you believe in something, and I’d just say we’re building on that at the moment.”
There is no coalition agreement in SA, which means the Nationals can run candidates against incumbent Liberals.
It took on Liberal Tony Pasin in Barker in 2013, with farmer and local councillor Miles Hannemann garnering just 4.3 per cent of the vote, but did not take part in the 2016 federal poll.
But this month it put out a public call for interested candidates in Barker, Grey, Mayo and Spence. Barker and Grey are held by Liberals Pasin and Rowan Ramsey, with Centre Alliance’s Rebekha Sharkie holding Mayo and Labor’s Nick Champion in Spence.
Hannemann told InDaily he was “thinking about” nominating again in the South-East, saying “I certainly think we need to be better represented in Barker, because we’re such a safe seat everyone forgets about us”.
“Tony Pasin will disagree with that [but] we’ve got as many black spots on our roads since he’s come to be here… I personally feel as though we’re forgotten – and I think the rest of the electorate feels that too,” he said.
Hannemann says the electorate needs to be convinced that “a Nationals vote is as good as a Liberal vote, because you’re voting for the Coalition and our Deputy Prime Minister is a National Party member”.
InDaily has sought comment from Pasin, who has just this week “strongly encouraged residents in Barker to contact my office as soon as possible to nominate any mobile phone black spots in our community” ahead of the next round of the Federal Government’s $220 million Mobile Black Spot Program.
Former Nationals Senate candidate James Stacey, who later ran in Barker for the Nick Xenophon Team in 2016, said he was not sure “how much political traction they can, get but good luck to them for trying”.
“In the past, when push comes to shove, the federal Nats have run off and supported their coalition partners in SA, rather than their local party colleagues,” he said.
“For the Nationals to succeed in SA they need their federal members to be supporting SA candidates.”
Johnson, who insisted he can “rule out a federal run”, nonetheless conceded he had fielded advances from both the Nats and Centre Alliance, which was recently rebranded from NXT.
He also claimed there were “a number of MPs that are still trying to recruit Sam Johnson to the Liberal Party”.
Johnson quit the party to run third on SA best’s Upper House ticket, failing to make a quota.
“A few, both state and federal, have called from time to time, and told me I could eat humble pie and rejoin the fold,” he said.
“But I’m quite enjoying what I’m doing.”
He said he had also had multiple approaches to run in Grey, a seat with which he has been long linked.
“I’ve had members of the National Party talk about what opportunities might lie in the future, as well as Centre Alliance – both of which I’ve declined – and I’m not running as an independent,” he said.
Pietzsch confirmed he had “spoken to Sam over a long time on other matters” but said he was “not going to comment on any particular people”.
He said he had fielded “a couple of inquiries” after the call for candidates, and the party would “look to advertise more broadly in the near future”.
The Nationals are also considering a senate run in SA, with Pietzsch saying: “We’ll look to explore that as we get closer to the election.”
“At this stage, it’s an initial foray,” he said.
He also implied there was an effort to bolster the party’s state coffers, saying the Nationals were “looking to build on that” in coming months.
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