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Marshall's mea culpa: “I took my eye off the ball”

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Premier Steven Marshall has intervened to deal with a party-room rebellion over mining policy, conceding he needs to “take responsibility” for the breakdown, after perhaps the toughest fortnight of his political and personal life.

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It’s been a torrid week for the first-term government, with controversy over its loan for a new Adelaide Oval hotel, embarrassing revelations about the rollout of its solar panel scheme, a teachers’ strike and transport headaches over its cancelled funding for the Overland and a bungled push to cancel rail services on the weekend of the Adelaide cricket Test.

And all that against the backdrop of what could prove a fundamental split with its rural constituency, amid complaints about a lack of consultation before moves to give the CFS the authority to halt grain harvesting and a Bill that denies farmers a right of veto over mining companies seeking to access their land.

The latter led to four freshman MPs crossing the floor to vote with Labor in delaying the legislation – the first significant crack in the Liberal Government’s façade of unity since it took office.

Fraser Ellis, Steve Murray, Dan Cregan and Nick McBride join crossbenchers Troy Bell and Geoff Brock behind a line of Labor MPs.

And for Marshall, it all followed a week in which he took time away from the job to grieve the death of his father, business mentor and confidant Tony.

Tony and Steven Marshall in a 2017 Father’s Day message posted on Facebook.

Marshall tells InDaily he has met with the rebel MPs – Fraser Ellis, Nick McBride, Dan Cregan and former party president Steve Murray – both individually and as a group, and insists “we’ll repair those relationships and move forward”.

I need to take responsibility… we are really running a cabinet government

Liberal insiders have singled out Mining and Energy Minister Dan van Holst Pellekaan for trying to rush through what is effectively a Labor Bill without further consultation, with questions also asked about lower house whip Adrian Pederick for failing to rein in the rebels and Speaker Vincent Tarzia for allowing the matter to go to a division that became a public display of dissent.

But Marshall insists: “I need to take responsibility.”

“I don’t think it’s the minister… we are really running a cabinet government – I think everybody’s got to take responsibility,” he says.

“Cabinet needs real responsibility, and I’ll work not only with our party-room but with constituents.”

Explaining the breakdown in party discipline that led to the public spat, Marshall concedes: “I probably took my eye off the ball the last few weeks.”

“I could have manoeuvred around it if I had my head in the game [but] we are where we are,” he says.

“I’m disappointed – but it certainly isn’t devastating… I think we’ll learn from it and improve.”

Photo: Tony Lewis / InDaily

Marshall notes that country electorates have “different and sometimes competing needs” to metropolitan seats, but says he’d be “very happy to plead the case of all the things we’ve done for regional SA since we were elected”.

And, he insists: “There’s no animosity in the party-room.”

“People have different positions, but that doesn’t mean there’s personal animosity,” he says.

“It’s completely illogical to think that all Liberals have to think the same way.”

That goes for the Premier himself, who pointedly poured fuel on the fire on Wednesday, when asked by Opposition Leader Peter Malinauskas whether he supports a right for farmers to veto mining on freehold land.

He answered: “No.”

I personally don’t support a right of veto… those resources belong to the people of SA

“The answer is no,” he reiterates now.

“Those resources belong to the people of SA – and from time to time you do need to make a decision to access those minerals on behalf of the people of SA.”

It’s a standpoint that could perpetuate another standoff, when the Bill returns to parliament for consideration in the new year.

“It’s extremely difficult to balance every issue in the South Australian parliament, and the Mining Act is always going to have a natural friction between farmers and miners,” Marshall admits, explaining the intention this week was “to get this phase one through and then embark on further consultation”.

“[The idea was], let’s lock away these improvements and then have further negotiation around other issues down the track,” he says.

So what happens now?

“It won’t come back before the parliament before next year, so that gives us further time,” he says.

“We’re happy to consult on other models that exist around Australia – but I personally don’t support a right of veto…

“What we do need to ensure is that the way in which that’s done has the least impact upon farming communities.”

Ellis and McBride, backed by constituents, after the division. Photo: Twitter

They are also going to have to sell the changes to farming communities – a fraught prospect given the rhetoric of recent days, with MacKillop MP McBride telling ABC Radio on Wednesday he wants “our Minister to bat for our party”, and has “no confidence in any of those changes that they’ve put in place”.

More damning still, an editorial in McBride’s local paper, the Millicent-based South Eastern Times, which lauded “a conservative bloc of MPs [that] has not just stood up for regional communities, but defied a wet, or moderate-controlled cabinet who they claim does not have the best interests of country SA at heart”.

I’m disappointed in the result, but I’ll use this to make us stronger

Marshall concedes he has work to do to restore faith in his Government in both in the party-room and regional communities.

“I probably didn’t handle everything as well as I should… but I don’t think it’s caused any structural damage to the Liberal Party at all,” he says, noting of the four dissidents: “I think if they thought about it they’d do it differently as well.”

“I’m disappointed in the result, but I’ll use this to make us stronger – there’s no chance it’s going to make us weaker,” he insists.

“I don’t perceive we’ll have a repeat like this.”

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