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Notes on Adelaide

Au revoir, Monsieur le Président | Labor’s ‘land tax’ moment | Lib Right takes another branch

Notes on Adelaide

In today’s Notes on Adelaide column: with a fraught preselection ballot looming, the Liberal Party’s state president jets off for a European getaway as the Right faction pushes further into moderate-held branches, and Labor’s ‘steady-as-she-goes’ budget is overshadowed by a stoush with the party’s heartland supporter base.

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Non, je ne regrette rien

It’s been a tough few weeks to be an SA Liberal Party administrator. First the Marshall government was turfed from office after just one term, and then the federal government followed suit, with the local Libs losing the seat of Boothby for the first time since the Menzies era.

Still, no time for regrets – there’s a divisive preselection process for a fraught by-election in the party’s only safe metro seat to play out, with voters in Bragg to head to the polls on July 2.

That’s complicated by the decision of the state director, Sascha Meldrum, to bow out after the federal poll – although she is still on deck to help out until her successor is appointed.

One contender understood to have been strongly lobbied to apply for the role is Alex May, a longtime senior Liberal staffer – most recently for then-Premier Steven Marshall.

She’s since worked for Naval Group, until its ill-fated submarine project plan came to abrupt AUKUS-inspired halt, and is now a partner at consultants DPG Advisory Solutions, where she’s described as a “government and corporate affairs specialist with extensive experience in developing and executing strategic communications and stakeholder strategies and campaigns”.

Sources say senior Liberals are keen for May to take on the role, although her prospective appointment could ruffle feathers with the party’s Right faction, given her historical moderate links – not to mention her relationship with factional heavyweight and (narrowly-re-elected) federal Sturt MP James Stevens.

But it’s understood May, who’s said to be enjoying her new role with the Canberra-based firm, is no certainty to even apply for the fraught state Liberal role, which could send the party returning to its old template of recruiting from interstate Liberal administrative ranks.

Still, with all this going on, it could be considered an odd time for the party’s state president to jet off on a European vacation.

Legh Davis, whose term ends later this year, left SA days after the federal poll for a few weeks in Paris, party sources have told InDaily.

Meldrum directed questions about Davis’s movements to Davis himself, who has not responded to inquiries.

But insiders have confirmed he has been ‘zooming’ into all-important state executive meetings from the proverbial ‘City of Light’ – a comfortable distance from which to observe Sunday’s preselection ballot, which sources believe will most likely see former Christopher Pyne staffer Jack Batty endorsed to replace Vickie Chapman in Bragg.

Meanwhile, spurned hopeful Chelsey Potter – whose nomination was disallowed because of her recent consultancy work for independent candidates running against party incumbents – is still considering whether to nominate as an independent for the by-election.

Sacré bleu!

The Left lose Gibson, again

Bragg is Liberal moderate heartland, with all four preselection hopefuls aligned to the party’s Left.

That includes Batty and another former staffer, Sandy Biar, along with former Sound Radiology owner Cara Miller and lawyer Melissa Jones, both of whom also contested the recent Waite preselection ballot (in which Jones was, at the time, described as a ‘centre-Right candidate’), losing to conservative Alexander Hyde, with the seat subsequently falling to Labor.

But with moderate powerbrokers’ attention on replacing Chapman in Bragg (not to mention pondering how to wrest back the balance of power in a federal party-room which has seen the departure of key moderate MPs) the Liberals’ conservative wing continues its relentless charge towards an attempted takeover at the next party AGM.

A conservative recruitment drive that began last year spearheaded by maverick senator Alex Antic (as revealed at the time by InDaily) failed to secure the numbers for a state executive coup at the 2021 meeting, but the Right’s bolstered numbers are beginning to filter through to the party’s state branches.

InDaily revealed last month that the Right had managed to install its candidate as SEC [State Electorate Convention] president in shadow Treasurer Matt Cowdrey’s seat of Colton.

This week, the faction had another win, knocking off the moderate president in the southern suburbs electorate of Gibson – recently held by Left-aligned minister Corey Wingard, who lost his seat at the state election.

The move could give the Right a chance to install a conservative candidate in Gibson ahead of the 2026 poll – but in the short term, it adds to the faction’s numbers on the party’s state council.

It won’t be lost on party powerbrokers that Gibson is the neighbouring seat to Black – held by Opposition Leader David Speirs.

‘Land tax’, Mark 2

In the meantime though, Speirs’ main game is picking holes in Labor’s state budget, with the Liberal leader today arguing the timeline for a planned Flinders Medical Centre upgrade has already blown out by a year.

The budget marks the completion date as June 2029 – despite, Speirs says, “commitments from Peter Malinauskas and the-now Prime Minister who both said it will be ‘completed by 2028’”.

Meanwhile, the Premier himself was out spruiking the budget for “bringing forward the construction of a new Mount Barker Hospital”.

So, one step forward, one step back.

There wasn’t much new in the budget; it was essentially a post-election update of the pre-election costings document the then-Liberal Government spent much of the campaign demanding to see (the irony that they now get to see it twice might be lost on them).

But in any case, Labor’s budget sell has been somewhat overshadowed by an escalating brawl with the union movement over a move to toughen the state’s compensation regime for injured workers in a bid to save businesses from punitive premiums threatened by Return To Work SA.

As InDaily reported yesterday, even the Premier’s own shoppies’ union isn’t happy, and a range of union leaders have lined up to variously describe the Government’s plan as “disappointing”, an “outrage” and a “betrayal”.

Which, needless to say, isn’t an ideal situation for a not-yet three-month-old Labor Government to find itself in.

Particularly since it seems eerily reminiscent of the former Marshall Government’s disastrous rift with its own supporter base over a 2019 budget savings bid to recalibrate land tax aggregation – a move that led to months of fallout and, ultimately, a policy that actually cost the budget money, rather than saved it.

That chapter, along with the earlier Mining Bill that prompted four backbenchers to cross the floor, was the beginning of a schism with the Liberal heartland that was exacerbated by later pandemic restrictions, and from which the Libs are arguably yet to recover.

So it was notable that Speirs, when asked if he saw parallels between the land tax fracas and Labor’s union spat, replied: “I certainly do.”

Less clear-cut – for now – is his party’s own position on the Bill.

One might assume the Libs would fall in behind it – particularly given it was their former Treasurer Rob Lucas who first ‘belled the cat’ about the liability blowout that loomed as a result of last year’s court decision in favour of injured truck driver Shane Summerfield, who was left permanently injured after a 2016 workplace accident.

But Speirs appears to be playing the long game, saying: “I don’t think we should assume anything… we will be stepping back, consulting, talking to employers [and] we’ll be talking to the unions as well.”

“This has been dropped on the parliament quite unexpectedly [and] the government should not think the Liberal Party will just be waving those laws through both houses – we’ll be looking into them in a lot of detail and making sure injured workers don’t have perverse outcomes inflicted on their lives.”

If that all sounds like the Liberal and Labor leaders have switched hats of late, it’s also worth noting that Speirs lamented a lack of job-creating government intervention in yesterday’s budget, saying: “There is a role for government to respond try to get projects off the ground that will actually expand job creation.”

Meanwhile, the Law Society today became the latest in a cavalcade of (non-business) interest groups to urge caution on the legislation, with president Justin Stewart-Rattray expressing concern “that the Government has introduced a Bill into parliament that would have significant implications for injured workers, before engaging in consultation on the Bill”.

Labor will be hoping that consultation doesn’t last as long as the Libs’ land tax debate.

Notes On Adelaide is an occasional column telling the inside stories of Adelaide people, politics, institutions and issues. If you have information that you believe should be noted in this column, send us an email: editorial@solsticemedia.com.au

Notes On Adelaide is also a podcast – find our latest episodes here.

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