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Labor chaos: Jay rules out reshuffle as MPs run scared

Politics

Premier Jay Weatherill says he won’t be reshuffling his cabinet, despite factional pressure to jettison under-fire Environment Minister Ian Hunter, as his party descends into internal “chaos and panic” a year out from the next state election.

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A gaggle of MPs are understood to be angling for new seats, amid fears they will be turfed out in March 2018 by a combination of vastly redrawn electoral boundaries and an expected swing to the Liberals.

That’s despite Labor contesting the final redistribution of the Boundaries Commission in the Supreme Court, with hearings to recommence this month.

Labor insiders have also told InDaily there have been high-level discussions about a cabinet reshuffle that would see the accident-prone Hunter – a factional colleague and friend of Weatherill – make way for fellow left-winger Katrine Hildyard, while on the Right junior minister Zoe Bettison could be replaced by Chris Picton. Hildyard and Picton are both parliamentary secretaries, a role usually considered a transit lounge for aspiring frontbenchers.

But Weatherill denied the plan, effectively signalling a ‘steady-as-she-goes’ mentality and throwing his support behind his left-wing cohort, despite widespread internal angst about Hunter’s continued tenure.

“No… it’s not happening,” he told InDaily when asked if he was planning a reshuffle.

However, Weatherill has reshuffled his cabinet every year since he took office – twice in the month of January – and many party insiders had been expecting him to clear the decks in the run-up to a challenging election.

Weatherill himself has been hardly glowing about Hunter’s performance, conceding on ABC radio yesterday the embattled minister (who is now on holiday) “would probably accept” that he could have handled the ongoing controversy of fly-ash in Port Augusta with more “empathy”.

Shifting Hildyard for Hunter would redress the Left’s gender imbalance – a direct contravention of its own charter for affirmative action – with the faction currently boasting only one female representative in cabinet (Susan Close).

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Katrine Hildyard. Photo: Nat Rogers / InDaily

But many on the Right expressed surprise at the prospect of Bettison being removed, particularly given she is ensconced in a safe seat (Mike Rann’s former electorate of Ramsay) and has close ties to Labor Unity powerbrokers, including potential future leader Peter Malinauskas. (Malinauskas is himself expected to shift to the lower house at the 2018 election, widely anticipated to replace Michael Atkinson in Croydon.)

However, in a media monitoring survey of all Government ministers leaked to InDaily last month, Bettison was revealed to be Labor’s quietest performer, credited with just 49 appearances (15 TV and 34 radio) to the last week of December.

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Right-wingers have rallied behind Bettison. Photo: Nat Rogers / InDaily

The proposed reshuffle would also leave Labor with only two ministers in the Upper House, but this has been the status quo for much of its tenure in office.

Contacted by InDaily about the suggestion of a cabinet post, Picton said: “I haven’t heard anything [but] I understand there’s no vacancy.”

But there could yet be vacancies in a range of occupied seats, with several young Turks understood to be trying to jump to safer ground when the party opens nominations for preselection.

Annabel Digance, whose seat of Elder has gone from marginal Labor to comfortably Liberal (with a nominal 4.2 per cent margin) is understood to be pushing to run in neighbouring Badcoe (whose name was changed from Ashford), although that would entail convincing Left-wing veteran Steph Key to retire.

The Left could then gain a quid pro quo with a new candidate in King (formerly Napier), which has been transformed from a Labor stronghold to the party’s most marginal seat, on a notional 1.4 per cent margin.

It’s understood there is a standoff over the future of King’s incumbent, Jon Gee, with much of his electorate now residing in the seat of Elizabeth, notionally held by Little Para MP Lee Odenwalder. It’s been suggested one of either Odenwalder or Gee (more likely the latter) will be parachuted into the Upper House, with a new candidate to contest King.

Neither Digance nor Gee returned calls today.

“It’s going to be chaos,” one Labor insider said.

“There’s some negotiations going on behind the scenes… everyone is getting nervous.”

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Chris Picton is considered the next cab off the rank for a Right cabinet vacancy – if there was one. Photo: Nat Rogers / InDaily

There are also fears Labor could lose another leader-in-waiting, with Stephen Mullighan’s margin in Lee whittled down to 2.6 per cent.

“They’re really scared… we’ve been in Government for 16 years, and if the swing’s on it’s going to be really hard,” an insider said.

However, despite several sources confirming the Machiavellian machinations have been discussed, it’s likely to result in minimal change, with one insisting: “People will be asked to pull their heads in.”

The preselection process has been muddied by the ALP’s court action against the Electoral Districts Boundaries Commission, exclusively revealed by InDaily last month. With the legal process expected to take months to finalise, though, it’s likely the party will opt to open nominations in seats according to the boundaries laid down in the commission’s final report, to give candidates enough time to spruik themselves to their new constituents.

State secretary Reggie Martin said the question of opening preselections would be discussed at a state executive meeting in the first week of next month.

But it’s not just Labor facing internal ructions, with former Liberal senator Sean Edwards hardly pouring cold water on reports he is being lobbied by high-level business leaders to run for state parliament, and even step in as party leader.

Edwards has been outspoken in his criticism of the Liberals for their move to kill off debate on the storage of nuclear waste, which he considers a major economic opportunity.

“I’ve not had any formal discussions with any office-bearers of the Liberal Party about preselection, or a seat at the next state election,” he said today, amid reports he could stand in Frome or Heysen, two seats in which preselections were opened last month.

However, former candidate Kendall Jackson is expected to run again in Frome, while Isobel Redmond is likely to continue as the member for Heysen, a hills seat which could be in the sights of the Nick Xenophon Team.

Asked about the prospect of replacing Steven Marshall, Edwards rather mysteriously said: “Who leads the party is a mater for the partyroom… parties elect their leaders in the partyroom on merit, based on a number of different attributes they have strengths in.

“If it was something I ever had the opportunity to do, those would be the qualities I’d rely on.”

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