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Factional feuding a downer for Marshall's leadership

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UPDATED: Liberal insiders have demanded Steven Marshall intervene to avert looming preselection bloodletting amid escalating infighting and revelations of a renewed – but shortlived – bid to parachute Alexander Downer into the party leadership.

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The beachside seat of Colton – which has become fertile ground for the Liberals under the proposed boundary redraw – is shaping as a fight that could leave the party leadership red-faced, with the star candidate groomed for the seat, Paralympian Matt Cowdrey, facing a challenge from Alex Brown, whose father, former premier Dean Brown, remains an influential figure in the moderate faction.

InDaily can reveal veteran moderate Duncan McFetridge – who has faced calls to stand down in the neighbouring seat of Morphett – signed a statutory declaration required for Brown to run for the seat, with nominations closing on Friday.

This ageist, racist, sexist talk about old white men is really giving me the shits quite frankly

Colton has also been paired with moderate powerbroker and deputy Liberal leader Vickie Chapman, whose father Ted was one of Dean Brown’s keenest supporters during the historical blood-feuds of previous Liberal generations.

One senior source claimed Brown’s candidacy in Colton – combined with revelations of a push to recruit former minister Wayne Matthew to Davenport – smacked of a concerted bid to bring Chapman supporters into parliament.

“If Steven Marshall wins the election and becomes Premier, he’s in the most dangerous spot in politics – he’s the only thing between Vickie Chapman and a premiership,” the source said.

“Steven ought to intervene to make sure Matt Cowdrey gets to win Colton.”

THE COLT FROM COLTON? Matt Cowdrey at a press conference ahead of the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. Photo: Tracey Nearmy / AAP

THE COLT FROM COLTON? Matt Cowdrey at a press conference ahead of the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. Photo: Tracey Nearmy / AAP

But the claim has been ridiculed as “Machiavellian mischief-making” by others in the party, including known opponents of the deputy leader.

“She’s now recognised the lay of the land is that the best it’s going to be for her is hopefully to be Deputy Premier in a Liberal Government,” said one.

Nonetheless, it’s understood Cowdrey’s candidacy was backed by influential moderates James Stevens and John Gardner – Marshall’s chief of staff and prime parliamentary tactician respectively – which could reflect badly on the leader if Cowdrey’s bid was thwarted.

Insiders have noted the Brown camp “know how to run a preselection” and Alex would be unlikely to stand if he didn’t consider himself a good chance of winning.

But Dean Brown told InDaily today his son had only nominated on Friday and he had “not spoken to a single delegate in Colton” on his behalf.

Chapman said she had “encouraged several people to put their hand up in that area”.

“I think that’s a good sign,” she said.

It’s understood Colton State Electoral Committee president Duncan Symons has also nominated for the seat, with other candidates expected.

Asked about a prevalence of candidates aligned to her, Chapman said: “I’m not prepared to answer that.”

“I am prepared to say Matt is an excellent candidate, but others have excellent credentials and the party will make a decision,” she said.

Asked whether she would countenance another leadership tilt, she said it was “complete nonsense… I categorically rule that out.”

Marshall told InDaily it was “not the leader’s role in the Liberal Party to preselect candidates”.

“The candidates in the Liberal Party are selected by the members of the branch… it’s a great process which produces the best outcome,” he said.

Asked whether it would reflect on his leadership if Cowdrey’s candidacy was rebuffed, Marshall said: “I’ll work with anybody that’s put forward by the college.”

“We’ve got an excellent range of people putting themselves forward for preselection because they realise we might form Government after March next year,” he said.

However, it appears that belief is not universally shared, with the Australian Financial Review today reporting of an aborted push to install Australia’s high commissioner in London, former foreign minister Alexander Downer, into a safe seat for him to take over the leadership when his UK sojourn ends.

He wanted everything to come on a plate, and politics isn’t quite like that

Key insiders have told InDaily the push was mooted seriously around November or December in response to internal dissent over Liberal policy positions on south-east fracking and ending the nuclear dump debate.

“It was mooted but it fizzled out… the preconditions he wanted just wouldn’t have been delivered – they couldn’t be delivered,” said one source.

“It was therefore unlikely and now is highly unlikely to happen.

“He wanted everything to come on a plate, and politics isn’t quite like that… there’s nothing like when you’re past your [political] use-by-date and it’s suggested you might be the saviour, but whether you actually do anything about it is quite another matter.”

It’s understood the approach – which follows a similar aborted plan for Downer to replace Isobel Redmond as her political star waned in 2012 – came to a head around the time a group of influential business leaders and party supporters wrote an open letter lamenting the nuclear stance.

“That was when there was a bit of talk and momentum, but I haven’t picked up any of that this side of Christmas… the view is Steven is it and everyone is in lockstep behind it,” said the insider.

Marshall said today he had “enjoyed very strong support from Alexander Downer for an extended period of time”.

“Don’t forget I asked him to be my president when I took over the leadership… he’s a great friend and I enjoy his full support,” he said.

Marshall with Liberal luminary Alexander Downer and former Prime Minister Tony Abbott before the 2014 state election. Photo: James Elsby, AAP.

Alexander Downer gives Steven Marshall a hand before the 2014 state election. Photo: James Elsby / AAP

Asked about the evident overtures, he said: “This is politics… no-one ever has everybody across the state supporting their decisions.”

McFetridge said he signed the statutory declaration for Brown because he wanted to encourage party members standing in democratic elections – the same rationale stated by conservative Hills powerbrokers Stan and Barb Evans for last week endorsing Heysen frontrunner Stephen Blacketer.

“It’s one of the few times Stan Evans and I would agree on things,” he said.

“I’m happy to help people stand.”

He insisted he would not bow to demands for him to stand aside in his own seat of Morphett in the wake of his axeing from Marshall’s frontbench.

“I’ve got unfinished business and I’m going to continue on,” he said.

“The more people talk about me going, the more I’m determined to stay.”

He insisted he didn’t expect to be challenged for the seat, although InDaily has been told at least one prospective candidate is “seriously considering” a tilt.

“I think I represent the demographic of Morphett very well… I can’t think why you’d want to replace an incumbent sitting member,” McFetridge said.

‘This ageist, racist, sexist talk about ‘old white men’ is really giving me the shits, quite frankly.”

McFetridge denied suggestions within the party that he had helped convince the late Bob Such to run against Liberal conservative Sam Duluk in 2014 – a decision that effectively cost the party government after the independent retained his seat of Fisher. It later went to Labor’s Nat Cook in a by-election after Such died of a brain tumour in October 2014.

Instead, McFetridge insists, Such had told him he would retire if the Liberals preselected moderate Heidi Harris over Duluk. Harris ironically stood and lost the later by-election.

“I wish I’d had that much influence on Bob Such,” he said.

McFetridge believe the vitriol directed at him stems in part from his championing of the recent euthanasia vote.

“[It’s] not payback, that’s too strong a word, but it’s because of the Voluntary Euthanasia thing… I think they would like to see me gone,” he said.

He thought an influx of conservative candidates on both sides of politics would see the bill defeated again in the next parliament, saying: “I’m just watching the shift to the right both in the Labor Party and the Liberal Party [but] I just want to see the Liberal Party in Government, whatever it takes.”

Matthew, meanwhile, is still considering his own tilt in Davenport, although insiders expect him to withdraw.

It’s understood party president Steve Murray is certain to nominate and likely to win a ballot.

But Matthew’s prospective candidacy – and claims of “incredulity” with factional infighting – have drawn disbelief from some former colleagues.

One said the former minister’s comments were “bizarre”, adding: “He was a significant factional warrior, and a very, very good friend of the Labor Party.”

The Hills area is causing consternation for the Liberal Party, with InDaily’s revelations this week that one of the favourites to replace Isobel Redmond in Heysen has publicly lambasted Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on social media.

Stephen Blacketer’s Facebook page – which uses a part-pseudonym but has open privacy settings – continues the theme, detailing a litany of his far-right views, including his celebration at the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency: “Go Trump! The deplorables have spoken loud and clear.”

I picked that Turnbull would be useless… the treacherous 54 have reaped their reward

He greeted the election of Turnbull to the Liberal leadership in 2015 with an irate post, lamenting “Well ain’t that f*cked.”

“Turns out I’m a member of the Labor lite party,” he continued.

“I’m not a Malcolm Turnbull fan. Duplicity should not be rewarded. He split the party badly last time he was leader. He’ll do it again.”

He noted in a comment on the post that he had “toned it down” from a “10 to an 8 on the anger scale”.

After Turnbull’s near-death election experience last year, he wrote: “Well, it turns out I’m a genius… I picked Trump would win the GOP nomination after the first debate. I picked that the Poms would vote for Brexit. And, I picked that Turnbull would be useless. The treacherous 54 have reaped their reward.”

sblacketerInsiders have suggested if Blacketer does not withdraw his nomination his comments could potentially disqualify him from running when candidates are vetted by a panel of three senior Liberals, including state director Sascha Meldrum.

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