Woodside engineer Stephen Nicholson has revealed he was blocked from running for preselection against right-wing rising star Dan Cregan after he refused to sign a form pledging not to challenge as an independent if he lost.
He said he agreed to sign with the caveat that the party agree to a “fair and equitable preselection process” – but instead had his nomination cancelled outright.
The revelation comes just days after InDaily reported that the Liberal state executive vetoed the nomination of lawyer Simon Le Poidevin in Morialta, which is held by frontbencher and Steven Marshall confidant John Gardner.
“The party’s in disarray at the moment, unfortunately,” Nicholson said when contacted by InDaily.
The long-time member previously ran for the state seat of Elizabeth – a traditional Labor stronghold – at the 1993 election and a by-election the following year when incumbent Martyn Evans shifted to federal parliament, achieving swings of 8.2 per cent and 1.3 per cent.
“I got a few legislative councilors elected on some of my efforts there,” he said.
But he said it was a very different story when he put his hand up for the Hills seat of Kavel, a safe Liberal seat which is set to come under heavy fire from Nick Xenophon’s SA Best at next year’s election.
“I contacted the headquarters of the Liberal Party quite some time ago, and I was told preselection wouldn’t happen till May,” he said.
Nicholson said he was in China when the call for prospective candidates was opened in December, noting that “I wasn’t encouraged to run for preselection”.
“They tried to discourage me,” he said, describing the process as “passive dissuadence”.
“I guess the way people communicate with you, the lack of encouragement… where previously I’ve been embraced putting my hand up for preselection, I wasn’t embraced… I was told quite clearly certain people weren’t going to support me.”
But in the end, having twice represented the party in Labor-held seats and achieving strong swings, Nicholson said he was “well and truly qualified to ran as a candidate for preselection” and put his name forward.
He passed the candidate review process to become one of the two nominees for Kavel, but weeks later Cregan was announced as the party’s candidate, with the Liberals telling the Sunday Mail they had withdrawn Nicholson’s application “after he failed to submit required documentation by deadline”.
He denies this is the case.
“My paperwork was in; I’m happy to show anybody who wants to look at it,” he insisted.
“They wanted me to unconditionally sign off to say I wouldn’t run against Dan or help another candidate [in the seat]… at the end of the day, party HQ vetoed my application, on the basis that I wouldn’t sign off on a declaration to say I wouldn’t run against Dan if I was unsuccessful.
“I did sign off to say I wouldn’t run against Dan provided the preselection campaign was fair and equitable, and they used that as a reason to preclude me from the preselection process.”
I’m completely disillusioned as a Liberal Party member… it’s not democratic
Nicholson says he had expected the party to run a conventional preselection process and “if I got close I’d be happy”.
But two months on, Nicholson insists the party was not “comfortable running fair and equitable process”.
“Otherwise why wouldn’t you accept that?” he said of his stipulation that the contest should be fair.
“I would have been happy if I’d lost the preselection, that was no problem… but to not even be able to get up there to put my case forward for a vote – it’s not Liberal.
“It’s almost like a Communist dictatorship… it’s just bizarre, the way it turned out.”
Nicholson says he has been a party member for more than 20 years and has “done the hard yards, helping out in elections in SA, WA and Queensland”.
“To be treated with that sort of disrespect… I’m sort of in limbo at the moment with the Liberal Party,” he said.
“I’m completely disillusioned, as a Liberal Party member. It’s not democratic, it’s not Liberal – Tom Playford would be absolutely disgusted at it.
“I think the party’s sort of lost its way… there’s a certain group of people running it, promoting a number of lawyers and administrators into the parliament and I don’t necessarily think they’ll make SA a better place.”
Cregan is a successful lawyer who formerly worked at leading Sydney-based law firm Allens Arthur Robinson, but had returned to join the Mount Barker office of von Doussas.
InDaily revealed last year he was poised to make a concerted bid to unseat fellow conservative Mark Goldsworthy, having “done a lot of work” in the seat and enlisting several new members as the membership officer for the sub-branch.
Another Adelaide lawyer, moderate Josh Teague, on Friday won a ballot to represent the party in the neighbouring Hills seat of Heysen.
InDaily also revealed last week that local councillor and former Liberal candidate Andrew Stratford is also considering quitting the party to run for Xenophon’s SA Best in Kavel.
Nicholson says he is waiting on the outcome of an internal appeal.
“I haven’t heard back on that yet, I’m giving the party the benefit of the doubt to conclude that process before I consider any other options,” he said.
“I think if I took it to the courts to make a determination on it, I’m pretty sure I’d win if I went down that path,” he said.
He says Liberal leader Steven Marshall has “contacted me on a number of occasions to discuss” his situation.
“The party says I was never a candidate so I’ve got no rights of appeal [because] I’ve never signed off this paperwork [but] I’ve signed the correspondence to say I’m the candidate,” he said.
“Steven Marshall had undertaken to talk to the [state] executive, which he’s part of, to find out what’s going on.
“I have to make a decision whether to go through the court process, to ascertain whether my candidacy was valid or not… I don’t know whether I’ll do or not to be honest.
“I’m waiting for the party to close out their side of it.”
Marshall did not return calls but sent a statement confirming he had spoken to Nicholson, who he called “a member of the party and an outstanding businessman”.
Liberal state director Sascha Meldrum said in a statement that Nicholson “didn’t proceed to preselection”.
“The candidate review committee process is confidential,” she wrote.
“The Liberal Party has a very strict review process and high standards. Candidates are required to provide critical documents and undertakings within a specified time period that form part of the nomination criteria for preselection.
“Any candidate that is unable to provide the required documentation is not allowed to proceed through to preselection.”
Cregan did not return calls today.