Labor’s Upper House leader Kyam Maher, who hails from the region, says he plans to visit Mount Gambier several times between now and the March state election, while Clare Scriven – the former state manager of the Australian Forest Products Association, who has been endorsed as Number 4 on the party’s upper house ticket – has relocated back to the area.
The seat of Mount Gambier has been held by a succession of independents since 1997, but the Liberal Party comfortably snared it back at the last election.
However the dynamics changed dramatically last month, when Bell – who has since quit the Liberal Party but vowed to remain in parliament – was charged after an ICAC investigation with a raft of offences relating to dealing dishonestly with funds totalling more than $2 million.
The charges date back between 2009 and 2013, before he was in state parliament, but Labor has consistently demanded he quit his seat, arguing he is “unable to do his job”.
“It’s become apparent to both Clare and I that Mount Gambier is not getting the representation it needs at the moment, as the sitting member is necessarily occupied with defending quite serious criminal charges,” Maher said today.
“The Labor Party will step up to make sure the community is properly represented.”
It’s unclear whether that will involve establishing an office in the regional centre, but Maher said the party was “looking at the logistics of how we can” establish a permanent presence.
But Bell hit back, saying Maher’s comments were “not surprising six months out from a state election” and demonstrates “the desperation of a party that will do and say anything to stay in power”.
“And that includes the total ignorance of the fundamentals of our legal system – that of being innocent until proven otherwise,” he said in a statement.
Bell has vowed to remain an MP until the March election, but hasn’t ruled out re-contesting Mount Gambier as an independent, saying it was “too early to make that decision”.
He said he “welcomed” the establishment of a Labor Party office in Mount Gambier “and question why this has not been done beforehand”.
“It is no secret that the Labor Party preferences Independents and therefore would prefer to see an Independent represent this region, as that would increase Labor’s chances of being re-elected at the state level,” he said.
Bell noted “the role of an upper house member [is] to represent electors across the entire state… not that we see the Legislative Council members in regional communities very often”.
But he “completely disagrees” with Maher’s claim that Mount Gambier was not getting adequate political representation, saying “we keep statistics on the number of constituents we assist from our office and we have seen a marked increase over the last three months”, shifting from 239 in June, to 184 in July, to 273 last month.
His charges became publicly known on August 17.
“Unlike Mr Maher, our comments can be backed up by facts – not political spin,” he said.
“This might be hard for Mr Maher to comprehend but I will not be standing down. I completely deny any wrongdoing and will vigorously defend myself through the process.
“My office remains open and welcoming to all constituents, regardless of their political views and every assistance will be provided to all.”
Labor insiders believe there are at least “one or two” prospective independents sizing up their prospects. The Liberals’ own preselection nominations closed last week, with three prospective candidates to be vetted by a review panel next week.
Maher said while “we’ll certainly we’ll be putting our best foot forward to try and win the seat… I think if independents put up their hand at this election, it’s going to be very difficult for the Liberals to hold the seat”.
“The people in Mount Gambier have a history of being willing to vote for independents, and there’s a very real prospect the Liberal Party won’t hold on to this seat.”
Former independent member Don Pegler, who has returned to running his family farm, hasn’t ruled out a second tilt, saying: “I’ll wait and see who’s standing and the quality of the candidates.”
“I don’t really need the job,” he added.
But the newly-formed Australian Conservatives will also provide a presence in the seat, with recently-re-endorsed Legislative Councillor Robert Brokenshire telling InDaily: “We’re working through some good nominations at the moment.”
“We’ll be putting an absolutely tireless effort into the seat of Mount Gambier, because at the end of the day we understand Mount Gambier more than any other party, outside perhaps the Liberal Party,” he said.
Brokenshire vowed to “take the fight up on things like Forestry SA”, referring to the sale of the region’s timber assets.
“We’ll be sure people down there don’t forget about what Labor did to the community,” he said.
“The south-east has been done over – it’s time to turn that around, and that’s where my efforts personally will be, and that of my party.”
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