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Hoodwinked: Bernardi defiant as final state Conservative joins Libs

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UPDATED | Australian Conservatives founder Cory Bernardi insists his start-up party retains enough national support to survive, despite his likely sole state MP today defecting to join Steven Marshall’s Liberal Government.

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MLC Dennis Hood, the former state leader of the Family First party, which was subsumed by the Conservatives last year, has agreed to join the Liberals in a move ratified by the new government’s first joint-party-room sitting this morning.

Premier Steven Marshall described Hood as “highly respected by the South Australian community and by his parliamentary colleagues”.

“He is known as an intelligent, diligent and hardworking member of the Legislative Council, and I’m delighted that he has joined the Liberal Party,” Marshall said in a statement.

“Mr Hood is a strong supporter of my government’s agenda to scrap payroll tax for small business, lower household costs by reducing ESL bills, and reforming SA’s land tax regime.

“I know I speak for the entire Parliamentary Liberal Party when I say we look forward to Mr Hood being a member of our team and his thoughtful contributions to the policy agenda of the new State Liberal Government.”

Only three weeks ago, Hood appeared in an online ad spruiking the Conservatives’ election bid, decrying Marshall for the Liberals’ support of a 50 per cent renewable energy target and declaring the Liberals one of the “tired old parties failing SA”.

Today, however, he insisted the Liberal Government “has a terrific vision, a vision I completely endorse for this state”.

He told reporters his move was “about making the state a better place and I’m genuinely excited with the vision the Liberal Government has for this state”.

His defection follows a disappointing showing for the new venture at this month’s state election, with veteran former Liberal frontbencher Robert Brokenshire likely to lose his upper house seat after a statewide vote of just 3.5 per cent.

Brokenshire last week told InDaily he believed the loss of the Family First brand had contributed to the poor result.

Marshall said there had been “no suggestion” about a front bench position being offered as bait, after Hood and Brokenshire were approached by a Liberal intermediary.

Asked whether Brokenshire, who has not returned calls, had also planned a defection back to his former party, Hood replied: “Not that I recall.”

“He’s strongly supportive of the decision,” he said.

Hood, who has four years left to serve of his eight-year term, told media today his move was “not about self-interest”, pointing out “I’m in a very comfortable position regardless”.

“There were many good aspects to the Conservatives’ policies but if you look at the overlap of the two parties, it’s substantial,” he said.

However, he added, “we also need to be real about it”.

“The reality is the Australian Conservatives did not perform well at the state election… if you want to stay with something that’s going down that path, pretty soon you’ll find they’ve got no members of parliament and no impact.

“The Australian Conservatives will continue – I just won’t be part of it, that’s all that changed,” he said.

 

Bernardi today conceded the party’s state election performance “wasn’t all we desired to be”, admitting “I’m sure that accounted for some reflections” by Hood on his future.

“Obviously I’m disappointed [but] everyone is an adult in this business and they can make decisions for themselves, and they account for those decisions themselves,” Bernardi told InDaily.

“In the end I think it’s for Dennis to make that explanation.”

Bernardi, who himself quit the Liberal Party months after his Senate re-election to found the Conservatives, said he believed the party had “provided the resources and assistance and in some cases advice that we thought would be of assistance” to the state team, which also ran 33 lower house candidates after initially flagging as few as 10.

“We didn’t get the outcomes we wanted, but Dennis has made this decision and it’s for him to explain,” Bernardi said.

The SA senator has now seen a series of setbacks for the party in his home state. Lucy Gichuhi, who replaced former senator Bob Day after his forced resignation, refused to sign up with Bernardi’s start-up party, instead remaining as an independent and has since herself joined the Liberals.

The likely loss of Brokenshire and defection of Hood leaves Bernardi with just himself and Victorian MLC Rachel Carling-Jenkins to carry the flag in parliaments.

“Lucy couldn’t meet with some of the requirements Dennis and Robert [Brokenshire] and I wanted to uphold, so that was her decision [and] of course this is a decision for Dennis… I’m disappointed but people do consider their own futures and make decisions, and he’s accountable for them,” Bernardi said.

But he insists there is still a groundswell of support.

“My father said overnight success sometimes takes 20 years,” he said.

“My commitment and desire to find a better way in politics is undiminished – I’m going to continue to do that.

He conceded “it’s certainly not going to be easy” but declared “we’re probably the third largest party by membership, and we’re a start-up that’s just over 12 months old”.

“We’ll continue our plans in accordance with what we set out to do,” he said, describing the setback as “two steps forward and one step back”.

Day, who led and bankrolled Family First for a decade, was not aware of the defection when contacted by InDaily, but did not want to comment.

The move is a boon for Marshall, giving him a crucial vote in a finely-balanced Upper House, which will hand the Liberals an expected nine seats to Labor’s eight, with five crossbenchers – two Greens, two from SA Best and independent John Darley.

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