It’s understood the deal that saw the little-known backbencher elected unopposed as the presiding officer of the Legislative Council was hammered out in a bid to avoid a factional spat so early in the tenure of the state’s first Liberal government for 16 years, with moderate John Dawkins and conservative faction stalwart Stephens locked in a bitter standoff for the presidency.
But the Machiavellian machinations extend beyond the Liberal Party, with Labor and the Greens understood to have discussed opposing Dawkins as president if he was elected by his colleagues – a move that would have marked an unusual break with parliamentary convention, with nominated presiding officers generally rubber-stamped by other parties.
It’s believed the move – had it progressed – would have been a strategic one, to ensure a conservative vote was taken off the floor of the Upper House, rather than a moderate Liberal one.
Dawkins and Stephens stood aside from the ballot last week despite having publicly flagged their interest in the presidency, with McLachlan elected unopposed in the Liberal Party’s first party-room meeting since the March state election.
It’s understood rivals Dawkins and Stephens were each expected to garner four votes from the eight-person Legislative Council line-up (which has since become nine with the defection of Australian Conservative Dennis Hood), although InDaily has been told McLachlan had not returned phone calls from either aspirant nor given either a commitment to back them.
A scenario loomed whereby the vote would be tied and a name drawn from a hat – a peculiar ritual that was also used during last year’s divisive Morphett preselection ballot, in which Duncan McFetridge lost his Liberal endorsement.
It’s believed newly-reinstated Upper House leader Rob Lucas stepped in to broker a peace deal in which Dawkins and Stephens would share the role, with one serving two years in the president’s chair before stepping aside for the other.
InDaily has been told it was new Premier Steven Marshall who intervened to anoint McLachlan as a compromise candidate.
“Marshall got wind of it and went into meltdown,” said one insider, who described the eventual scenario as a “bloodless coup” by McLachlan.
“It’s brilliant – he’s got no blood on his hands… he can say to all of them ‘I didn’t make the decision’.
“He’s now the president of the Upper House by just sitting back and watching this scenario play out.”
Another source said there was “a fair bit of goodwill towards the new Premier” who “didn’t want any position to go to a vote”.
“There were lots of compromises thrown around, and at the end of the day this was the one that was settled upon,” they said.
But Lucas confirmed to InDaily another major element of the compromise: that there is a formal agreement for McLachlan to step aside after “a period of time” to allow Stephens a turn in the chair.
It means the pair are effectively ‘job sharing’, with Stephens elected as Upper House whip in the interim and McLachlan expected to take that over that role upon Stephens’ accession.
The Treasurer said the suggestion he brokered the deal “overstates my involvement”.
“I’m a mere facilitator,” he said.
“There were discussions that went on and there was an agreement on an arrangement that ended up with Andrew McLachlan doing it for a period of time and then Terry Stephens will do it for a period of time.”
Asked whether the deal is reminiscent of the infamous ‘Kirribilli Agreement’ struck for the Prime Ministership between Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, Lucas said: “I’m not sure the presidency of the Upper House – as important as the Upper House is – matches that in status.”
Neither Stephens nor McLachlan wanted to comment today.
“It’s an internal party process,” McLachlan said.
“I was elected unopposed by the party-room… I’ll leave it at that.”
Greens MLC Tammy Franks would not confirm she had met with Labor Upper House powerbroker Kyam Maher to discuss opposing Dawkins’ nomination, and Maher has not responded to inquiries.
However, Franks told InDaily: “My interest is conservative votes off the floor and progressive votes on the floor, and that’s certainly something we’d consider when looking to who we support for the presidency.”
She said there had been “a lot of threats from the Labor Party that all bets are off and conventions will not be followed” when it comes to Upper House processes.
She pointed to a recent controversy in Victorian parliament, when two Liberal MPs returned to the chamber to vote down a government bill after being granted pairs for religious reasons.
“Given the Victorian Liberals’ behaviour, and the lack of adherence to convention, and the threats made when the bank tax was blocked – I’d be not surprised if convention wasn’t followed,” Franks said.
She said there was an advantage to reducing the influence of the Liberals’ conservative faction on the government benches, given “we’d like to see things like voluntary euthanasia law reform finally happen in this state”.
Dawkins, who is currently overseas, said he had heard “nothing substantial” about a plan by other parties to vote down his presidency.
He has since been appointed to a new position as the Premier’s Advocate for Suicide Prevention, an area in which he has long campaigned.
“The bottom line of it is I support Andrew McLachlan and I’ll do everything I can to help him,” he told InDaily.
“Andrew is the president – he’s our nominee for president that will go to the floor of the council, and that’s the nature of the situation.
“I was interested in [the presidency] but I suppose when I became aware of Andrew’s interest, and subsequently there was this other role I’ve been given which is a passion of mine… that’s what I’ve committed to.”
He did not comment on the prospective deal for him to share the presidency with Stephens over the parliamentary term.
“I’m not going to go onto that,” he said.
“The reality is I was very interested in it, and so was Terry… there were some informal discussions which didn’t come to fruition.
“I’ve been offered this role, which is something I’ve been passionate about for a long time, and I’m able to do that with the Premier’s name in the council and my title, and the resources of government… because I’ve been doing it for a very long time there’s been a lack of shoulders to the wheel from the five mental health ministers in that space, so I’m very happy to do that.”
Lucas said the deal was similar to one under Labor’s tenure, whereby now-retired president Bob Sneath would stand aside for his left-faction friend John Gazzola.
However, Sneath told InDaily there was no such deal, and that he left because “I wanted to retire”.
“If I wasn’t retiring, I wouldn’t have stood down as president,” he said.
He said he supported Gazzola in caucus to succeed him but there was no formal arrangement between them both to do so.
Gazzola was subsequently shoehorned out of the president’s chair under a subsequent factional deal to give the role to right-winger Russell Wortley as a consolation for his demotion from cabinet.
Gazzola didn’t take kindly to the switch, using his final parliamentary speech as president to dub his successor “a parasite and an embarrassment to the Labor movement”.
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