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Is time up for Pyne?

Politics

Liberal insiders say veteran moderate powerbroker Christopher Pyne must clarify his future within days, amid “white hot” speculation he will not recontest his safe South Australian seat of Sturt at the looming federal election.

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Scuttlebutt around the Defence Minister’s future has meandered along for some time, but has reached a crescendo amid reports he could join the queue of Coalition ministers heading for the exits, possibly as early as this weekend.

Pyne has previously told various media he would stand again for Sturt, but has responded more obliquely in recent days, telling reporters yesterday: “I have dismissed this question for weeks… I’m not going to add any more to what I’ve said about this before. I don’t think there’s any point in adding to the speculation.”

He told The Australian newspaper this morning speculation surrounding his future was based on “innuendo, gossip and rumour”, but declined to confirm his intentions, saying: “I’m not doing a press conference here with you now.”

He did not respond to inquiries from InDaily this morning.

Speculation within the party was heightened in recent days when local sub-branch members were invited to the Sturt Federal Electorate Convention general meeting scheduled for March 13.

The meeting will feature an election strategy update from FEC president and campaign director James Stevens – who is also chief of staff to Premier Steven Marshall and a longtime confidant of Pyne’s.

Most notable though was the date – exactly 26 years since the general election of 1993, at which Pyne was first elected to parliament at the tender age of 25.

The historical symmetry has prompted some speculation that the event could become a symbolic handing of the baton, with Stevens strongly tipped as the frontrunner to contest Sturt if and when Pyne finally calls it a day.

However, female candidates from the state government advisory ranks have also been mooted, including Alex May and Courtney Morcombe, Marshall’s policy director who is also married to moderate faction heavyweight senator Simon Birmingham.

Birmingham was asked today if he expected any other frontbench colleagues to resign, replying: “No.”

Pyne recently revealed how hard he took last year’s spill and said he did not expect he could ever lead the Liberal Party.

“Well, it’s getting pretty feverish,” one senior Liberal told InDaily of the mounting speculation.
“It’s white hot… I think he can’t avoid resolving it, one way or another, pretty soon.”

The source noted that Pyne himself had hardly quelled speculation with his recent rhetoric, saying “I think he could be saying very easily certain things that would put the matter to rest [but] it doesn’t mean he’s made a decision necessarily”.

But many in the party find it difficult to imagine Pyne, who “lives and breathes” politics, opting to give it up.

One insider said while Pyne would be done with “representative politics” when he leaves federal parliament, “he won’t actually be leaving politics”, noting that he would still be a major player in the state party, currently led by his moderate faction acolytes Marshall and Vickie Chapman.

Labor have no grand designs on snaring Sturt, and while the absence of Pyne might give the Opposition greater hope, their longer-term strategic focus will be on Marshall, with observers noting his office would be “seriously weakened” if Stevens departs.

PM Scott Morrison has already lost frontbenchers Kelly O’Dwyer, Michael Keenan and Nigel Scullion, who will retire from parliament at the May poll, and could also lose veteran Steven Ciobo, with several outlets reporting that the Defence Industry Minister is set to pull the pin.

– additional reporting by AAP

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