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Former candidate steps up as Downer endorses Pyne successor

Politics

A former state Liberal candidate is almost certain to nominate for the prized seat of Sturt, as the party’s conservative faction seeks to ruin the carefully stage-managed handover of Christopher Pyne’s seat to his moderate faction protégé James Stevens.

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What began the week as a cakewalk for Premier Steven Marshall’s chief of staff – who resigned on Sunday to contest the party nomination – could now see the vote split across as many as five or more hopefuls, with all but Stevens hailing from the Right faction.

Conservatives are publicly incensed that the moderate faction has not endorsed a woman to run in the first contested preselection in 26 years for the seat, which Pyne holds by a nominal 5.4 per cent margin.

InDaily has confirmed the party’s Enfield candidate at last year’s state election, Deepa Mathew, is “99 per cent” sure she will put her hand up to run.

“I am seriously considering it,” she said today.

“I haven’t nominated yet but I’m seriously considering nominating for Sturt – I think we need more women in politics and women to run in safe seats – and Sturt’s a safe seat.

“I’d encourage more women to put their hand up.”

Senior sources predicted the confirmation of credible women willing to run could open the floodgates for a crowded preselection ballot before nominations close on Friday – which is also International Women’s Day.

Mathew, billed at last year’s election as a “private banker and active committee member of the Australia-India Business Council”, said she does “lean towards the conservatives” in the party, but her interest is “not factional”.

“That’s not the reason I’m putting my hand up – it’s not factional at all,” she said.

“I want to stand for something… I’ve run as a candidate before, I live in the seat, I’ve lived in the seat for a long, long time, I’ve worked in the seat [and] yes, I’m seriously considering it.

“I’m 99 per cent sure – I haven’t handed in my nomination form yet, so there’s still that one per cent.”

Her likely nomination follows confirmation Adelaide lawyer Joanna Andrew – the niece of former SA Liberal conservative stalwart Neil Andrew – had put her name forward.

“I’m putting myself as a very real and different alternative to what the party has as a fait accompli,” she told The Australian.

Andrew has strong family ties to recent factional disputes – her sister, former party vice-president and state election candidate Nicola Centofanti – chairs the Liberal Rural and Regional Council, which strongly opposes a Bill that gives mining companies the power to appeal in court to access land used for cultivation.

Four conservative Liberal MPs crossed the floor to delay the Bill’s passage late last year.

Andrew’s father Stuart was the president of the Barker electorate’s Federal Electoral Conference who in 2017 demanded a formal investigation into allegations Pyne had urged Wattle Range mayor Peter Gandolfi to run as an independent against conservative incumbent Tony Pasin.

“There’s a serious allegation made by a serious person… all I wanted was for those accusations to be investigated,” he told InDaily at the time.

The preselection contest could also, somewhat bizarrely, see two lawyers from the same Adelaide firm nominate, with Tindall Gask Bentley lawyer Jocelyn Sutcliffe and her boss, managing partner Morry Bailes, both weighing up whether to run.

Bailes, a former party vice-president and regular InDaily legal columnist, said today he was “still in the same position” as he was when nominations opened – “considering my position, speaking with colleagues”.

Asked whether Sutcliffe was one of those colleagues, he said: “I’d rather not go into who I’ve spoken to, however it’s simply a fact that we’re work colleagues.”

“There’s no preclusion at all – I’ve said to others that my personal view, irrespective of whether I nominate or not, is that people with talent or ability ought to be nominating, to give those in the preselection as much choice as possible,” he said.

“The more we have in talented and meritorious nominees from which a candidate can be chosen, in my view the better.”

But the Right are pushing hard for women to nominate, with Mathew telling InDaily: “We’ve had a lot of talk about it, I think it’s time for us to act on it.”

“We need to give people choices too,” she said.

“It’s a democracy – we need to give people choices.”

While Stevens, the Sturt FEC president and Pyne’s longtime campaign manager, is a formidable presence in the seat and will go in as the overwhelming favourite, his factional opponents seem determined to make him work hard for the nomination.

“The party deserves a strong field of candidates to replace a long-time respected cabinet minister, and there’s no doubt that the Liberal Party needs more women amongst its ranks,” said one insider.

“It’s heartening to see people of the calibre of Jo Andrew putting her hand up and Young Liberals Federal President Jocelyn Sutcliffe giving serious consideration to running.”

“A number of people will nominate,” said another.

“It’s pretty clear this ‘elected unopposed’ approach is not going to happen.”

However, Stevens did receive the surprise endorsement of one prominent conservative elder – former Foreign Minister and state party president Alexander Downer, who took some in the Right by surprise by tweeting a glowing appraisal of the moderate faction pin-up boy.

In May last year, Pyne effectively gave Downer’s daughter Georgina the moderate faction’s blessing as the party’s by-election candidate in Mayo, telling The Australian he supported her bid.

“If Georgina Downer chooses to stand for preselection, she would attract widespread support and would be an excellent member for Mayo,” he said at the time.

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