SA Liberals have been eyeing off firebrand Cory Bernardi’s seat since he made it known he would step aside mid-term after a poor showing for his breakaway Australian Conservatives party at the May federal poll.
Bernardi this week confirmed he will depart after parliament rises for the year next month, telling Sky News: “The timing’s right, I just don’t want to go back to it next year [and] there’s another chapter of my life that’s going to unfold.”
Bailes, who was elected the party’s vice-president for the second time at the state branch’s August AGM, told InDaily: “With Senator Bernardi announcing he will be leaving the parliament, I can confirm I will be putting myself forward for preselection as his replacement.”
“This is now an internal party matter and a decision for the State Council,” he said.
“As such I won’t be making any further public comment.”
Prominent right-winger and former party Treasurer Michael Van Dissel, a partner with insolvency advisory firm Bernardi Martin, is also said to be considering putting his hand up, but he told InDaily today: “I’ve got no comment.”
The SA Right is widely expected to snare the seat, after winning a majority on the state executive in August with a show of force on state council, and prominent members of the faction today lined up to endorse Bailes, the immediate past President of the Law Council of Australia and a regular InDaily columnist on legal affairs.
Barker MP Tony Pasin said Bailes was “an exceptionally good candidate, and one that would be hard to overlook”.
“Ultimately, this decision needs to be made on merit and it’s hard to imagine a candidate better suited than Morry Bailes,” he said.
Former SA conservative powerbroker Nick Minchin – now based interstate – also gave Bailes his blessing, although he noted Van Dissel would similarly be a “good candidate”.
“I hope the Liberal Party picks the best person possible,” he told InDaily.
“Good friends of mine in the party tell me [Bailes] is a high quality person, and his CV reads exceptionally well… I trust the judgement of those who talk to me about him,” he said.
The moderate faction is still expected to field a candidate, with Sound Radiology CEO Cara Miller said to be “very strongly considering putting her hand up”.
The faction is keen to run a well-credentialed woman as “the best chance for the moderates to shake it up” against Bailes, described in unflattering terms as “another middle-aged white male” by one insider this week.
But Miller was defeated in the recent vice-presidential ballot, which does not bode well for her prospects.
“It’s going to be difficult, judging by the AGM vote – but it’s certainly worth putting up a good candidate,” said one insider.
Miller said today: “At this stage I’m not sure as to whether I’ll be putting my hand up for the senate [but] I’m looking forward to seeing how it all unfolds.”
Others believed to be in contention are Grain Producers SA boss Caroline Rhodes, who has previously flagged her interest if the seat became available and today told InDaily her position had not changed.
Young Liberals national vice-president Jocelyn Sutcliffe, who works in Bailes’ law firm Tindall Gask Bentley, has also been flagged as a potential nominee, and did not respond to inquiries today.
But sources from both right and left factions insisted Bailes, who won the strongest vote in the vice-presidential ballot, was the candidate to beat, with one describing his election as a “lay down misere”.
“He was the first vice president elected at the AGM by the same body that will be voting again [for the vacancy],” said one.
“The expectation is he’ll comfortably cruise into that one.”
However, given the lure of a senate seat with a full three years left to serve, others have tipped the proverbial “Melbourne Cup field” of contenders.
Twice-failed Mayo hopeful Georgina Downer was previously considered a strong favourite, but her decision to return to Victoria in the new year has ruled her out of contention.
The party’s state executive are understood to have met last night and determined that nominations will close on December 16, with a candidate to be elected on February 1.
The casual vacancy will then need to be ratified by the state parliament when it resumes in February.
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