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Shock bid for Liberal presidency turns party tensions to the Max


A standoff is looming for one of the SA Liberal Party’s most senior roles, with country medico Max van Dissel today nominating to replace former premier John Olsen as state president.

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The move will surprise many in the party who had anticipated an uncontested ballot, with high-profile lawyer and recent failed senate hopeful Morry Bailes believed to be preparing for a run for the presidency.

Bailes did not respond to inquiries today and has previously not commented on the issue, but senior sources had expected him to be a candidate – and to be unopposed.

But that changed today when van Dissel nominated for the role, with sources from both the left and right of the party telling InDaily he was expected to garner support from both wings, and questioning whether Bailes would still run in a contested ballot.

Both men are currently Liberal vice-presidents, with van Dissel coming to the end of the maximum-allowed three terms.

Olsen, who was brought in as president ahead of the successful 2018 state election, is tipped to be elevated to the presidency of the federal party, although a formal decision on that succession has been delayed by the Coronavirus pandemic.

Van Dissel, a Kapunda specialist and GP who ran for the ‘Save the RAH’ Party in the state seat of Frome in 2010, confirmed he had lodged a nomination for the presidency this morning when contacted by InDaily.

He said he had “toyed with standing for the Legislative Council”, whose ballot is being held next weekend, “but I then thought, I’m 61 – I’d be 63 when the next election is held, and I’d be 71 after one term… and that, I think, was inappropriate”.

“I thought, how else can I serve the party,” he said.

Van Dissel as a Save the RAH candidate in 2010.

Asked whether his candidacy would be a fly in the ointment of Bailes’ prospective bid, van Dissel said: “He hasn’t discussed it with me.”

“No-one has discussed it with me – I’ve made up my own mind to run [and] we’ll see who else gets flushed out,” he said.

“I feel I’ve got the credentials, having been a vice-president for three years and served on state executive.”

Van Dissel, whose nephew Michael ran against Bailes in this year’s senate race that saw then-Legislative Council president Andrew McLachlan elected, said he brought “a lot of experience to the table”.

A country doctor for 30 years, he said he was “passionate about rural health issues” – an area he argues was “neglected by Labor in their 16 years because there’s no votes in it for them”.

He has also championed issues at odds with the party’s right wing, having pushed a pill-testing motion at state council last year.

InDaily revealed last month Bailes had stepped down as managing partner of leading general practice firm Tindall Gask Bentley.

At the time, he left the option open for another senate tilt, saying: “You’d have seen from my previous nomination that I was interested in the senate – I was interested in the federal parliament [and] public life is something I’d never say no to – so, watch and wait.”

But some in the party have baulked at the prospect of the next state president harbouring political ambitions, with several backing van Dissel on those grounds.

“I believe the Liberal Party does best when there’s some cooperation between the two factions,” van Dissel said today.

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