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Liberals celebrate factional "realignment" as Marshall confidant eyes parliament

Politics

SA Liberal factions have splintered dramatically amid a spate of weekend preselections that saw party moderates celebrate “the most significant factional realignment” in a generation, despite falling short in two key contests.

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The Liberal state executive is expected to tonight open further seats for preselection nominations, after a significant weekend for the SA party that saw Steven Marshall’s closest adviser, rising moderate-faction star Ashton Hurn, overwhelmingly endorsed as the Liberal candidate for the safe Barossa-based seat of Schubert.

She replaces incumbent and Right-winger Stephan Knoll, who opted not to contest the 2022 election after stepping down from the ministry amid last year’s Country Members Allowance scandal.

The result – with Hurn garnering 71 votes to Conservative-backed Caroline Rhodes’ 40, with five votes to former NT parliamentarian Steve Balch – in a traditionally conservative seat, has sent shockwaves through the party, with moderates claiming a seismic factional shift.

“[Right-wingers Tony] Pasin and [Alex] Antic campaigned hard against Ashton, she’s a star and they have been totally repudiated in self proclaimed ‘conservative heartland’,” said one insider.

Hurn, whose grandfather Brian was the region’s long-time mayor and an SA cricketer, had previously lost a preselection contest to Knoll in 2013.

 “If Barossa folk had made the right choice eight years ago, she would be their Cabinet Minister and ‘Premier in waiting’ by now,” the source said.

Another senior source dubbed the Schubert preselection result “the most significant factional realignment since Robert Hill lost the Boothby preselection in 1995”.

Former Schubert MP Ivan Venning said Hurn “had the skill to convince the college she was the one and she won quite easily”.

He noted the seat was “generally very conservative – probably more conservative than I am, and that’s what made the result surprising”.

“Ashton had strong support from state executive – that was very obvious,” he said.

He said he was “a bit concerned that there are not too many conservatives left in state cabinet” but that he would meet with Hurn this week to offer her counsel.

“I live with the result – I’ll work to make it all happen,” he said.

“I was disappointed Adelaide had a big influence over this college, but I just accept the result and will make it happen.”

Former Labor Attorney-General and Speaker Michael Atkinson took to Twitter to declare it “a catastrophe for the Conservative faction”, saying the moderate “juggernaut is going to keep rolling over them until there isn’t one left in State or Federal parliaments”.

“If they can lose Schubert, they can lose anything,” he tweeted.

Both moderate and conservative Liberal insiders acknowledged Atkinson’s view, with one Liberal Right-winger declaring: “Losing Schubert is a significant loss to the conservative movement.”

However, the moderates’ jubilation was tempered as the faction suffered heavy losses in other results, with former criminal prosecutor and chief of staff to Christopher Pyne Hannah March falling short in Mawson to dairy farmer Amy Williams, who was strongly backed by former member Robert Brokenshire.

March did however outpoll Onkaparinga deputy mayor Simon McMahon, who was backed by the Right’s Alex Antic.

Williams said in a statement she looked “forward to working hard for the people of Mawson to provide them with a strong voice in the state parliament, something this region truly deserves”.

However, others in the party said the result showed “how much influence Brokenshire holds down there”.

“Amy isn’t a ‘con’ but she’s not a moderate,” one noted.

Brokenshire told InDaily “I’ve got a lot of passion for Mawson – I know people right across the electorate and every now and then one shines out as an exceptional quality person”.

“I’ve supported her – and she’s a formidable candidate,” he said.

“That’s the good part of Liberal preselection – it’s the local people that have a say.”

In Friday night’s senate result, the moderates split over two candidates, with Anne Ruston staffer Kerrynne Liddle prevailing over the faction’s endorsed candidate Rachel Swift for the winnable third spot on the party’s ticket, with 130 votes to 78.

It’s a major blow for Swift, who won a vice-presidential ballot in the same state council just months ago with 109 votes.

The result will enhance Ruston’s standing and influence as a powerbroker within the moderate faction, but emphasised the fraught state of allegiances within the SA party.

“There’s more like four factions at the moment – it’s not two,” said one insider.

“There are the moderates and cons, but also the conservative moderates and the moderate conservatives – it’s just a mess.”

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