Moderate faction mainstay Dean Brown attended a controversial meeting of a new branch in the Waite electorate on Saturday, nominating his former cabinet minister Wayne Matthew to be an office-holder in the new enterprise.
But the meeting was marked by a tense exchange in which a recently-joined conservative-aligned party member fired barbs at party president Legh Davis over the Brownhill Creek branch’s formation, InDaily understands.
It comes as Nicolle Flint last night rolled incumbent Liberal Women’s Council president, veteran moderate Sue Lawrie, with 204 votes to 193, according to party sources.
The Right also won the council’s two vice-president positions.
The Women’s Council delegates packed into a COVID-managed event to cast their votes, which are still being counted today for several other roles, including 12 delegates to next month’s Liberal state council AGM.
If the momentum remains with the Right – which is currently on track for a clean sweep – it’s likely the faction will overturn the majority party moderates seized last year, and in turn could seize control of the influential Liberal state executive.
The long-anticipated challenge is the first test of the success of a recent recruitment drive targeting largely Pentecostal-based church communities – first revealed by InDaily – spearheaded by conservative SA senator Alex Antic.
While a narrow win, the vote excluded several recent recruits who were forced to reapply for party membership when the state executive overturned their enrolments – and who consequently hadn’t been party members for long enough to satisfy voting requirements.
“It was definitely a win,” said one Right-aligned insider, who noted the faction had quickly rebuilt since a bitter split last year saw its state council majority overturned.
“Compared to what we were six months ago, it’s a huge turnaround,” they said.
Asked if the recruitment drive had been decisive in the result, they replied: “I would say so… the Right has basically rebuilt the numbers it lost when it split – and it’s actually come back stronger.”
The Right’s victory follows the weekend’s convening of the Waite meeting, which was chaired by moderate-backed state president Legh Davis with minutes kept by state director Sascha Meldrum, after complaints from MPs Steve Murray and Nicola Centofanti that the original meeting was secretive and breached party rules.
Brown, whose battles with the John Olsen-led Right in the 1980s and ’90s marked an era of internal Liberal conflict, told InDaily he attended as a local resident.
“There always used to be a branch there, and it made a great deal of sense here in the most marginal federal seat [Boothby] that there’s a further branch established,” he said.
“I used to represent this area [in the state seat of Davenport] when I was first in parliament, and there was a very strong branch there… I’m keen to see the same thing occur now.”
It’s understood the meeting was also attended by former party vice-president Cara Miller, who was elected branch president, along with Mitcham councillor Adriana Christopoulos and party member Melissa Jones – all of whom have been linked to a preselection run.
Brown endorsed Matthew, who did not respond to inquiries today, as branch Treasurer, while Jones was elected membership officer, according to sources.
However, others believe the new venture is a moderate-backed move to shore up numbers against incumbent conservative Sam Duluk, who is set to hear this month the verdict in his trial for basic assault after he allegedly touched fellow parliamentarian Connie Bonaros on the bottom during an alcohol-fuelled Christmas function in 2019.
Recently-joined Liberal Party member Brian Ross told InDaily he attended Saturday’s meeting with his wife and two adult sons, one of whom is understood to have delivered a strong critique of Davis’s handling of the event.
Ross said “we went as observers” but did not seek to join the new branch.
He said the family joined the Liberal Party after previously being members of Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives, which they joined because “the Liberal Party had gone way to the Left”.
However, Bernardi’s venture folded, “so we revisited the Liberal Party”.
“We see the new Brownhill Creek branch as a vehicle to set up in the event that Sam Duluk is not endorsed for the next state election,” he said.
“That’s what we see it as.”
He said he and his family would “continue to support Sam Duluk, who is a conservative, regardless of any outstanding matters”.
Ross said he was not recruited as part of Antic’s recent campaign, but “we have the highest regard for Alex Antic”.
“He speaks for us, without doubt – he is a true conviction conservative who reflects our views,” he said.
“We are convinced the party is controlled by the progressives, and there is little difference between the state party and the Labor Party – not only based on certain things they’ve already legislated but things in the pipeline.”
Ross said he “watched with interest as Pentecostal church members were recruited to the party”.
“We thought that was a good move taken by Alex Antic, whom we much admire,” he said.
“We will support Sam Duluk, and in the event he’s not the endorsed candidate, we’d support him as an independent.”
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