The Liberals yesterday called an end to their policy pledge rollout, instead delivering a tally of their costings to date, which they say total $986.5 million – almost $700 million of which Treasurer Rob Lucas insists are funded “through budget decisions [taken] prior to caretaker period or existing departmental resources”.
But the full-stop on investment has prompted a damning response from Mount Gambier MP Troy Bell, who won his seat as an independent in 2018, having left the Liberal Party after being charged with historical offences regarded the alleged misappropriation of public funds when he worked for an independent learning centre before entering parliament.
A challenge to the ICAC process that led to the charges is due to continue in the High Court today.
In an open letter delivered to south-east-based media, Bell specifically addresses his former colleagues in the state Liberal Party, saying: “If you think a $2.7 million election commitment is going to cut it for the state’s second largest city, then I think you have underestimated the intelligence of my community.”
“If you are hedging your bets and think that you can promise next to nothing and then come calling after the election to secure my support, then you have seriously underestimated MY intelligence,” he continues.
“Steven Marshall, you have less than five days to show some genuine interest in Mount Gambier and commit seriously to our great community.
“If you are stuck for ideas, pick up the ‘Future Mount Gambier and Districts’ document that I left with you after our meeting in August last year. In there you will find several key initiatives that have already been costed, consulted, and desperately needed to secure not just the Limestone Coast’s future prosperity but the State’s as well.”
If not, he argues, the Premier could “at least match the Labor Party’s commitment to Mount Gambier”, which thus far includes multi-million dollar commitments to the local hospital, trade training, the forestry industry, additional paramedics, drug and alcohol services and funding for a cross-border commissioner.
“In total, close to $100 million promised to the seat of Mount Gambier versus your paltry $2.7,” Bell said.
“Come on Steven, the clock is ticking. Tick, Tock.”
Bell’s spray came as former Liberal leader Isobel Redmond today broke a self-imposed media blackout to attack Hills crossbencher Dan Cregan, telling The Advertiser she was “personally very betrayed” by his defection from the party, calling it “one of the grubbiest things I’ve ever seen in politics”.
The ongoing tension with Bell and Cregan is surprising, given both are considered likely to retain their seats, and could be influential in determining SA’s next government in the event of a hung parliament.
The Liberals have been burned by conservative independents before: an inability to negotiate with another ex-Liberal, Peter Lewis, in 2002 opened the door for 16 years of ALP rule, while the likes of Karlene Maywald, Rory McEwen, Geoff Brock and Martin Hamilton-Smith variously helped Labor shore up its majority.
Asked whether Redmond’s intervention was unhelpful, Steven Marshall today said he had only read them briefly but that “obviously Isobel’s been up in that local area with Dan Cregan”.
“We’ve got an excellent candidate up there in the seat of Kavel… it is a conservative electorate [and] I think what they want is what every other South Australian wants: a strong economy, a strong recovery from COVID, a cost of living focus – and only the Liberal Party can deliver that,” he said.
Cregan said today it was “incredible that the Liberals are spending their time on me and not on making important commitments”, including “matching the Opposition’s pledge to build a new Hills hospital”.
“I’m focused on the needs of my community,” he said.
Marshall today insisted his government was delivering for regional communities, saying: “If you have a look at our credentials over the last four years we’ve massively delivered for regional SA.”
“But unlike Peter Malinauskas [who is] desperate to become the Premier, basically promising anything to anybody… we’re not going to go around with a blank cheque to every single electorate in the state,” he said.
He said what was “most important” to voters in regional communities was “no new taxes, fees and charges, and making sure we can keep the economy strong”.
He said he had not spoken to Bell “in the last couple of days, though but I do speak to all MPs on a reasonably regular basis”.
Bell, however, says the last time he spoke to the Premier was when parliament was still sitting, in November last year.
“I haven’t had a lot of discussions with the party… I’ve been waiting for the Liberal Party’s announcements for our region,” he said.
“We have many of the same problems that a larger city like Adelaide has, but without the resources.”
He said if he held the balance of power after polling day, “my aim is to try to negotiate the best deal I can” – and that included extracting “commitments before the election so when people are voting they know exactly what they’re voting for”.
Both Bell and Cregan are directing their preferences to the Liberals, although Bell said his How To Vote cards were printed before he realised the extent of the party’s commitments, and that in hindsight he would have run a split ticket.
“I was expecting commitments to the region,” he said.
He said while “one party’s making a sizeable commitment to this region” there remained “a lot of animosity to the Labor Party” in the south-east because of the former government’s decision to privatise the management of the region’s forestry industry.
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