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Marshall's last chance for change


The electoral redistribution offers Steven Marshall his final chance to harden up and get deeply involved in party preselection to reinvigorate the Liberal Party’s ranks, writes a party insider.

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For those of you who may not be aware, in South Australia there is a state Opposition.

On occasion, if you light a candle and say his name three times in a mirror, Opposition Leader Steven Marshall will hold a press conference, get a grab up or develop a firm position on something.

Since that dark election day in March 2014, the state Liberals have had a unique opportunity to change track. In the wheel of fortune that is the state Liberal leadership, where every player gets a spin, it’s a miracle that his leadership survived the party’s surprise loss.

However, instead of using this rare continuity to assert his authority on the benches, Marshall’s Liberals have lurched from lacklustre policy announcements to poor leadership polls and high-gloss, light-on-detail “2036” booklets. All to the soundtrack of constant, grating moans about the fairness clause.

Rather than an Abbott-style aggressive approach, lighting constant fires for the government to extinguish, the Marshall Opposition has adopted all the gusto of a discounted lettuce at Coles.

Marshall, once a bright businessman, relentless campaigner and devastatingly charismatic candidate, has been suffocated by inconsistent messaging and crippled by party room placation.

He contends with an easily distracted and eternally undisciplined party room, a staff out of step with the grassroots organisation and a media-inept, risk-averse frontbench.

After years of doing it all by himself, he’s exhausted and a little sullen. His arms-distance approach and lack of consultation has become a hallmark of his relationship with some energised and ambitious backbenchers.

The halls of North Terrace echo with their loudening gripes and grumbles.

Traditionally above the factional fray, closet-moderate Marshall must be active in each and every preselection.

Thursday’s release of new state electoral boundaries is the Liberals’ last opportunity to draw a line in the sand.

A decent and fair redistribution, coupled with the gift of two Labor seats and the creation of several untested electorates, gives the State Liberals a fresh start and some much-needed purpose.

Better candidates, more women and stronger marginal seat campaigns are must-haves this campaign season.

Traditionally above the factional fray, closet-moderate Marshall must be active in each and every preselection. He will to have to robustly negotiate for his preferred candidates in must-win seats. Deadwood MPs must be dealt with. This is his election: a failure to assert his leadership will make it his last one.

The bubble-dwelling, starry-eyed, inexperienced hack or the well-meaning but downright weird local branch president isn’t going to cut it with the electorate.

He needs savvy, switched-on professionals and genuine, likeable operators. He needs community leaders and local movers and shakers. After all, that’s what got him over the line in 2010.

News of former paralympian and KPMG whiz-kid Matt Cowdrey’s possible draft is a promising development.

But one Cowdrey does not a gold medal team make.

Now is the time for Marshall to clear the decks and prepare the troops for war. The preselection of a strong, high-quality team will place him in excellent stead to tackle a smug government and stem a growing mood for Xenophon candidates.

This time there will be nothing else – and no-one else – to blame.

Robert Campbell is the pseudonym of a sometime Liberal ministerial staffer.

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