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State Liberals' cautionary tale of ineptitude


Liberal leader Steven Marshall has damaged his leadership through a divisive preselection period and his factional enemies can smell blood, writes party insider Robert Campbell.

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Riffing about incompetence in the state Liberal team is akin to shooting fish in a barrel, landing a cuddle at Stormy’s or stirring up David Pisoni.

However, this preselection cycle has fast become the definitive case study on how to decimate your political authority.

A cautionary tale, it will one day adorn the bookshelves of all wise, latter-day hacks, nestled between Steele Hall’s The Liberal Movement and Tony Abbott’s Battlelines.

Last month’s preselection in Morphett was a culmination of the poor priorities, apparent hypocrisy and unprecedented ineptitude seen from the state Liberal team since nominations opened.

In a spectacular result, incumbent Duncan McFetridge was booted by a meagre vote in favour of current mayor, former footballer and surprise victor Stephen Patterson.

Questions of democracy and coin-flips aside, change was necessary.

In my view, McFetridge has a long history of underperformance. Recently demoted from the frontbench, party members were beginning to question his discipline, political priorities and electoral focus.

Rather than developing tangible, vote-snagging policy, he has been seen as a kamikaze crusader, pursuing a series of increasingly irrelevant and constantly divisive fringe issues.

Through his distracting euthanasia shenanigans in the Chamber, he has offered the government endless free kicks and headaches for his leader.

Publicly and aggressively debating his own side, embarrassing portfolio requests via the media and, more recently, lambasting his preselection challengers have been among his more notable  career highlights.

The misjudgements and rookie mistakes by Marshall and his hodgepodge of remaining allies are becoming tiresome at best and extremely vexing at worst.

Occasionally McFetridge’s ire has been directed at the government but very little of his public commentary has served the Opposition’s message.

His local membership has dwindled over years. His residence in Meadows smacks of the community disconnection favoured by Rann and Foley, without their discernible political talents.

However, more curious than McFetridge’s methods or his demise is state Liberal leader Steven Marshall’s support of the fallen incumbent.

Rather than bar a contest altogether, as he did for key ally and alleged powerbroker John Gardner, Marshall did nothing to dissuade a preselection in Morphett.

Instead, in a stunning lack of prescience and risk assessment, he went in to bat for McFetridge. Furthermore, he corralled his parliamentary team to do the same.

But despite all of Marshall’s cute notes to the sub-branch membership and his public good word, the sub-branch members were having none.

By backing McFetridge and losing, Marshall has shown the parliamentary team that his support carries all the weight of Kate Moss circa ‘96. To the membership he has all the relevance of a Telefunken.

With McFetridge quitting the party, and a run as an independent a real possibility, Marshall has now hamstrung himself in Morphett.

He has simultaneously alienated a potentially vital party room number in Patterson and authored a glowing reference for a potential new independent candidate.

The misjudgements and rookie mistakes by Marshall and his hodgepodge of remaining allies are becoming tiresome at best and extremely vexing at worst.

His parliamentary colleagues are alert and alarmed. The real right, who have shored up their numbers in both candidates and disgruntled MPs, can smell blood.

As this preselection cycle draws to a close, with the party’s State Council endorsing candidates just over a week ago, the leader needs to drastically rethink his approach.

He must stop hiding behind his federal friends. He must stop taking bad advice from his staff rather than consulting with his MPs. A doorknocking session around North Terrace is in order.

The leader has little time left to demonstrate to both his colleagues and the membership his capacity to lead.

He must address the events of the last few weeks frankly and openly. Any attempts to play happy families, any assertion that it’s all going according to plan, will be met with more criticism from party stalwarts and more strategising by his detractors.

It may already be too late for Marshall but at least he’ll have nothing to lose.

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

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