While no sure thing, the Liberals have never been better placed to claim election victory at any point in the past 16 years than they were until today – and they now face a crisis that has come out of the blue, and entirely beyond their control.
Troy Bell insists his innocence and will defend his reputation in court.
But the fact remains that a first-term Liberal MP facing serious charges – stemming from an ICAC investigation – is a devastating blow for his party.
Beyond the stigma and political embarrassment, there is the logistical reality that more resources must now be siphoned off into defending a vulnerable seat that should have been chalked up as a Liberal shoo-in.
And, of course, Marshall’s response has left himself open to the obvious attack from Jay Weatherill that he is an indecisive leader.
Marshall was first told by Bell that he was facing charges last Sunday.
The charges were detailed – albeit without naming the MP – in an ICAC statement on Tuesday.
Marshall then agreed Bell should resign from the Liberal Party on Wednesday.
He finally got written confirmation of the resignation on Thursday.
Four days. To confirm what an astute political operative would know was a no-brainer within minutes: Bell could not remain in the Liberal fold while he faced distracting and damaging criminal charges.
Marshall blames the secrecy provisions of the ICAC Act for keeping mum throughout the week.
But in truth there was nothing to stop him getting on the front foot and declaring publicly that one of his MPs – his Parliamentary Secretary for Regional Services, no less – was resigning from the Liberal Party after being charged with numerous offences.
There was nothing, furthermore, preventing him from at the very least seeking an audience with ICAC commissioner Bruce Lander to ask advice about what he could or couldn’t say publicly – something Marshall admits he didn’t do until this morning, after Nigel Hunt’s story broke last night.
When Lander was going toe to toe with the Weatherill Government over his calls that maladministration hearings should be able to be held in public, Marshall sought and received an audience with the commissioner within hours.
And yet faced with a legitimate political conundrum over the application of the ICAC Act, Marshall opted to keep quiet until the matter was raised in court – in Mount Gambier – next week.
One of the more bitter ironies of all this for the Liberals is that earlier yesterday, they finally had an issue on which they could tear strips off SA’s “Mr Teflon”, the ubiquitous Nick Xenophon.
When Xenophon formed his own party before the last federal election, the biggest warning was that he may fall foul of the curse that undid the Palmer United Party – namely, that instilling discipline among a cohort of new MPs is no mean feat.
But in the end, Xenophon’s falling out wasn’t with one of his newbies, but with his oldest political confidant, and only state MP, John Darley.
It would have been hard to overstate just how damaging this was, with the crossbench powerbroker on the eve of unveiling the line-up he hopes will take it up to the major parties at the state election next March.
All of a sudden, a narrative had presented itself for the major parties – one that Jay Weatherill exploited to devastating effect today.
How can voters trust Xenophon if his oldest allies don’t?
And who pulls the strings for Xenophon’s representatives in state parliament?
How can Darley be expelled for going against the will of the party? He’s their sole state MP – he is the party!
Within minutes of Darley’s resignation going public, I got a text from one Liberal insider noting that “the point about ‘you don’t know who you are electing’ just got much more powerful”.
And yet, in a triumph of SA Liberal timing, the story had only a few hours of clear air before the tolling of Troy Bell’s travails all but drowned out all else.
Weatherill today invoked the old political cliché of the “faceless men” to taunt Xenophon; it’s a phrase first popularised in the early-1960s to describe Labor’s unelected machine men calling the policy shots for then-ALP leader Arthur Calwell.
But Marshall might do better to ruefully recall the words of the antipodean Calwell’s contemporary, former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, who succinctly summarised the bugbear of political life: “Events, my dear boy, events!”
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