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Jan 17, 2013

'Anyone but Isobel': Downer's comeback might have legs

Could Alexander Downer rescue the SA Liberal Party and defeat Labor at the 2014 election? The odds are firming -- but he would have to either do a Newman, or enter Parliament first. InDaily's Kevin Naughton investigates.

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The return of former foreign affairs minister Alexander Downer to the political stage is closer as more South Australian Liberal Party MPs warm to the idea.

A poor Newspoll result at the end of December has weakened the position of Opposition Leader Isobel Redmond who, this week, has been at the Australian Open tennis in Melbourne while Labor has been under pressure over a ministerial reshuffle.

Talk of a leadership deal between Downer and Redmond surfaced last October when Redmond revealed the option had been raised with her. Dissatisfaction with Redmond’s leadership then resulted in a failed leadership challenge by former leader Martin Hamilton-Smith on October 23.

The challenge failed by just one vote, after several undecided MPs were told that the Downer option was a more viable one and would occur in early 2013. “Since the failure of key MPs to get on board the Hamilton-Smith challenge, we have been left with the same problem as before and that is the general belief that Isobel can’t win a general election,” a senior party official told InDaily at the time.

That view has since been reinforced with a Newspoll published in The Australian at the end of December showing Redmond’s approval rating at its lowest since the 2010 state election. The SA election is set for March 2014. The poll placed Labor back in a winning position, despite a disastrous period where BHP axed its Olympic Dam expansion and the state budget heaved under pressure from falling revenue and rising debt.

Liberal MPs were disappointed yesterday when it emerged that while Labor Premier Jay Weatherill was embroiled in a factional stoush over his coming cabinet reshuffle, Redmond was enjoying the Australian Open tennis in Melbourne. “It seems like every time she should be taking advantage of Labor’s problems, she disappears,” one senior MP said.

Redmond was in Melbourne for the first three days of the tennis and returned to Adelaide last night. Neither she, nor her office, returned calls this morning.

The Downer push started at federal level where concerns had been raised about the lack of Liberal Party traction in South Australia.

“Abbott’s people and Christopher Pyne’s group are concerned that in a state where Labor is in its fourth term, the local Libs seem to have trouble making a mark on the Labor brand,” a Liberal source said. “Given the events of the last 12 months in SA, Labor should be in deep trouble. With some winnable federal seats on offer, the Liberal Party can’t afford to let the state machine roll along as it has been.”

In another twist this month, it emerged in party circles that key Redmond supporters have come aboard the Downer push. “They are actively seeking assurances that they will retain senior roles in the parliamentary party,” a source said. “It has now become a case of ‘anyone but Isobel’ and Downer is the preferred option.”

“It will require the agreement of Isobel, but that won’t be too difficult. If he makes the call, the rest will fall behind.”

Those close to the Downer bid say he has been watching political developments before making a final decision.

“They knew that the ALP had to have a major cabinet reshuffle off the back of two senior retirements and that Premier Weatherill has to outline his vision for the state in this final parliamentary year before the election,” said one source. “The first part of that equation has happened and so far Weatherill’s made a mess of it. Once he’s laid his ‘vision thing’ on the table, then Downer can roll over the top of it and set out a path for South Australia’s transformation.”

Keen observers have also noted the changed tenor of Downer’s regular columns in local News Limited publication The Advertiser. A regular commentator on national and international issues, he recently turned his thoughts to the state’s finances and local tourism policies.

Downer served in the foreign affairs role for 11 years, and shortly after his retirement from federal parliament in 2007 he was appointed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as Special Adviser on Cyprus. That role expires in February. He would have to step away from other key roles. Late last year the Federal Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, appointed Downer to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute Council for a three-year term.

He also holds key business posts, most recently taking up an alternate directorship with Gina Rinehart’s Roy Hill Holdings in Western Australia. Documents lodged with ASIC show that Downer was appointed on November 15 as an alternate director for one of Rinehart’s top lieutenants, Tad Watroba. He also sits on an Australian advisory board for Chinese communications group Huawei.

One key supporter of the Downer move — a party powerbroker — told InDaily the experience and gravitas Downer would bring to the position would be of “great benefit to South Australia”.

“He has a view of how SA sits in the national perspective. He would have the best credentials in that respect since Don Dunstan; even more than Dunstan. He would also defuse the tensions between the Right and Left factions. And whenever he called a press conference you can bet that every media outlet would turn up,” they said. Another party official said Downer would provide a great attraction for potential corporate donors.

The Downer option has another conundrum: does he do it from inside or outside the parliament? Preselection for the Barossa Valley seat of Schubert — the one most commonly linked to Downer — has been left open until March. Sitting member Ivan Venning said today he wasn’t keen on stepping down a year ahead of the 2014 election.

Preselection for the seat of Fisher — adjacent to Downer’s old federal electorate of Mayo — has also been delayed. Incumbent Fisher MP Bob Such confirmed yesterday that he had held talks with state Liberal Party officials. The 68-year-old former Liberal-turned-independent is contemplating retirement and said yesterday he was finding it difficult to get motivated for a return to parliamentary sittings this year.

The third option of Downer taking over Redmond’s Adelaide Hills seat of Heysen appears unlikely, given her parliamentary pension entitlements don’t kick in until a year into the next term of parliament.

Downer has maintained a consistent line on the leadership bid, while never ruling it out. “It will require the agreement of Isobel, but that won’t be too difficult,” a senior party power broker said. “If he makes the call, the rest will fall behind.”

*This article was originally published at InDaily

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