Forty years after the once-dominant Liberal Country League split into rural and metro-based political entities in South Australia, the same divisions have emerged to cloud its unity. Isobel Redmond my have hung on to the party leadership yesterday, but the division remains.
The LCL held sway in SA politics from its formation in 1932 as a merger between the Liberal Foundation and the Country Party’s SA branch. What held the party together was its electoral success through founder Sir Richard Butler, premier from 1933 to 1938, and later Sir Thomas Playford, premier from 1938 to 1965.
The party was home to the state’s most powerful figures. Names such as Rymill, McEwin, deGaris and McLachlan graced its honour boards.
The post-war emergence of an urban middle class boosted its membership base, but it wasn’t long before the newer members became restless. The rumblings started in 1970 and grew into a withering split. In 1972 former one-term premier Steele Hall gathered together like-minded urban members with a reform agenda. In 1973 they left the LCL and 11 MPs declared themselves members of the newly-formed Liberal Movement. At the next election the 11 MPs became two. It was the beginning of the “disunity is death” mantra that would haunt the Liberals for almost 40 years. The man who started the split, Steele Hall, moved to federal Parliament in 1974, taking up a Senate seat. His compatriot, Robyn Millhouse, was one of just two Liberal Movement MPs to win in the 1975 state election.
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Millhouse would later form the New Liberal Movement and then later merge with the Australia Party to form the Australian Democrats. He stayed in state Parliament until 1982 when he took up an appointment to the Supreme Court. Millhouse’s Liberal Movement colleagues had swiftly moved back into the Liberal Party fold; LCL MPs became the conservative faction and the urban LMs became the moderates.
The disunity tag would keep them out of power until the end of the Don Dunstan era when David Tonkin served as a one-term premier before John Bannon took over for his own Labor leadership decade.
The collapse of the State Bank in 1992 set up an impossible-to-lose scenario that saw the Liberal Party swept into power in 1993 and Labor left with a rump of just 10 out of the 47 House of Assembly seats. With such a large majority, the Liberals looked set to once again be a dominant force. But the divisions emerged again and the conservatives took to the moderates in an ugly spat that ended in the deposing of premier Dean Brown in favour of John Olsen in 1996. Consequently the 1997 state election saw 14 Liberal MPs lose their seats in a 10% swing against it and the Olsen government reduced from a massive majority to governing with the support of independents. It gave Labor the base to get back in the game and in 2002 Mike Rann would garner the support of former Liberal MP Peter Lewis to start his own Labor premiership decade.
Stunned, and almost disabled by the loss, the Liberals stayed with fill-in leader Rob Kerin who lost the 2006 election in a landslide. In March 2006 Kerin stood aside and the conservative faction’s Iain Evans became leader in an unnatural alliance with the moderate’s Vickie Chapman as deputy.
Evans had a “low-profile” approach to the role and with Rann enjoying huge popularity in the polls, the moderates backed the unaligned Martin Hamilton-Smith’s tilt at the leadership and he took over from Evans in April 2009. Two years later the divisions emerged again as the factions battled over the opportunity that emerged when Hamilton-Smith slipped in the polls.
With Chapman almost certain to win a ballot against Hamilton-Smith, the conservatives backed Redmond in a late blocking move referred to at the time as “anything but Vickie” and she won the leadership in July 2009. Just a few months later Rann’s popularity took a hit in the fallout from accusations relating to his friendship with a parliamentary waitress. In the March 2010 election Redmond’s Liberals pulled back four seats, but were still well short of victory.
Labor had its own bloodletting — behind closed doors — and Rann was tapped on the shoulder in a July 2011 coup by Jay Weatherill. Labor’s polling decline would continue, but a move against Redmond grew strength following a series of gaffes and a perception that she and her deputy Mitch Williams had failed to take on the Labor government as it struggled against bad economic news and the axing of BHP’s Olympic Dam expansion project.
The view of the Redmond group — led by Iain Evans and Upper House leader David Ridgway — had been that the opposition should take a low-profile approach. The moderates wanted policy engagement.
When the 25 MPs gathered yesterday the divisions were stark as the MPs fell back into line with their party roots. The moderate faction voted as a block for change along with a couple of unaligned metropolitan MPs. The Redmond camp had called in the rural MPs and by Tuesday morning Ivan Venning, Dan Van Holst Pellekaan, Adrian Pederick and Peter Treloar had been rolled in on the promise that the under-performing Mitch Williams would be dumped.
It would be enough to satisfy their demands for change without risking the bloodletting of a full leadership change. The vote came in along traditional lines — 13 to Redmond, 12 to Hamilton-Smith.
By 11am yesterday the two factions were publicly holding hands — Isobel Redmond as leader and Steven Marshall as deputy. As history shows, the only glue that has held such a marriage together has been the prospect of power. One bad poll or a leader’s gaffe and the family feud will emerge again.
Maybe it’s time the party formalised its factions to deal with divergent views within its organisation, or split back to what it was 80 years and 40 years ago. While the country conservatives enjoy yesterday’s victory they might want to ponder this — the seats they need to win in March 2014 are in the city.
*This article was first published at InDaily