South Australian Liberal state president John Olsen has rejected fresh predictions of a looming factional war, but warns the “ripple from Canberra” could yet impact SA Liberal leader Steven Marshall’s chances at the next election.
Amid an escalating tug of war for factional hegemony in the federal Liberal Party — punctuated by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s insistence this week that the party should remain in “the sensible centre” — a mooted power shift in the state branch was thwarted overnight, with the moderates retaining control of the Women’s Council presidency.
It’s understood the ballot was won by the Christopher Pyne-aligned Hannah March by only five votes, leaving some conservatives seething about the fact the vote was scheduled for 6pm on a Tuesday night in Norwood — which ensured several right-leaning rural members were unable to attend.
The ballot maintains the status quo on the party’s state executive, but the replacement of arch-conservative party Treasurer Michael Van Dissel with prominent businessman John Kain has also removed a crucial conservative presence from the finely balanced state executive — which the right controlled by a single vote.
Insiders have warned the wets’ victory will be short-lived, with one insisting “a factional war is definitely coming”.
But moderate insiders had little sympathy today, with one source saying influential conservatives had been “behaving like vandals”.
“The right brought all this on themselves — they overreached by appointing Van Dissel as Treasurer, then they skewed the preselection timetable to suit their factional interests … on both [counts] they did over Marshall,” the insider told InDaily.
“The state party has now quite rightly corrected the damage they’ve been doing.”
It’s understood Van Dissel offered Olsen his resignation if he wanted to appoint an alternative treasurer, and the offer was accepted.
Van Dissel did not comment today, directing inquiries to Olsen.
The former premier said Kain, who was last night endorsed by the state executive, “brings standing and respect as a successful businessman, and his task is to assist in the management of the finances of the party”.
Olsen rejected the suggestion that the party’s factions remained bitterly divided, saying: “The state party under Steven Marshall has in my view become a cohesive, united, stable unit… the only thing impacting in SA is the ripple from Canberra.”
But others see the federal ructions as evidence the party has imported SA’s troubles onto the national stage, much like the federal ALP has long been plagued by the machinations of its notorious New South Wales branch.
The conservatives are expected to hold sway at Friday night’s Young Liberal AGM with the likely election of lawyer Jocelyn Sutcliffe, but the looming ballot has nonetheless prompted a rearguard action, with the wide distribution of a highly-defamatory email decrying the prospective president, purporting to have been sent by a “True Conservative”.
Party right-wingers insist the missive was instead the work of an anonymous moderate.
The factional standoff is further complicated by a looming federal boundary redraw that is set to eliminate a South Australian seat. Insiders speculate that Makin, Hindmarsh or Adelaide could be in the gun, any of which would affect the power balance in the state Liberal branch. The loss of Labor-held Makin would likely see ALP booths shifted into Pyne’s Sturt fortress, which could leave him with an uphill battle to retain his seat. Adelaide and Hindmarsh are both overseen by moderates — respectively Anne Ruston and Simon Birmingham, whose wife Courtney Morcombe recently returned to politics as a policy adviser in Marshall’s office.
One right-winger, who didn’t want to be named, argued: “The left have been in control of the state parliamentary party for a bloody long time… how well is that going? How well is a wet PM going? Most reasonable people can draw their own conclusions from that.”
But they also denied there was a push to marginalise the moderates altogether, saying the party needed to balance “that sort of yin and yang”.
“When it works together, it’s a great unstoppable force — when it isn’t, you spend your whole time tilting at windmills.”
Marshall is returning from time off overseas and was unavailable for comment.
For his part, Kain — who has founded seven different businesses, including his law firm Kain Lawyers — insists he has neither knowledge of nor patience for the party’s factional machinations.
He says by next year it will be 53 years since Tom Playford last won an election “and Labor will have governed for 39 of them”.
“Since then SA has gone backwards on pretty much every measure, and that’s in large part because we’ve had a monopoly on power to one side of politics,” he told InDaily.
“For the fortunes of this state to turn around it’s important to have a change of government.”
He insists his appointment “isn’t a stepping stone, and I’m not going to run for parliament”.
“But I deeply believe if you’re not happy with something you should do something about it, or shut up and accept it, or get out,” he said.
“I’m not prepared to leave and I’m not prepared to do nothing, which leaves me no choice but to do something.”
He insists it’s “completely incorrect” that he is aligned with the party’s wets.
“I am not now, nor have I ever been, part of the moderate team, the conservative team or any other team,” he said.
“I’m not really in the slightest bit interested in it … to me, what matters is having the Liberal Party elected.
“I don’t have any of the baggage of what’s gone on in the last 50 years, and I’m disinterested in it … to be totally frank, I couldn’t tell you who’s in what factions on the state executive — I wouldn’t know or care.”