Nick Xenophon’s threat to major parties in the upcoming South Australian election is undisputable and just over two months out from the poll his SA Best party has claimed their first ministerial scalp.

Former South Australian Liberal leader Martin Hamilton-Smith is quitting his position as Labor government Minister for Investment and Trade (among other portfolios) and has offered to campaign on behalf of Graham Davies, the SA Best candidate in his former seat of Waite. Before you suggest we sack our subeditor, yes, that is all factually correct: Hamilton-Smith has changed parties more times than an indecisive New Year’s Eve reveler, and the number of challenges he’s made to the various leaders he’s served make our federal parties look positively loyal.

Crikey takes a look back at career highlights from one of Australian politics’ greatest turncoat.

1997 to 2007: Liberal backbench to cabinet

A former army officer* and business man, Hamilton-Smith was elected to the seat of Waite in 1997, holding off a challenge from the Democrats in a fairly dire campaign for John Olsen’s Liberal Party. Hamilton-Smith was made cabinet secretary in October 2001, and served as Innovation and Tourism minister from December until the next year’s election, when Mike Rann’s Labor came to power, an election in which Hamilton-Smith strengthened his grip on his seat. In October 2005 Hamilton-Smith made his first attempt at the Liberal leadership, challenging then leader Rob Kerin, which was then withdrawn. In April 2007, he rose again, this time against Iain Evans, and was successful.

2007 to 2009: Liberal leader 

His elevation to the Liberal leadership was initially followed by a bump in the Liberal party’s Newspoll fortunes, but twin disasters befell him in 2009. First there was the shock loss of the Frome by-election to independent Geoff Brock.  He then had the humiliation of backing down on allegations he had made that the Labor party had been receiving donations from agencies linked to the Church of Scientology, based on what was later shown to be forged documents. Polling numbers began to dip, and talk of a spill flourished.  Hamilton-Smith eventually resigned, days after winning a leadership ballot by a single vote; replaced by Isobel Redmond.

2010: Liberal deputy leader

After a stint on the backbench (and following a much stronger Liberal party showing at the 2010 state election) Hamilton-Smith won a party room ballot to become Redmond’s deputy leader. Redmond had wanted Evans instead, and Hamilton-Smith eventually stood aside. You know, for a bit.

2012: more leadership challenges

In October 2012, Hamilton-Smith launched a challenge again Redmond (with Steven Marshall in tow as deputy). Redmond hung on, just, but Hamilton-Smith wouldn’t rule out a future challenge, eventually supporting Marshall when he ran unopposed after Redmond’s resignation in January 2013, picking up a few shadow ministries for his trouble.

2014: Independent Liberal Labor government minister

A time also known as peak Hamilton-Smith. The 2014 South Australian election resulted in a hung parliament. After the cross bench backed Labor, Hamilton-Smith announced he would resign from the Liberal party to become an “independent liberal” in the Labor government — while also picking up the portfolios for trade, defence industries and veterans affairs. He was called a traitor by then federal Liberal education minister Christopher Pyne, while his old ally Marshall said “Hamilton-Smith’s disgraceful decision is unrivaled in its treachery and duplicity”.

The interactions between Hamilton-Smith and his former employers — not to mention Marshall, his erstwhile “political soul-mate” — did not calm down noticeably over the remainder of Hamilton-Smith’s political career. “I have a lot to say about the member for Dunstan and I have a lot to say about the leadership group opposite,” he said in December 2015. “I know the full history and I know about people’s performance, or lack thereof, so if you want to keep it up I will not only defend the point, I will be quite colourful and detailed in my explanations.”

2018: one last jump

His three relatively successful years in a Labor cabinet clearly did not change Hamilton-Smith’s fickle tendencies. Having handed out how-to-vote cards for Nick Xenophon Team MP Rebekha Sharkie’s 2016 federal election campaign, he declared that Waite would be “best served by a Xenophon candidate stepping up”. While Premier Jay Weatherall said Hamilton-Smith had made an “outstanding contribution” during his time in Cabinet, Xenophon himself seems less interested in his help, saying: “It’s the kind of help we don’t need … I don’t think it is useful. I’m sure he thinks he’s being helpful, but I wish he wouldn’t be.”

*Hamilton-Smith was hilariously on-brand from the very start. A year after joining the Australian Army, he apparently attempted to ditch them for the British.

Peter Fray

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Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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