Tom Richardson | InDaily
Factional infighting has exploded ahead of tomorrow’s state Liberal ballot to decide South Australia’s newest senator, with the party’s dominant Right faction “split” and conservative insiders threatening retribution as they brace for their candidate’s shock loss.
Prominent lawyer Morry Bailes had been considered a lock for the senate nomination to replace departing former Liberal renegade Cory Bernardi, until the eleventh-hour candidacy of state Legislative Council president Andrew McLachlan, revealed last year by InDaily.
The two will face off against long-term Liberal member and former party Treasurer Michael Van Dissel, who is expected to run third but is considered influential in some circles, including the Young Liberal Movement.
Senior Right figures have told InDaily the Young Liberals – who control 13 votes in state council – are expected to swing behind McLachlan in tomorrow’s ballot, and put Bailes last.
“Macca will win it, and he’ll win it because the Young Libs are supporting the moderate candidate,” one source said.
The Right seized control over the state council and executive at last year’s AGM for the first time in several years, despite Premier Steven Marshall retaining a moderate-dominated cabinet.
But the senate nomination has exacerbated tensions within the Right faction, with conservative-aligned Hills MP Dan Cregan publicly endorsing McLachlan earlier this month, despite key Right figures such as Tony Pasin and Nicolle Flint having openly canvassed for Bailes.
It’s understood tensions were inflamed when a form was circulated to state council members in recent days urging support for Bailes as the “conservative candidate” and suggesting that “only one name is required on the ballot paper for a formal vote”.
Insiders have told InDaily the Young Liberals have been ensconced in their own internal battles, with Pasin-backed lawyer Jocelyn Sutcliffe – who works at Bailes’ firm TGB, from which fellow Right-winger and recently-elected senator Alex Antic also hails – narrowly elected as Federal Young Liberal president last weekend.
That was despite the local chapter supporting her moderate-backed opponent Nikolas Baric – with insiders suggesting that tussle could have a spillover effect on tomorrow’s senate ballot.
There could be further ramifications for the upcoming preselections for the state Legislative Council ticket.
The party is bracing for a high turnover of MLCs, with Treasurer Rob Lucas already flagging his retirement and long-serving moderate John Dawkins yesterday confirming he will not seek another term.
Right powerbrokers have floated a “peace deal” to get Bailes elected while allowing moderate frontbencher Michelle Lensink to be re-endorsed without factional opposition.
“That would achieve ‘peace in our time’ heading into the Leg.Co preselection,” said one insider.
“We thought that was a very sensible proposal which was about not taking the kind of angst we’ve seen previously through to this preselection period.”
However, no deal was contemplated, with Right-wingers adamant that “the moderates know they have the support of the Young Liberals… and without the support of the Young Liberals, Morry can’t win it”.
“It’s incredibly disappointing, but that’s the reality – the Young Liberals have decided to run with the Left.”
“The Right had a proposal to the Left such that [Lensink] would be supported and let through [but] that deal’s been outright rebuked,” said another, who noted the senate race now “turns on the support of the Young Liberals – that’s pretty clear from everyone who’s done the numbers”.
That could mean further bloodletting over who wins preselection for the state Upper House, with one Right-winger declaring: “I couldn’t imagine a circumstance in which it will be anything other than a fully contested preselection.”
However, others in the party insist “the Right have split over this [senate] preselection”, with those backing McLachlan disinclined to seek to topple Lensink.
“They want stability,” said one source.
That was echoed by one nominal Right-winger, who told InDaily that “McLachlan is an exceptionally good candidate, well-respected and well-liked”.
“If you’re a betting man you’d have to say McLachlan is the superior candidate,” they said, attributing the faction’s split to “an extremist fundamentalist element [that has] run roughshod over it”.
“The state council shuns extremism, like the Australian public,” they said.
Bailes’ backers also say likely third-placed candidate Van Dissel’s candidacy – following several previous unsuccessful preselection bids – will wreck Bailes’ chances.
Van Dissel told InDaily he had “no comment to make” on those suggestions, saying only he was “running because I think I’ve got something to offer the Liberal Party”.
“I’ll let the state council make up its own mind,” he said.
“I respect state council in the decision it makes.”
Neither McLachlan nor Bailes would comment today, with the latter declaring: “It’s an internal matter for the Liberal Party, and it will remain that way until the result is known.”
The inner ructions could overshadow a big week in state politics, with McLachlan set to preside over a joint sitting of state parliament on Wednesday at which the Governor’s speech will herald the reopening of parliament – and outline the Marshall Government’s new agenda.
It’s understood if he wins the senate nomination, McLachlan will then resign – first as Upper House president and then from the Legislative Council altogether – ahead of a second joint sitting of both houses on Thursday, at which the state parliament will ratify the nomination of a new SA senator.
Ironically, if McLachlan’s gambit fails, he will remain in the president’s chair in the short-term, and preside over that joint sitting to rubber-stamp his opponent Bailes as SA’s next senator.