Ex-MP’s branch bid blocked by Right faction insurgence

An influx of conservative recruits has helped cruel an anticipated bid by a recently-ousted Liberal MP for the presidency of his local branch – in what Right faction insiders have called “a changing of the guard” within party ranks.

Jun 16, 2022, updated Jun 16, 2022
Richard Harvey and Paula Luethen in parliament before the March election. Photo: Tony Lewis / InDaily

Richard Harvey and Paula Luethen in parliament before the March election. Photo: Tony Lewis / InDaily

Former Newland MP Richard Harvey opted not to run for the key role in his electorate’s Liberal AGM last night, with an influx of Right-aligned party members instead backing Tea Tree Gully councillor Rob Unger for the role – part of a clean sweep for the faction as it continues its march across SA Liberal branches.

The Right, led by conservative senator Alex Antic, have recently won key positions in several state electorate convention meetings, bolstering their numbers on the party’s governing state council ahead of a crucial state AGM later this year.

Unger, who has previously held the president’s role several years ago, was elected in a meeting attended by several newly-signed members, amid a continuing membership drive by the Right faction – despite a call from new state party leader David Speirs for the signing spree to end.

It’s understood around 60 people attended last night’s meeting, more than double the average of recent attendances, with Antic and Damian Wyld – another Tea Tree Gully councillor and the president of the neighbouring Wright SEC – among the number, as well as state deputy leader John Gardner, a leading moderate who said he attended as the guest speaker.

Sources said Harvey had been “canvassing for support from the branch to stand” for the presidency, with his decision not to even contest the position casting doubt over his local support for another preselection tilt if he opts to run again.

Harvey told InDaily he had “thought about” running for the presidency “but in the end I didn’t”.

Asked whether the decision was influenced by the strong presence of conservative-aligned members, he said: “Perhaps a little bit.”

But he insisted a new strategic engagement role with the Australian Institute for Machine Learning had also meant he had other priorities – although he did not rule out the prospect of again seeking preselection.

“People ask me, but to be honest it’s still a long way to go,” he said.

“I really enjoyed the opportunity [to serve as an MP] and would have liked it to have gone longer [but] there’ll be a process for choosing the candidate… there’ll be a redistribution of boundaries, I’ve started up a new career again so there’s a whole bunch of different factors.

“To be honest, after spending all this time campaigning and working as an MP, I’m more focussed now on my kids and my career and getting jobs done around the house, so I haven’t put a lot of thought into what may or may not happen next time.”

He was diplomatic about the conservative membership drive targeting his and other seats in the north-eastern suburbs saying: “I think it’s great Newland got a really healthy membership and a lot of committed and enthusiastic volunteers.”

“You don’t get anywhere without the help of a whole bunch of people, who don’t get paid a cent to do it,” he said.

“I think if everyone is working in the same direction to make sure we have a Liberal Party that represents a broad base, and that’s still passionate to win the next election, I think the more the merrier – provided that’s the objective…and I’ve got no reason to think it’s not.”

But opponents insist Harvey – who was targeted by anti-abortion candidates in preference deals – was expected to run in the ballot until the meeting was held, arguing he saw “it wasn’t going to wash and he didn’t have the numbers”.

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The move gives the Right faction dominance in the north-eastern seat for the first team “in about a decade or so”, a source said.

“The Right have come back… it’s a changing of the guard,” they said.

“The Left realise they’ve run their race [in Newland] and the pendulum’s swinging.”

Unger told InDaily: “Winning back seats like Newland and King are key if the party is to have any success in forming Government at the next election.”

“It’s fantastic to see a growing membership of supporters within the party,” he said.

“I’m delighted to have been elected unopposed as Newland president, and look forward to working with the membership over the next 12 months.”

Harvey’s fellow moderate colleague Paula Luethen, who lost the neighbouring seat of King to Labor at the March election, will likely face a similar challenge at her branch’s AGM in a fortnight, with one insider saying: “You can expect to see something very similar, although whether it has the same result is quite unknown at this point.”

However, Luethen appears to be pondering a run for mayor of Tea Tree Gully at the forthcoming council elections.

“It’s fairly clear she’s planning to stand,” said one insider.

In a recent Facebook comment, she told a supporter: “Mayor could be an option and many people have suggested it to me.”

“Did you know there have only been two female mayors in 86 years?” she added.

It comes as tensions continue to simmer between the factions on several fronts after recent election failures.

It’s understood leading moderates continue to advocate for former Steven Marshall adviser Alex May to be appointed as the party’s new state director, with high-level discussions about creating a new role within party office for Right-winger and Adelaide City councillor Alexander Hyde to bring the opposing faction on board with the appointment.

The role has been touted as May’s offsider or even co-directors, InDaily has been told.

Neither May nor Hyde responded to inquiries today.

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