SA Libs ‘don’t need to be fighting cultural wars’

Opposition leader David Speirs insists the state Liberal Party remains a “sensible” centre-right party and he has “no interest in lurching off to the far right”, saying a Women’s Council call to review gender and sexuality teaching in schools is unlikely to be a major policy.

Apr 19, 2023, updated Apr 19, 2023
Opposition leader David Speirs. Photo: Sarah Marshall/AAP

Opposition leader David Speirs. Photo: Sarah Marshall/AAP

Speirs said Liberal Party policies to be released over the coming months and years would “not be extreme in any way” under his leadership, with the party’s agenda to instead reflect centre-right values in the lead up to the 2026 state election.

It comes after the SA Liberal Women’s Council voted in favour of a motion calling for a review of how children are taught “adult related themes and content including gender ideology in schools”, with the council’s president, Leah Blyth, saying members had raised “horror stories” and there needed to be “really clear boundaries”. 

However, some party members dubbed the move “electorally suicidal” and a reflection of a Pentecostal church-driven, conservative recruitment drive spearheaded by SA Senator Alex Antic.

InDaily revealed in 2021 that Speirs – who was then Environment Minister under the former Marshall Government – gave an incendiary speech in which he encouraged parishioners at Adelaide Southland Church to “continue to be engaged” in the political process and to “forget” the concept of the separation of church and state.

But the leader has since denied he was part of a conservative recruitment drive, telling InDaily last year: “I do not want to see any political party in this state run by a particular religious organisation or a particular faith – I think that would be unhealthy, unproductive and it’s not what South Australians are after”. 

“We’re a sensible centre-right party and we will not be dragged to the right,” Speirs told InDaily yesterday.

“The party’s policy agenda will be a centre-right policy agenda which will not be extreme in any way under my leadership.

“I’ve got no interest in lurching off to the far-right, or as I say trying to become some sort of Labor-lite model either.”

However, Speirs said the party would “respectfully listen and acknowledge” the conservative-dominated Women’s Council’s views and he had tasked the Liberals’ education spokesperson, John Gardner, with inquiring into the council’s concerns regarding gender teaching in schools.

He said the first time he heard people raise concerns about gender and sexuality teaching in schools was when the Women’s Council passed the motion.

“From time-to-time people might say: ‘Schools are sort of bastions of left-wing propaganda’, but all Liberals would say that,” he said.

“As much as relying on Liberal Party members for input and ideas and insights of things to shape policy, my day-to-day experience representing mortgage-belt Adelaide is probably going to be one of my first points of contact when it comes to discerning what matters to people.

“I said to John, ‘Take a look at this’, but I’m quite happy to emphasise that it’s not a major policy priority for the party that I’m leading at the moment.

“The parliamentary team first and foremost are the front-facing part of the party and we are concentrating on hospitals, ambulance ramping, healthcare, issues facing regional South Australia, job creation – those are the areas we’re looking at.”

It comes as the MP for the southern suburbs seat of Black today marks one year as Opposition Leader and yesterday released a new “values statement” aimed at repositioning the Liberal Party after last year’s landslide state election defeat.

Labor won 27 seats in the lower house at the March poll, while the Liberals retained 16 seats – many of which are now considered marginal. 

We don’t need to be fighting cultural wars and we just need to be concentrating on bread-and-butter issues

Speirs said a key focus for him over the past year had been “modernising” the backroom of the Liberal Party, while also providing “pretty active opposition to the government”.

“The year has gone quick. It’s a big job. I’m happy with where we’re at,” he said.

“A lot of commentators – whether political, or media-based, or South Australians in the community who observe and are interested in these things – might have thought that the Liberal Party would fall in a heap and we haven’t done that.

“The level of unity at a state level and a parliamentary level and, I think, at a branch level amongst our membership is really solid and I’m heartened that we’ve been able to steady the ship, dust ourselves down and get on with it.

“Many of the challenges of a bygone era which have been portrayed as a lack of unity of various factions fighting one another – that’s not the case now.”

But Speirs acknowledged the party – both at a state and national level – still had some way to go to build up its campaign capacity, as evinced by Labor’s historic Aston by-election victory in Victoria earlier this month.

The result marked the first time in over a century, since 1920, that a sitting government had won a seat from the opposition in a federal by-election.

Speirs said the vote proved the SA Liberal Party needed to focus its attention towards suburban Adelaide.

“Aston is a mortgage-belt seat and the Liberal Party has to be able to speak to people living in suburban Australia. That’s where elections are won and lost usually,” he said.

“I’d look at seats like my own – suburbs like Hallett Cove, Trott Park, Sheidow Park. I won in every booth in my seat and the ability to be able to connect with people who are paying mortgages, working in small businesses or the healthcare sector – we’ve just got to be relevant for them.

“Those people will be inspired to vote for us or attracted to vote for us if we’re talking about the issues that matter to them – those issues are cost of living, healthcare, quality of schools, the natural environment, which I think everyone knows is a driving passion of mine.

“We don’t need to be fighting cultural wars and we just need to be concentrating on bread-and-butter issues.”

As for whether South Australia could soon have its own by-election in the now-marginal eastern suburbs seat of Dunstan, Speirs said he would be surprised if current member and former Premier Steven Marshall did not sit out the full four-year term.

“There’s a lot of speculation about potential by-elections, but there has been for a long time,” he said.

“That speculation has come to naught to date and Steven is working away there as the local member.

“He’s told me he’s continuing in the job. He’s said he’ll serve the full four-year term and I’ve got to take him at his word on that.”

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