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‘Dark forces’: Liberal factional tensions erupt as MP turns independent

South East MP Nick McBride says “dark forces” within the Liberal Party helped prompt his decision to leave, with Opposition leader David Speirs accusing him of “spitting the dummy”.

Jul 06, 2023, updated Aug 06, 2023
Opposition leader David Speirs with MacKillop MP Nick McBride after the Liberal Party's leadership vote in April. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Opposition leader David Speirs with MacKillop MP Nick McBride after the Liberal Party's leadership vote in April. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

McBride, who has represented the South East seat of MacKillop since 2018, announced overnight he would be quitting the Liberal Party to sit as an independent.

He said today that party membership is “controlled by factionalism” and questioned whether Opposition leader David Speirs is in control amid a concerted recruitment drive from the hard right to bring Pentecostal Christians into the party.

McBride has not ruled out supporting the Malinauskas Government if Labor needs to form minority government at the next election – but says he won’t accept a cabinet position or the Lower House speakership.

He said he made his decision to resign “within the last week”.

“I have probably struggled in many facets over the five years of my political journey understanding the Liberal Party,” he told ABC Radio Adelaide.

“What’s been going on just recently and what I’m observing, taking into account where we are as an Opposition, it has all come up and has mounted to a very very clear decision for me.

“I think my advocacy and my work for MacKillop can start in a new direction… that the people of MacKillop are going to be very very pleased and proud of.”

The resignation cuts the number of Liberal MPs on the Lower House floor to 15, compared to Labor’s 27.

It also increases the number of independents in the Lower House to five, of which four – Fraser Ellis, Dan Cregan, Troy Bell and McBride – are former Liberal Party MPs.

The Liberal Party now holds no seats in its traditional South East heartland, with McBride – whose electorate takes in Naracoorte, Robe, Meningie, Millicent, Bordertown and Penola – joining independent Mount Gambier MP Bell on the crossbench.

The Liberal Party no longer holds any seats in its traditional South East heartland following the resignation of Mount Gambier MP Troy Bell (pictured left) in 2017 and Nick McBride this week. Photo: supplied

As recently as May, McBride insisted he was “committed to the South Australian Liberal Party” after unsourced rumours swirled about Labor offering him a cabinet post.

That came after McBride’s wife, Katherine McBride, failed in a pre-selection challenge to unseat hard right Liberal MP Tony Pasin in the federal seat of Barker.

McBride today cited developments in the last two weeks regarding “factionalism and the Liberal Party” as the reason for his resignation.

Asked if he was talking about Pentecostal Christians taking key positions within his local party branch, McBride said: “I know that occurred.”

“But it’s more than that. Because I know that if the Liberal Party want to get back into government and want to restart afresh and actually be representative and a force to be dealt with, they actually have to sit in the centre-right.

“We do now know that there are dark forces, factional forces out there… organising themselves to build the Liberal Party again.

“I think it’s going to be counterproductive. I don’t think they’re going to get far, and I think it’s a great time for me now to exit.”

McBride has previously threatened to quit the Liberal Party when they were in government after crossing the floor over disagreements with leadership about COVID-19 policy and mining reforms.

He said today that he gave Speirs an undertaking that he would not accept a cabinet post in the Labor Government – like independent MP Geoff Brock did – or the Lower House speakership – like ex-Liberal Dan Cregan did in 2021 to the fury of the Liberal MPs.

Nick McBride pictured with then-Premier Steven Marshall and Apsley farmer Paula Gust, an advocate for cross-border communities. McBride had several disagreements with the Marshall Liberal Government over COVID-19 policy. Photo: supplied

But McBride left the door open to supporting the Malinauskas Government if they needed him in a hung parliament.

Asked if he promised Speirs that he would support the Liberal Party in minority government, McBride said: “I said it would always be considered respectfully and I would always put the seat of MacKillop first.

“As an independent… all I’ll be thinking about is what I can do for my electorate and what I can do to rebuild it.”

McBride, who chairs his family’s pastoralist company, insisted that he has “never been part” of factionalism within the Liberal Party “in any strong shape or fashion”.

He suggested factional forces had forced out members of his team that supported his re-election in MacKillop.

“I had a team behind me that helped get me there that have been working for four years that… supported and were loyal,” McBride said.

“And then two weeks ago… there were forces there, factions there that came in and said ‘nope, they’re not good enough, you don’t represent what we’re looking for, we’re moving in’.

“Now that’s okay. I’m absolutely fine. I let that happen. I’ve been nice and conciliatory about it. But that is just one of those things.”

Asked if he meant Pentecostal Christians getting positions in the MacKillop branch, McBride said: “No, no I’m not.”

“All I would say is the Liberal membership is controlled by factionalism, and the way it’s described as dark or factionalism is it’s always on the quiet, it’s always in the background, It’s not in the in the day of light.

“These things move through the membership with the MPs that fall into line and not in a transparent way.”

McBride later said he did not think Speirs was in control of the problems within the party, although insisted that he was “not going to point the finger” at the leader.

“I think it belongs more to the membership and the factionalism than the leader itself,” he said.

Asked whether he was blaming Barker MP Tony Pasin or senator Alex Antic for the party’s problems , McBride said: “I’m not going to bring any name into it, other than I’m going to say it’s the factionalism within the party.

“You don’t even know who the members are that fold in directly behind each faction. It is dark because it’s not transparent.

“They’re capable of knifing, they’re capable of cutting you out without you even knowing.”

Speirs hit back at McBride today and accused him of “spitting the dummy”.

The Opposition leader denied the party was “riven by factionalism” and suggested one of the reasons McBride walked away was his “lack of ability to build relationships within the party”.

“I said that I would unify the party when I became the leader. I don’t belong to a faction. I came up through the middle of the party as a sensible centrist and that’s how I’ve led the party over the last 15, 16 months,” Speirs told ABC Radio.

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“Unfortunately, I think there was a bit of an inevitability about what has happened with Nick – I’m sad about that.”

Last year, Speirs called for the conservative-driven recruitment drive of Evangelical Christians to come to an end, telling InDaily in April 2022 he did “not want to see any political party in this state run by a particular religious organisation or faith”.

Today, he said that he could not exclude people from the party if they come from a faith-based background and “if they’ve gained some sort of influence in certain areas, well, so be it”.

“There’s 400 members in the MacKillop branch – I think it’s about the largest membership of any state seat for the Liberal Party,” Speirs said.

“Only about 70 or 80 turned out to the AGM (annual general meeting) – that’s an indictment on the local organisational skills of the MP quite frankly.

“And if he had people that he wanted elected to certain positions and couldn’t turn out his people to get them up, well, that’s disappointing for him and now he’s spitting the dummy.

“Alex Antic has signed up people from all walks of life. I cannot exclude people from a particular faith-based background from this party – that would probably be illegal.

“If they’ve gained some sort of influence in certain areas, well, so be it.

“I’m not going to exclude climate-change activists from the party, I’m not going to exclude Muslims from the party – we’re a broad church.”

Speirs also said he had visited the seat of MacKillop more than any other regional seat during his tenue as Opposition leader.

He predicted the Liberal Party would win back the seat from McBride in 2026.

“He seems to suggest it was Nick McBride that won the seat with an overwhelming majority in 2022 – actually it was the Liberal Party of South Australia,” Speirs said.

“While I’m sure he’s got some respect in the local community for some of his stances, at the end of the day they voted for the Liberal Party, it’s a conservative seat.”

Asked if McBride had promised him support in a minority government, Speirs said: “He certainly made it clear that his seat was a strong Liberal conservative seat and any decisions he made about future minority government would be reflected in the values of his seat.

“So, I would expect Nick to support me, and the Liberal Party, should there be a minority government in future.”

McBride won MacKillop with 72.6 per cent of the two-party preferred vote at the 2022 election.

The Malinauskas Government made a point of focusing on the South East in its election commitments and budget policies.

Within 72 hours of Labor’s 2022 election victory, Premier Peter Malinauskas visited the Limestone Coast to pledge $100m worth of support, including a $24 million upgrade of the Mount Gambier Hospital.

He also said the former Labor’s government’s decision to sell forest harvest rights in the region was “wrong”.

Transport Minister Tom Koutsantonis today said McBride’s resignation from the Liberal Party “confirms that it is a party that now belongs to the radical Right”.

“We are seeing the forces of Alex Antic and the far Right taking over the Liberal Party in South Australia. And the factional cracks are gaping for all to see – not even the Liberal Party’s safest seat holder feels safe in the Liberal Party anymore,” he said in a statement.

“If David Speirs can’t stand up to the extremists in his own party, how can the people of South Australia trust him to stand up for their interests?”

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