Vlahos resignation creates factional ructions

The shock resignation of Leesa Vlahos has opened a can of worms for Labor’s right faction amid internal ructions over who should fill the vacant number one spot on the party’s Upper House ticket.

Feb 16, 2018, updated Feb 16, 2018
Happier days: Leesa Vlahos with Premier Jay Weatherill at the beginning of her ministerial career. Photo: AAP/Michael Ramsey

Happier days: Leesa Vlahos with Premier Jay Weatherill at the beginning of her ministerial career. Photo: AAP/Michael Ramsey

Vlahos yesterday announced she was quitting parliament ahead of the release of an ICAC report into the Oakden nursing home scandal, which is expected to be highly critical of the government’s handling of the issue over several years.

In a statement, Vlahos emphasised that she expected “no adverse finding” but noted that, with a looming state election,“my candidature could become a distraction at this most important time”.

Vlahos had already quit the frontbench over the Oakden fallout.

Despite having previously strongly backed her handling of the matter, saying she had relied on “inaccurate advice” from her department, Premier Jay Weatherill yesterday said Vlahos’ resignation was “a difficult decision to have made, but I believe it is the right one”.

“What happened at Oakden must not be repeated,” he said in a statement.

But the decision throws Labor’s hard-won factional détente into question. The dominant Right faction had already ceded the Left both the second and third spots on the Legislative Council tickets in the disastrous deal that saw Jack Snelling shift into the seat of Florey – prompting incumbent Frances Bedford to quit the party – only for Snelling to promptly announce his own retirement thereafter.

It’s believed the Left’s candidates, incumbent Justin Hanson and newcomer Irene Pnevmatikos, will remain in their current positions. There is also a push within the Right faction to move its number four candidate, former Australian Forest Products Association state manager Clare Scriven, into the top spot.

But others favour bringing in a ‘star’ candidate instead – a move that could ruffle feathers, given it would be someone who was not previously preselected for either upper or lower house being gifted the cushiest seat in state parliament.

Advocates for Scriven, a former staffer to right faction heavyweights Snelling and Michael Atkinson, argue the party needs to increase its regional standing, pointing out that she has relocated her family to Port MacDonnell and has been diligently campaigning for Labor in Mount Gambier – even though the party is yet to preselect a lower house candidate for the south-east seat.

But other names in the mix to be parachuted into the Legislative Council also have ties to regional SA.

They include Emily Bourke, who works in the Premier’s office and has links to the Yorke Peninsula, and Lucy Pilkington, a former media adviser to Treasurer Tom Koutsantonis who hails from Naracoorte, and whose brother Ben Hood, ironically, was at one point in the mix as a potential Liberal candidate in Mount Gambier.

Both women were previously spruiked as potential candidates to face off against Bedford in Florey, but it’s understood both withdrew from the race, leaving another former Weatherill spin doctor, Rik Morris, to contest the seat.

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The Upper House, though, could be a more enticing prospect, as there is less on the ground campaigning and an eight-year term.

Neither woman responded to inquiries today.

Labor’s state executive is meeting later this afternoon, and will likely sign off on the party’s remaining lower house candidates. The meeting will also re-open nominations for the Upper House.

Scriven told InDaily that “any advancement up the ticket would, of course, be welcome”.

But she said that would need to be decided by adhering to party procedures – whatever they are.

“As you’ll appreciate, it’s a fairly unusual situation,” she said.

Complicating the matter is a fear widespread among many in the party that with Nick Xenophon’s SA Best rising high as a third-party force, the fourth spot on the ticket is now – and unusually – unwinnable for Labor.

One insider suggested if Scriven was left at number four “it’s going to damage the faction a bit” given her willingness to relocate to the South-East in order to run.

“Not many people do that… it wouldn’t look too good,” said an insider.

“In future people will think there’s no point doing the right thing… I think for the good of the faction in the long-term, they’ve got to do it right.”

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