Liberal hopefuls line up for SA’s biggest seat as Climate 200 challenge looms

Five Liberal Party candidates – including a prominent local mayor and a generational party name – are vying to replace retiring MP Rowan Ramsey in Grey at the next federal election, while the Climate 200 fundraising group looks poised to back an independent candidate for the seat.

Jul 09, 2024, updated Jul 09, 2024
(L-R) Rikki Lambert, Tom Venning and Dean Johnson have all put their hands up for the Liberal Party in Grey. Photos: LinkedIn.

(L-R) Rikki Lambert, Tom Venning and Dean Johnson have all put their hands up for the Liberal Party in Grey. Photos: LinkedIn.

InDaily understands Kimba mayor and Local Government Association president Dean Johnson and Barunga Grains farming manager Tom Venning – nephew of former Schubert MP Ivan Venning – are among five nominees for Liberal Party preselection in Grey.

Rikki Lambert, a former chief of staff to Family First senator Bob Day, has also nominated along with former United Australia Party candidate Suzanne Waters and Whyalla police officer Matt Sampson.

Grey, which covers more than 92 per cent of South Australia’s land mass, looms as one of the Liberal Party’s most prized federal preselections this year after Rowan Ramsey announced in March he would be retiring from politics at the next election.

The Liberal Party has held the seat since 1993 and Ramsey has been the incumbent since 2007. He holds the seat on a 10.1 per cent margin over Labor.

Electorate of Grey

The seat of Grey is the third largest electorate in Australia. Map: AEC

The Labor Party has yet to open nominations in Grey. A party source said this would likely happen around September or October.

Liberal insiders are also anticipating a challenge from an independent candidate backed by the Simon Holmes à Court fundraising group Climate 200.

Climate 200 supported Wudinna bakery manager Liz Habermann’s campaign in Grey at the 2022 election. After announcing her candidacy a month out from the election, she finished third behind the two major parties with 11.3 per cent of the vote.

Climate 200 executive director Byron Fay told InDaily that Grey “has all the markings of a seat that is ready to fall to an independent”.

“The Liberal Party primary dropped 5 per cent last election, and is now sitting well below 50 per cent,” Fay said in a statement. 

“Independents and non-major party candidates have put in strong showings in the seat at both the federal and state level.” 

Fay said Habermann managed to get more than 10 per cent of the primary vote in Grey “with a small and short campaign”.

He also noted that in 2016, Nick Xenophon Team candidate Andrea Broadfoot nearly defeated Ramsey with 48 per cent of the two-candidate preferred vote.

“At the state level, Stuart, which overlaps with Grey, is already held by an independent (Geoff Brock). And an independent (Habermann) came close to winning in Flinders at the last state election,” Fay said. 

“The local independent community group, Independent Grey, is also going from strength to strength, engaging with the community and hosting kitchen table conversations to hear people’s concerns.”

InDaily contacted Habermann for comment.

Liz Habermann Grey

Liz Habermann campaigning in Grey ahead of the 2022 election. Her candidacy was endorsed by former Liberal Party Member for Grey Barry Wakelin. Photo: Facebook

Liberal Party state director Alex May said the Liberal Party will preselect its candidate for Grey “over the coming months”.

“The Liberal Party has a plan to get Australia back on track and to support regional communities,” she said in a statement.

“We thank Rowan Ramsey for his tireless service to the community and look forward to offering the people of Grey another energetic and committed representative.”

Venning, Johnson and Lambert declined to comment, while Waters and Sampson could not be reached for comment.

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Venning has previously worked for NAB as an associate director of mergers and acquisitions and as a consultant with Accenture, Deloitte and Capgemini.

According to his LinkedIn, he recently returned to working on his family’s farm, Barunga Grains, near Bute on the northern Yorke Peninsula. His Dad, Max, was once the chair of grain company AusBulk.

Tom Venning

Tom Venning. Photo: LinkedIn

The Venning name has a long history in the Liberal Party, with Tom’s uncle, Ivan, representing the state seat of Schubert from 1990 to 2014. Ivan’s father Howard was also once a Liberal and Country League MP.

Sampson, the Whyalla police sergeant, also has a political lineage. His grandfather was Liberal Party MP Arthur Whyte AM, who was president of the Legislative Council from 1978 to 1985, while his aunt is former Liberal Primary Industries Minister Caroline Schaefer, also an Upper House MP from 1993 to 2010.

Meanwhile, Johnson has been mayor of Kimba since 2014 where he has been at the centre of a long-running debate over whether the small Eyre Peninsula town should host a low- to medium-level nuclear waste storage facility.

Dean Johnson

Kimba mayor and Local Government Association of South Australia president Dean Johnson. Photo: Belinda Willis/InDaily

Johnson supported the facility and described the Albanese Government’s decision last year to walk away from the plan as a “kick in the guts”.

His preselection in Grey could thrust him onto the frontline of the nuclear debate again with Port Augusta earmarked for a small modular nuclear reactor under the Coalition’s energy plan.

Lambert has long been involved in conservative politics, previously running for federal senate in 2019 for the Australian Conservatives.

He has worked as chief of staff to former Australian Conservatives leader Cory Bernardi and Family First senator Bob Day. He is currently chief of staff to Victorian Nationals MP Anne Webster.

Rikki Lambert

Rikki Lambert. Photo: LinkedIn

Lambert was also a frontrunner to replace Day in parliament when he resigned from the senate in 2016. However, Day was later deemed ineligible to have been elected, meaning the second Family First candidate on the ticket, Lucy Gichuhi, was elected on a recount instead.

Waters ran in Grey in 2022 for Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party and came in sixth place with 5.6 per cent of the vote.

She is reportedly a former regional paramedic and solo first responder who left her job because of SA Health’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate.

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