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Mystery man Marshall leaves Liberals playing catch-up

Steven Marshall’s odd resignation announcement this week leaves his party facing an internal minefield, writes Matthew Abraham who takes a close look at the potential pitfalls for both major parties in the upcoming by-election.

Jan 25, 2024, updated Jan 31, 2024
Steven Marshall with his successor David Speirs before his sort-of-resignation announcement this week. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Steven Marshall with his successor David Speirs before his sort-of-resignation announcement this week. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

For crying out loud, Steven.

Just this once, couldn’t you have done it the normal way?

Only Steven Marshall would announce to the world he is quitting politics, while not quitting politics.

Not quitting yet anyway, but sometime soon, probably, or maybe not soon. Who knows?

But he’s definitely going.

Don’t you, don’t you, don’t you worry about that, as former Queensland Premier, the late Joh Bjelke-Petersen, liked to mumble.

It’s so trademark Marshall. Normally burnt-out, washed-up, cashed-up or fed-up political leaders simply resign.

Or as one senior Malinauskas Government source, who understandably chooses to remain anonymous, told me this week: “If he’s going, f***ing go.”

Maybe he’s deliberately trying to drive Labor mad.

It’s not working.

The Malinauskas Machine is juiced up and ready to roll in a by-election for Marshall’s seat of Dunstan, now one of the most marginal in the known universe on a 0.5 per cent sliver.

The Liberals? Not so. They’ve got more to lose.

The former Premier was coy about setting a date for his resignation when he called a media conference outside Norwood Oval on Wednesday morning.

As InDaily reports, he explained that “by announcing it today that I will be resigning in the coming months… it gives the party the chance to preselect the very best candidate to give ourselves the best shot for the by-election”.

Did he really say “in the coming months”? He did.

“I don’t want to put an exact date on it,” he said. “I know that some of you in the press pack have been really predicting dates, now you’ve got another opportunity to pick the final date of the by-election.”

And how did he explain the repeated assurances he would serve out his full four-year term?

“It wasn’t my intention to resign,” Marshall said.

“But I came back to work on the 2nd of January… worked very hard over the last couple of years, got through most of my work and I suppose in the last week or so I formed the opinion that it was best for somebody else to take over – somebody with new ideas, fresh ideas to take this seat forward.”

Well, haven’t we all had weeks like that?

But Marshall has always been something of an International Man of Mystery.

As a backbencher, before becoming Opposition Leader in 2014, he once invited me and then ABC colleague David Bevan for a getting-to-know-you chat on his home turf in Norwood.

We were expecting a flat white in one of the groovy joints on The Parade.

Instead, we sipped powdered coffee in the front room of his Parade electorate office. No problem. Being from the ABC we were familiar with International Roast.

But as we sat down, a jittery Marshall hopped up and snapped shut the venetians on the large window facing the busy footpath.

It’s not like we were Woodward and Bernstein meeting Deep Throat in an underground garage for a Watergate drop.

Can’t be too careful, though. It’s The Parade. The Taliban are everywhere.

As Tasmanian election expert Kevin Bonham observed: “This one will be interesting, especially as there hasn’t been a single quality poll of SA state voting since the 2022 state election.”

Focussing on the fuzziness over his exit date might seem to be quibbling.

It will be soonish. I’m told possibly as early as the middle of next week.

But it goes to the heart of a problem that so often cripples the Liberal election plays.

Labor’s candidate in Dunstan at the 2022 election was businesswoman Cressida O’Hanlon. She came within 260 votes of rolling the Liberal Premier.

Less than 12 hours after Marshall’s mid-morning announcement on Wednesday, the Labor machine met and endorsed her unopposed as its candidate.

O’Hanlon was Labor’s candidate for the federal seat of Sturt in 2019, losing to former Liberal Minister Chris Pyne’s acolyte, James Stevens. Sturt roughly overlaps the Dunstan electoral map.

In short, O’Hanlon’s face on Stobie poles is familiar to Dunstan voters.

By contrast, the Liberals must now tiptoe through the minefield of local party members to preselect a candidate.

With only two women in the House of Assembly, Liberal leader David Speirs desperately needs a woman to run and win for his party in Dunstan.

The front runner should be moderate-backed lawyer and former ministerial adviser, Dr Anna Finizio, who has been campaigning zealously for a good six months as the candidate-in-waiting.

Writing for InDaily in May last year, Finizio argued that “fluffy” and “economically daft” SA Liberal Women’s Council motions were an example of political parties and policies letting down women who demand and deserve better.

“Connecting with women is a significant task for all political parties,” Finizio wrote. “The reality is, most women don’t have time for niche culture war issues.”

But neither Marshall nor Speirs could bring themselves to solidly endorse the impressive Finizio on Wednesday. They couldn’t even endorse a female candidate.

Why? Because they’re scared witless of their own people, so often the party’s own worst enemies.

Asked if a woman should be pre-selected for Dunstan, Marshall said: “I can tell you one thing… telling Liberal members what to do is never a good idea.

“It’s a democratic process and they’ll come up with the right person – they always do.”

No they don’t. Time and again, they pick men over women or pick duds who lose winnable seats.

If Speirs insists he wants a woman, they’ll give him a bloke wearing brown slip-ons, Fletcher Jones trousers and a tweed jacket. Possibly smoking a pipe.

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With his fingers burned after previous failed attempts to push female candidates, Speirs agreed with his former leader.

“One of the things Steven has taught me – and I’d wish I’d listened to it more often along the way – is to not interfere with Liberal Party pre-selection processes, and I will definitely listen to that on an ongoing basis,” he said.

Labor quickly confirmed their candidate for Dunstan would be Cressida O’Hanlon, pictured here with Premier Peter Malinauskas. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

So why risk a by-election in Dunstan now?

Clearly, Marshall wants out. Unlike his former deputy Vickie Chapman, who spat the dummy soon after the election loss to generate a risky by-election in Bragg, he’s at least given Speirs a good two years to take some shine off the Malinauskas Government.

A well-placed Liberal source says the party is pleasantly surprised by recent opinion polling it’s conducted in several seats, including Dunstan.

“It shows we are competitive,” they say.

They say one feature of the polling is an undercurrent of cynicism about the focus on Big Sport by Premier Peter Malinauskas, particularly among women, as “people are massively focussed on health and the cost of living”.

Speirs is believed to have asked the party to run the polling again, with fresh samples and a specific focus on Dunstan.

Labor sources say they haven’t polled Dunstan.

Without releasing full details of the polling questions, methodology and sample size, nobody should get carried away with reports of internal polling from either major party.

Without that, we’ve been flying blind in SA since the election in March 2022.

Is the duco dulling on Premier Peter Malinauskas – or Saint Peter as some disenchanted business people now dub him?

Or is he still motoring happily along?

As Tasmanian election expert Kevin Bonham observed: “This one will be interesting, especially as there hasn’t been a single quality poll of SA state voting since the 2022 state election.”

Speirs says the Liberals are the underdogs. Labor is barking up the same tree. The rising Green vote may prove tricky for both.

One Labor warhorse told me that at the declaration of the Dunstan poll after the March 2022 election, Marshall publicly and jokingly apologised to his staff for being “the worst Liberal candidate in the state”.

“The next Liberal candidate isn’t going to be the worst Liberal candidate in the state,” he said.

“If they put the whole of the resources of the Liberal Party into this by-election they’ll win.”

I’m not so sure.

While the Liberals are pitching this as a “referendum on ramping”, Speirs did his best to pull the rug out from under his own feet on ABC radio with Bevan on Monday.

Asked if he would promise to fix ramping, Speirs replied: “We will promise to try and make it better.”

“That’s not much of a poster is it?” Bevan said. “Vote for David Speirs, we’ll try and make it better”.

Sometime, almost certainly, maybe. Don’t you worry about that.

Matthew Abraham is InDaily’s political columnist. Matthew can be found on Twitter as @kevcorduroy. It’s a long story.

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