Mike Smithson: Inside Alex Antic’s South Australian Liberal revolt against shadow minister Anne Ruston

Mike Smithson
The Nightly
Alex Antic has been behind a conservative shift in South Australia's Libs.
Alex Antic has been behind a conservative shift in South Australia's Libs. Credit: Thomas La Verghetta/The Nightly

South Australia has long been a muscle-flexing battle ground for federal politics and that’s not likely to change any time soon.

Heavy hitters from all sides of politics still call the festival state home as they regularly board their flights to Canberra.

SA has always punched above its weight with the likes of Penny Wong, Don Farrell, Simon Birmingham, Anne Ruston, Sarah Hanson-Young and more recently Alex Antic all prominent on senate benches.

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Throw in Mark Butler, currently one the most influential government ministers, and Liberal Tony Pasin and it’s a potent representation.

Before them, the names of Downer, Pyne and Stott-Despoja were no slouches either.

But a week’s a long time in politics and there have been many turbulent weeks in the workings of these political machines, with more than an odd spanner in the works.

In recent weeks, some SA Liberals have been keeping a lid on their rising anger.

It came to a head in March when Alex Antic and his conservative power base launched an audacious bid to unseat former Morrison government minister, now shadow minister, Anne Ruston from the top spot on the Liberal senate ticket for the upcoming federal election.

It was roundly condemned as a bad look by many within the moderate faction.

But the Antic forces clearly didn’t give two hoots and the reason is clear.

Antic has been on a membership recruitment drive for more than a year.

He’d tapped into the so-called bible-belt across Adelaide with a philosophy of moving back to the party’s true conservative roots.

Let’s face it, moving to the political centre is just where Labor wants them, making it sometimes hard to differentiate between the major parties, thus giving the Greens a stronger presence.

But more on that later.

Antic’s uncompromising jostle for top spot on the ticket was a put-down for Ruston and appeared to be the demotion of a hard-working and successful female – which it was.

But as John Howard always said: count the numbers.

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 24: Minister for Families and Social Services Anne Ruston during a press conference at Parliament House on March 24, 2020 in Canberra, Australia. There are now 1879 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Australia and the death toll now stands at seven. (Photo by Sam Mooy/Getty Images)
Former Minister for Families and Social Services Anne Ruston at Parliament House in 2020. Credit: Sam Mooy/Getty Images

That’s what Antic did and promptly moved up the batting order.

I know Antic quite well away from politics.

It wasn’t that long ago when he first ran for the senate, as third on the ticket, that he had real doubts about getting across the line.

At the time, I predicted he would because I considered his time had come.

He did, but only by a whisker in 2019. Subsequently thought I was some sort of political visionary, which I certainly am not.

But there are valuable political lessons he and others can learn about making enemies and keeping friends in politics.

Master tactician (aka Labor Godfather) Don Farrell did the same to Penny Wong, taking her top of the ticket positioning 12 years ago.

Under enormous pressure, including from Anthony Albanese, he then decided better of it and handed the number one spot back to her, subsequently losing his prized senate seat at the next election.

He bided his time and was able to make another tilt at being elected next time around. Now they both happily occupy the government benches as senior Labor ministers and ‘frenemies’.

However, I don’t consider Antic has the appetite to mend the same bridges with Ruston.

This firebrand can go much further in the party and he, and others, know it.

But what’s left for the SA Liberals?

James Stevens is completing his second term in the blue-ribbon eastern suburbs seat of Sturt.

It was the domain of Christopher Pyne for 26 years.

Pyne’s flamboyance and influence guaranteed he remained the sitting member for as long as he wanted, albeit with the odd scare.

Stevens is a smart operator, but he’s no Pyne in terms of profile, influence, or chutzpah.

The Greens give themselves a real chance in Sturt, having just out-performed expectations in the recent Dunstan state by-election with a 5.5 per cent swing.

Sturt encompasses that state seat and the same Greens candidate, Katie McCusker, is running again, hoping for an even better result in the upcoming federal poll.

No surprises there.

The Libs hold it by just 0.5 per cent.

Another sleeper in the mix, but not this time around, is a possible move by SA Premier Peter Malinauskas into federal politics.

If he’s seeking a House of Representatives spot, the jewel in the crown seat of Adelaide seems ready and waiting when Labor veteran Steve Georganas calls it a day.

Mike Smithson is Chief Reporter and Presenter for 7NEWS Adelaide.

He covered state politics for 25 years and has also been heavily involved in reporting federal politics, having interviewed every Prime Minister since Malcolm Fraser.

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