The Advertiser – Centre Alliance MPs Rebekha Sharkie and Stirling Griff targeted for recruitment by senior Liberals13 August 2020
PAUL STARICK, CLAIRE BICKERS, MATT SMITH
The Liberal Party may pull the trigger on a bid to snap up Centre Alliance duo Rebekha Sharkie and Stirling Griff within weeks.
An offer could be made for the pair to join the Liberal Party in a fortnight’s time when politicians return to Canberra for a sitting week, sources told The Advertiser.
It is expected they will be wooed in talks with senior party figures, with a future ministry floated as an enticement for Ms Sharkie if she rises through the ranks down the line.
Bringing Ms Sharkie and Senator Griff across would be a political win for Scott Morrison, which would boost his slim majority in the House of Representatives and secure another vote in the Senate, making it easier to pass legislation.
An online poll for advertiser.com.au, with 1338 votes as of Wednesday night, showed a majority (55 per cent) supported the Centre Alliance MPs joining the Liberals.
But the Liberal Party should be trying to win back the Adelaide Hills seat of Mayo, not circling to snap up Rebekha Sharkie, an SA Liberal senator says.
Alex Antic has hit out at moves within his own party to convince Ms Sharkie and her Centre Alliance colleague Stirling Griff to join Liberal ranks.
“It is my view that the Liberal Party should be striving to win Mayo off our own boot with our own candidate,” Senator Antic said.
“The membership in Mayo should decide who holds our values and who is selected to stand.”
Any bid to convince Ms Sharkie to join the party would disenfranchise rank and file members, he said.
Senator Antic, who was elected to represent SA in the Senate in 2019, also said Centre Alliance’s voting patterns in Parliament showed their values did not align with the party.
Trade Minister Simon Birmingham, the state’s most senior federal Liberal, did not comment on talk of a push within the party to snap up both Ms Sharkie and Senator Griff.
“I respect both Stirling and Rebekha, and enjoy a good working relationship with them,” Senator Birmingham said.
“I see they’ve both dismissed the speculation and see little point in adding to it.”
The Advertiser reported on Tuesday that a bid to convince Ms Sharkie and Senator Griff to join the Liberals had been launched at the party’s highest levels.
Senior Liberal sources say the talks are being directed by Prime Minister Scott Morrison and those involved have aired the prospect of a future ministry for Ms Sharkie.
Recruiting Senator Griff, a former Australian Retailers Association state chief, would recast crucial Senate numbers and make the Federal Government’s task of passing legislation easier.
The Liberal pitch to both Ms Sharkie and Senator Griff is that Centre Alliance’s electoral support has evaporated and they can achieve more for the state in a major party.
It follows the resignation of Senator Rex Patrick from the party, as revealed by The Advertiser on Monday.
Before entering parliament, Ms Sharkie was a staffer for former state Liberal leader Isobel Redmond and also for her Liberal predecessor in Mayo, Jamie Briggs.
Senator Griff is rated highly by the Liberals, who consider the former operator of a retail telecommunications business shares many similar policy positions, particularly on the economic front.
It is understood Mr Morrison has not been directly involved in talks and has not had conversations with either Ms Sharkie or Senator Griff – and a ministry would not be offered to either simply for joining the party.
One senior Liberal said the argument to Ms Sharkie was that she would never be a minister while in Centre Alliance or as an independent, yet could achieve that position and more for her electorate as a Liberal.
Comment is being sought from Mr Morrison’s office.
The Liberals made a failed bid to return Ms Sharkie to the party ahead of a Mayo by-election in mid-2018, forced by her resignation over citizenship issues.
But those talks collapsed when branch members spurned the bid to return Ms Sharkie to Liberal ranks.
They preferred future Mayo Liberal candidate Georgina Downer, whose father Alexander, a former federal Liberal leader, held that seat from 1984 to 2008.
Liberal sources said the previous bid ebbed after Ms Sharkie demanded a ministry, which was not offered, and to be declared the party candidate without facing a preselection ballot, which was not agreed.
Senator Griff said he received offers “all the time”, from both Liberal and Labor MPs.
“We all get little offers in jest,” he said.
“Mostly they’re flippant comments. I haven’t received anything formal. We’re not involved in any formal conversations.
“There’s always something that someone will say on something they’d like to happen.”
Senator Griff said if any official offer was made, it would have to be in writing, and Centre Alliance would then discuss it and respond as a party.
When asked this morning, before Liberal talks surfaced, Ms Sharkie said she remained a member of Centre Alliance.
“Stirling and I have been colleagues and friends for five years, four as elected members, and I have no intention of walking away from that,” she told The Advertiser.
“We both believe that the best way forward is to keep Centre Alliance with one member in the Lower House and one member in the Senate.
“Nothing has changed in the Senate with respect to government negotiations.
“The government still needs three crossbench senators to pass contentious legislation.
“Stirling and I have worked extremely hard to build constructive relationships with the government.
“We are confident that these relationships will be maintained if not strengthened.”
Opposition Senate Leader and SA Senator Penny Wong said: “I can’t see why Rebekha would give up her reputation as a hard working independent. South Australians would be shocked if Rebekha and Stirling joined the Liberal Party they have campaigned so strongly against.”
Sources have told The Advertiser some Liberal faithful, who helped in previous campaigns to oust Ms Sharkie, would not be impressed with any move to catapult her back into the Liberal Party.
South Australia’s newest Senator, Liberal Andrew McLachlan, who won a spirited factional battle to fill the seat left vacant following the resignation of Cory Bernardi, has been spending significant amounts of time in the electorate of Mayo.
Highlighting the interest in getting a Liberal presence back into Mayo, Senator McLachlan has applied to have an electorate office in Mount Barker.
The office, a stone’s throw from Ms Sharkie’s, would be the first time the Liberals have had any electorate office in the town since Mr Briggs lost his seat in the 2016 federal election to Ms Sharkie.
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