Can the Centre Alliance hold? Rexit prompts Liberals to eye remaining MPs

Reports point to an active recruitment exercise being spearheaded by the PM’s office following Rex Patrick’s departure

It’s the talk of South Australia – whether the Liberals will attempt to bring the two remaining Centre Alliance parliamentarians, Stirling Griff and Rebekha Sharkie, into the fold after the “Rexit” – the abrupt departure over the weekend of Rex Patrick, who plans to contest the next election as an independent.

Reports in the local media point to an active recruitment exercise being spearheaded by the prime minister’s office, including dangling the possibility of a ministry for Sharkie – which on the face of it seems unlikely, given the Coalition maintains the numbers in the House, and the offer of a ministry to an outsider would blow up the government party room.

Governing parties always appreciate an influx, more is better than less, but only if the price is right. Griff, who sits in the Senate, isn’t interested in fuelling the speculation. There have been sounding out texts from Liberals since Patrick cleared out. Another Senate number for the government would be useful, but Griff says there is nothing active happening.

But there’s a fun fact that hasn’t had much airplay. Griff hasn’t spoken to Morrison since he took the top job. Not a meeting. Not a cuppa. Not a call. The last time he saw Morrison, he held the treasury portfolio, which is now years ago.

Griff had regular conversations with Malcolm Turnbull when he was prime minister, and maintains a good relationship with Liberals in the Senate, particularly the government leader in the chamber, Mathias Cormann. “But up until this point I’ve never heard from, or met with, or had contact with Scott Morrison,” he says.

It seems surprising, given the capacity of Australian politics to deliver the odd upset, that Morrison doesn’t feel a need to massage crossbenchers in the Senate. When the parliament does sit, they very often decide whether government proposals succeed or fail. It will be interesting to see whether the change of circumstances prompts Morrison to pick up the phone, although Griff’s record as a parliamentarian suggests he likes his independence.

Griff, by disposition a small “l” liberal, was active in Liberal politics in his teens, but has been one of the driving forces behind Nick Xenophon’s political movement, which became Centre Alliance when Xenophon departed the scene.

Sharkie’s ties are more recent. She was a staffer for the Liberal party, working for Isobel Redmond, a former state leader, and for Jamie Briggs, who held Mayo before she took the federal seat as a member of the Xenophon squad.

Patrick worked for Xenophon before taking a position in the Senate, and like Xenophon, has a talent for seeking the spotlight. He announced over the weekend he was quitting the group. Patrick conveyed the news to his colleagues by telling Sharkie, who then got Griff on speakerphone.

Patrick told local media the split was largely for marketing reasons. In a statement he said: “It’s more important than ever that SA keeps a strong and independent voice in the Senate to ensure that our state isn’t taken for granted by the major federal political parties, which are all dominated by the political and economic interests of Australia’s eastern coast.”

He said he’d been pleased to collaborate with Griff and Sharkie, and felt that collaboration would continue. “However I have concluded that in seeking to continue to represent SA, and to ensure that our state’s Senate representation includes a voice from the political centre – the best way forward for me is to strike an independent path.”

There is an expectation in the Senate that Patrick will seek to form a new bloc with the Tasmanian independent Jacqui Lambie. At one level, the split diminishes the influence of the South Australia bloc in Senate votes, but at another level it makes both Patrick and Griff swing votes once the parliament resumes on 24 August.


Katharine Murphy Political editor

The GuardianTramp

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