— The prominent anthropologist and author Diane Bell will seek to wrest the South Australian electorate of Mayo from the Liberal Party at next month’s by-election forced by the resignation of former foreign minister Alexander Downer.
Dr Bell, who as an expert witness backed local indigenous women in the “secret women’s business” case at the mouth of the Murray River in the 1990s, lives in the electorate that encompasses the crisis-racked lower lakes region.
She said yesterday she had been drafted by an anxious and angry local community to run as an independent to fight for the Murray. She will be one of two independents in the race for Mayo: local Adelaide Hills councillor Bill Spragg will also nominate after running for the seat in 2001.
Labor will not contest what it considers to be a safe Liberal electorate, leaving former Howard government staffer Jamie Briggs to defend Mayo against the Greens, Democrats, Family First and the two independents.
Dr Bell told The Australian yesterday that the lack of a Labor candidate, the departure of a long-serving MP and his unknown Liberal replacement left room for an independent to snare the seat.
“This is not a safe Liberal seat,” she said. “The demography is changing, (and there is) a lot of anger and anxiety in the community. People are not happy that there was an election only last November and we are back to the polls.”
Mr Downer won the seat at the last election with a 7.1 per cent margin after a 6.5 per cent swing against him.
The former Deakin University professor and professor emeritus of anthropology at George Washington University in the US retired several years ago to live by the Finniss River, which drains into South Australia’s lower lakes.
It was at nearby Hindmarsh Island in the mid to late 1990s that she supported local Ngarrindjeri women who fought against the construction of a bridge to the island in what became known as the “secret women’s business” case.
A Royal Commission found the “secrets” had been fabricated, but a subsequent Federal Court decision found the Ngarrindjeri women were telling the truth.
Dr Bell wrote an acclaimed, award-winning book on the Ngarrindjeri people and their history.
When a weir was first mooted as a last-ditch means to cut the Murray River off from the declining water quality of its lower lakes, Dr Bell joined the fight against it. She said the looming by-election was an opportunity for voters to show their concern. “I could not let this go and watch the major river system of Australia die,” she said yesterday.
“Mayo has a chance to say to Canberra we will not allow this river to die on our watch. We will not be the electorate that had the chance to say something and wasn’t heard.”
Mr Spragg said an independent could win Mayo. “My sense is that there are a lot of Liberals that are unhappy with the choice of Briggs as a candidate,” he said.
“They see him as a staffer that has come out of Canberra, being opportunist and trying to get a safe seat. I think disenchanted Liberals might look to an independent.”