Adelaide was roiled this week by the spectacle of Deputy Premier and Attorney-General, Vickie Chapman, refusing to stand down after losing a vote of confidence in the lower house – a first in the state’s history — drawing the newly appointed Governor, former DFAT head Frances Adamson, into an escalating constitutional imbroglio.
But Ms Chapman, a long-time leader of the moderate faction of the Liberal party, which has held sway for more than a decade, isn’t budging and continues to enjoy the backing of Premier and factional ally, Steven Marshall.
Dramatic scenes in parliament on Thursday saw the Government first lose a vote of no confidence in Ms Chapman and then turn around and win a vote to suspend parliament for the next five months, until after the looming election in March.
The suspension of parliament was widely seen as a desperate act of self-preservation, which allowed Ms Chapman to escape formal censure in the lower house, following a scathing parliamentary committee finding that she had a conflict of interest when she, as Planning Minister, blocked a $40 million port project on her native Kangaroo Island, south of Adelaide.
But the suspension was soon reversed, late on Thursday, when former Liberal MP, and factional opponent of Ms Chapman, Sam Duluk MP, switched sides in a later motion brought by Labor, ensuring parliament will resume on 30 November.
Mr Duluk’s decision to switch sides was likely influenced by a torrent of vitriol pouring onto the ABC radio drive program in real-time, lambasting the Government’s move to suspend parliament as “disgusting”, “despicable”, “anti-democratic” and “really, really upsetting”.
If Ms Chapman’s ministerial career survives until 30 November, she can expect motions to censure her for misleading parliament and a likely suspension from the chamber.
Ms Chapman, a barrister and former Liberal leadership contender, has a long way to fall.
The daughter of former break-away Liberal moderate Ted Chapman, Ms Chapman is a key ally of the Premier and has helped to lead legislative assaults, during the Marshall Government’s first term, overturning long-held moral and legal prohibitions on late-term abortion and euthanasia, sparking a widespread backlash from conservative MPs, and voters, ahead of the next state election in March.
But for many South Australians, the sight of the state’s chief law officer blithely ignoring the findings of a parliamentary committee and a parliamentary vote of no confidence, is the new normal, given the truly terrible depths plumbed by the entire parliament back in September.
One used to hear tell that Adelaide was the “Athens of the South”, because of the city’s founding commitment to democracy, its highly educated elite and its ‘Mediterranean’ climate.
But following the debacle in September, Adelaide is better called the “Beirut of the South”.
Beirut, Lebanon is well known for its crippling corruption, but what many don’t know is that its elected parliamentarians enjoy legal immunity from prosecution.
It’s written into the Lebanese constitution.
Incredible as it may seem, Adelaide has now joined Beirut, after the entire parliament, all 47 lower house and 22 upper house MPs, voted to gut the state’s anti-corruption watchdog, the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC).
Thanks to the state’s MPs, the ICAC can no longer investigate MPs for maladministration and misconduct offences.
The move, unprecedented in any Australian jurisdiction, came after a string of embarrassing revelations, revealed largely by ABC News, of Liberal MPs allegedly systematically fiddling their books, claiming parliamentary allowances they shouldn’t have, sometimes to the tune of tens of thousands of taxpayers’ dollars.
The alleged corruption was so serious it has led to criminal charges against two MPs and the resignations of several ministers.
The bipartisan move by the parliament to place itself beyond the scrutiny of the corruption watchdog was a gut-punch to the democratic culture of South Australia, which historically has been deeply planted.
Truly, a parliament chosen from the Adelaide phone book might easily have done better.
Pulling the camera back, three-and-a-half years into Mr Marshall’s term as Premier, the debacle in September should be seen amid a mounting number of truly provocative developments, under this Liberal government.
Many South Australians who voted for Mr Marshall will be reasonably asking: “Steven, we hardly knew you”.
The most obvious sign for voters, that Mr Marshall wasn’t quite what he seemed to be, was his government’s shepherding through parliament of two highly contentious and extreme social measures in the past year.
Passing these measures would have been a significant achievement for the Labor Left or the Greens.
So seeing them passed on the watch of a Liberal government has been a sudden awakening for many South Australians.
The first law now makes it much easier to abort the life of an unborn human being throughout the second and third trimesters of pregnancy – technically, right up to birth, under the new law (conversely, South Australia has no ‘born-alive’ law, meaning the several babies who survive partial-birth abortions each year are left to die).
The second will see the South Australian government regulate and permit the ending of a person’s life prematurely, with introduction of euthanasia into South Australia for the first time.
Premier Marshall and Deputy Premier Chapman voted in support of both controversial measures.
The passage of the abortion and euthanasia laws quickly lit a fire under conservatives, contributing to several defections from the Liberal Party, destabilising the Government, as well as the relaunch of the Family First party, under the leadership of strong Catholics and former Labor state ministers, Jack Snelling and Tom Kenyon.
One former Liberal MP who left following the passage of the two laws, the young and bright member for Kavel in the Adelaide Hills, Dan Cregan, pulled off something of a coup: walking out of a party which had largely ignored his safe Liberal seat, then walking into the job of Speaker of the lower house, thanks to the support of Labor and the crossbench.
During the heady days of the parliament’s consideration of the abortion and euthanasia bills, Mr Cregan carefully laid out his opposition to the measures, without rancour and in the pages of the Mount Barker Courier, and then voted against both.
This week, in an ironic twist, the now independent Mr Cregan presided over the motion that delivered no confidence in Ms Chapman, a key backer of the extreme measures he and many of his constituents opposed.
The rising conservative backlash may yet make the re-election of a Marshall government next March very difficult.
But for now, this week has left many South Australians aghast, as scandal engulfs Ms Chapman and taints the Premier.
As clearly made out by the Parliamentary Committee, Ms Chapman failed to recuse herself from a planning decision on whether a $40 million timber port development was to go ahead on her native Kangaroo Island. Ms Chapman owns a house across the road from a forest that would have been logged, as part of the development.
Despite planning bureaucrats preparing the paperwork for recusal, Ms Chapman denied she had a conflict of interest and then went on to block the development.
Her lawyer this week filed a submission with the Committee asserting there was “no reliable evidence” of a conflict of interest, because of the alleged bias of members of the committee, made up of two Labor, two Liberal and one independent MP.
Mr Marshall too, has labelled the Parliamentary Committee a “Kangaroo Court”.
The good burghers of Adelaide will this weekend be muttering darkly about the potential for a constitutional crisis, drawing in newly appointed Governor, Frances Adamson AC.
The veteran Australian diplomat, who as Ambassador in Beijing looked into the whites of the eyes of China’s leaders, and is the immediate former secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, may be unexpectedly busy in the days ahead.
On her return to Adelaide after a 35-year career outside the state, Adamson, along with many South Australians, may well be asking: from where has the state come and to where it is headed, under the Marshall Government?
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