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Country MP expenses furore begets a week of cabinet bloodletting

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A government-rocking political scandal was probably not part of Steven Marshall’s plan to restore a sense of pre-pandemic normalcy to South Australia. So what’s the go with the country members’ allowance?

Today Premier Steven Marshall revealed a hastily arranged cabinet reshuffle triggered by the resignations of three ministers and the president of the Legislative Council on Sunday, as the state government attempts to stem the political damage over allegations of claimed entitlements by country members.

Just in case you’ve tuned out all government announcements that aren’t related to borders, Victorians and football matches, this whole chapter began in June with ABC Adelaide’s Patrick Martin and Nick Harmsen publishing a long-running investigation raising questions about Liberal MP and Upper House president Terry Stephens’ use of the country members accommodation allowance, a payment with limited reporting or oversight outside of parliament itself.

The allowance provides for members whose primary residence is 75 kilometres from the GPO (not Parliament House, for some reason) to be reimbursed for accommodation expenses occurred in making the commute. A provision that, on the face of it, is not entirely unreasonable if we don’t want our parliament to be entirely composed of people residing in metropolitan Adelaide.

The weird thing was, Stephens seemed to be spending an awful lot of time at a house he owned in Norwood, while the Victor Harbor property he once listed as his primary residence appeared on a real estate website for sale with an existing tenant – and also appeared to have been previously rented out as a short-stay holiday rental. After selling that flat, he was now registered as living in another unit in the same complex, rented from a friend. Stephens denied wrongdoing, but committed to releasing records of the allowance to clarify any confusion.

But, like former Greens senator and surprise dual citizen MP Scott Ludlam, Stephens was simply patient zero as the release of a decade’s worth of documentation around the allowance saw more high-profile country MPs drawn into a growing scandal. Then-Transport Minister Stephan Knoll appeared to have claimed the $230-per-night payment while staying at his parents’ house in the city, sometimes at the same time he was on the books as engaging in taxpayer-funded regional travel. Then-Primary Industries Minister Tim Whetstone had claimed the allowance on dates he was actually on a $32,000 study trip to the US. The pair, along with backbencher Fraser Ellis, pre-emptively repaid tens of thousands of dollars to clear the air.

And how is that nice, clean air?

Last week, Trade Minister David Ridgway admitted that while in opposition four years ago, he signed blank timesheets to allow his chauffeur to ferry other MPs while he was away on holiday – the kind of payroll fudging that, if performed by the teenage manager of a local fast food franchise, might just have them shown the door.

Attempts to spread the damage across the aisle saw the premier’s office point out that Labor MP Clare Scriven had claimed the allowance on same night as the St Vincent de Paul CEO Sleepout in 2018. While booking a taxpayer-funded hotel room after attending an event that raises money and awareness by inviting the rich and powerful to experience a taste of homelessness for just one night certainly carries a bleak irony, it does not seem to have landed in quite the same way as the $70,000 repaid dollars.

A rather painful ABC Adelaide radio interview in which Knoll attempted to justify his repayment of $29,000 while claiming no deliberate wrongdoing had occurred and refusing to describe the “range of expenses” incurred while crashing at his parents’ house, had the opposite effect. His insistence that it wasn’t about the money, and he would not take the repaid money back even if cleared, raised deeper questions.

Is this allowance, a significant whack of money for most South Australians, actually necessary for these MPs to perform their jobs without having to move to the city, or is it being treated as free money? Even voters who understand and support the principle of financially supporting country members might baulk at the prospect of taxpayers paying the mortgage on an MP’s second home – or a mate’s investment property

Perhaps more pressingly, if these amounts of money are too small an amount to invite a basic level of curiosity regarding ‘ambiguities’ in the rules before making claims, how can voters trust them to responsibly administer even more vast sums of public money?

After ICAC Commissioner the Hon Bruce Lander QC announced an investigation on Thursday, it all came to a head over the weekend with Knoll, Whetstone, Ridgway and Stephens all stepping down on Sunday.

For Knoll, at least, the weekend’s head-rolling may come as sweet relief following months of unedifying appearances in the press, from his long-in-development, swiftly spiked public transport laws, to the rollout of contentious planning reforms set in motion by the former Labor government.

In the wake of their departures, Marshall today announced a hasty cabinet reshuffle. Knoll’s former DPTI patch has been carved up, with Attorney-General Vicki Chapman taking over Planning and Local Government, while Corey Wingard has taken over Infrastructure and Transport. Lower House speaker Vincent Tarzia will step down from the big chair to join the cabinet, picking up Wingard’s former portfolio of Police, Emergency Services and Corrections, while Finnis MP David Basham and Morphett MP Stephen Patterson join the ministry with Primary Industries and Regional Development, and Trade and Investment, respectively.

Asked whether regionally-based member Basham has a clean record for allowance claims, Marshall offered a flat, “very confident”.

On the one-month anniversary of the ABC’s original story, Marshall evidently hopes to put this “distraction” behind him, despite the likely long-term implications it will have for the dumped ministers’ departments and the inner workings of his party room. None of which is particularly welcome as the state government tries to balance the simultaneous loosening of local restrictions, and tightening of our eastern borders to visitors and South Australian residents to avoid Victoria’s second wave spreading here.

As for the members in question, they’ll be able to enjoy a reprieve from the demands of their previous roles, and spend the downtime relaxing at home – wherever that actually is. Meanwhile, the rest of Australia looks on with a kind of misty-eyed nostalgia for a time when these kinds of political shame spirals, rather than rising pandemic curves, were topping news bulletins:

Update: Hammond MP Adrian Pederick has since stood down from his post as government whip after fresh questions were raised about his properties in the Adelaide Hills and Coomandook.

Walter Marsh

Walter Marsh

Digital Editor
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Walter is a writer, editor and broadcaster living on Kaurna Country.

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