So anyway, there’s been a massive reshuffle of the Marshall government’s ministry and—no wait, come back this is worth it, I promise!
I get it. Dear reader, you have heard so much in recent times about sports rorts and regional development rorts and infrastructure rorts and environmental grants to shady Reef charities and money promised for bushfires that never appeared and money promised for arts which hasn’t materialised. You have long since tuned it all out because we have a finite number of hours in the day to scream impotently to the indifferent skies about the people entrusted with running our nation. So it’s entirely reasonable that the story of how several bland men were tsked at for questionable propriety regarding a few thousand dollars’ worth of allowances might barely raise a hurrumph.
First it was then-President of the Legislative Council, Terry Stephens, who appeared to be claiming the country members’ allowance for his commute to and from Victor Harbor despite seemingly living in Norwood.
And then suddenly then-Infrastructure Minister Stephan Knoll, then-Primary Industries Minister Tim Whetstone, then-Trade Minister David Ridgway and still-backbencher Fraser Ellis similarly discovered that – whoops! – they too had made some completely understandable mistakes about where they actually lived and travelled from/to, and how their allowances should be calculated.
And yes, it was announced that monies would be paid back without anyone admitting anything more serious than lamentable carelessness in filling out forms, and all of the frontbenchers were either relieved of or stood down from their ministries. However, none of them lost their seats or are likely to even face significant roadblocks to their future return to the ministry – despite being from the side of politics who like to talk about Ending The Age Of Entitlement and Lifters Not Leaners and Have A Go To Get A Go Something Something Mutual Obligation Something Robodebt.
And that’s hardly a surprise, since there’s already been two difficult expulsions from the state Liberal party room in recent times. Mount Gambier’s MP Troy Bell was kicked out of the party after being charged with theft and dishonestly dealing with documents in 2017 and then won his seat again as an independent, while Sam Duluk was expelled earlier this year over drunken behaviour at the parliamentary Christmas party but still holds the seat of Waite as an independent. Kick too many more MPs out and things start to move into minority government territory.
You might be rolling your eyes about how this is just more evidence of how politicians are just out for themselves and simply can’t be trusted. And without putting too fine a point on it, that’s a larger message our Premier Steven Marshall and PM Scott Morrison would very much like you to adopt: that ‘government’ is a bit of a joke and we should just stop expecting anything of them.
Morrison and Marshall have both been adept at taking credit for some things while assiduously assigning blame elsewhere. And why wouldn’t they? Look at Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, who has foolishly taken responsibility for the horrifying second wave of coronavirus in his state – and what good has it done him?
What’s more, the disgraced MPs know they’re unlikely to be held to account at the ballot box. After all, the election’s a ways down the track and voter memories are not that long.
What’s more, the MPs involved are anonymously interchangeable men all designed to the template marked “Standard Bank Branch Manager #2” – their own families couldn’t pick them in a lineup. In any case, Ridgway was #1 on the upper house ballot last election, while all the lower house MPs hold regional seats which range from safe Liberal to This Seat Was Bequeathed To My Family At Federation And I Am The Current Marquis.
In fact, with all regional seats held by safe margins, there’s not exactly any great incentive for members to do anything they don’t wanna – including, as it turns out, living in the electorate for which they’re claiming allowances.
And this is a problem because right now, of all nows, we need all levels of government to be a trusted authority. Our representatives need to be seen to be looking out for their constituents at a time when no amount of personal responsibility and up-by-one’s-bootstraps-pulling could save the thousands of people freshly unemployed because of a virus that’s ended entire industries. This is not easy for a party historically better at scolding people for falling than providing them with a safe place to land.
The flip side is that the government also needs us to feel like we can trust them as responsible leaders and not a bunch of chancers padding their expense reports.
Now should be the time when our elected representatives take their oaths of office very, very seriously – and if they can’t, we should replace them with people that do. Our lives literally depend on it.
Andrew P Street is a freelance writer whose books include The Short And Excruciatingly Embarrassing Reign Of Captain Abbott (2015) and The Long And Winding Way To The Top (2017).
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