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South Australian politics is experiencing some high drama just four months out from a state election, writes Principal Consultant Ben Hindmarsh.

Conventional wisdom would dictate that the Premier of a state that has enjoyed the least days of lockdown and some of the greatest COVID freedoms over the past two years would be coasting into the March 2022 election. But there’s nothing conventional about contemporary SA politics.

In its penultimate week of sitting for the four-year term, State Parliament descended into chaos, with members of the crossbench joining Labor to administer unprecedented pain on the Marshall Liberal Government. 

For the first time in SA’s history, the lower house successfully passed a no-confidence motion in a Minister of the Crown, the Deputy Premier Vickie Chapman.  A move that witnessed two former Liberals, now independents, back the motion against their former Party.

The motion followed the release of a parliamentary committee report that found the Deputy Premier had misled parliament by not disclosing ownership of a property that she inherited near a proposed Kangaroo Island seaport project that was rejected while she was Planning Minister.  It should be noted that the parliamentary committee was made up of a majority of Labor and independent members.  The two Liberal members of the committee issued a dissenting report that rejected these findings.

Labor and crossbenchers have subsequently called for the Deputy Premier to resign her ministry.

The Deputy Premier has been defiant and has refused to resign.  On Sunday night at the conclusion of the week amidst reported threats of a no-confidence motion in the overall government being put to state parliament, the Deputy Premier conceded somewhat and agreed to ‘stand aside’ while a separate (and independent) Ombudsman’s review of the matter takes place.

The question is – will this be enough to break the parliamentary stalemate?

It might be helpful to recap on how things got to this. At the 2018 state election, the Marshall Liberal Opposition ended 16 years of Labor Government in SA and formed a two-seat majority government holding 25 out of the 47 seats.  Labor won 19 seats and the independents took three. By February 2021, the Liberal’s two seat majority had evaporated, and they slipped into minority with two backbenchers having moved to the cross bench as independents in the preceding year over separate issues.

Then in October, Adelaide Hills Liberal MP, Dan Cregan, having earlier said he would resign at the next election, made an about face and decided to go independent. 

This move effectively handed control of State Parliament to the crossbench.  And they didn’t waste their time. Almost immediately legislation was put and passed in state parliament that enshrined the independence of the Speaker of the House.  With this the sitting Liberal Speaker Josh Teague was then overthrown and elected in his place was none other than former colleague and newly minted independent Dan Cregan.

Cregan then sided with Labor and enough of the crossbench independents to initiate the parliamentary committee of inquiry to investigate the Deputy Premier, which reported this week and resulted in the motion of no-confidence.

What happens next is uncertain. 

The Government attempted to adjourn Parliament for the remainder of the term, but this was rejected, which means that government members will be forced back for up to another three days to face a potentially rampant and unpredictable crossbench.

The Deputy Premier still risks facing suspension from Parliament in this last sitting week, which would further reduce the Government’s numbers.

Meanwhile, Speaker Dan Cregan has had an audience with the Governor to seek the Deputy Premier’s resignation.  Given the Governor appoints the ministry based on the Premier’s recommendation, this move is unlikely to succeed.

Therefore, these games could likely continue for the remainder of sitting days without a resolution but causing further chaos.  All this with the election just months away on the 19th March 2022.

One thing is for certain, the Premier will be counting down the minutes and seconds until the end of parliamentary sittings so that he can get back to talking up his government’s enviable COVID record and growing the SA economy and jobs.

Until then – expect more political high drama down in South Oz.

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