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Overruled: Crossbench flexes muscle over minority Marshall Govt

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UPDATED | The Marshall Government has suffered significant defeats in state parliament’s first votes since the Liberal Party lurched into minority government, with the crossbench joining with the Opposition to hijack the parliamentary agenda.

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Question Time is set to be extended by 15 minutes a day for the remainder of the parliamentary term, while the Government is facing an embarrassing inquiry into its contentious Mining legislation, after the burgeoning crossbench and Opposition flexed their collective muscle in a worrying sign for the Liberals.

It comes as a bid by Attorney-General Vickie Chapman to permanently entrench a suite of pandemic provisions in the state Emergency Services Act was last night thrown temporarily in the too-hard basket after dissent from the Government’s own MPs in a party-room meeting.

The Liberals lapsed into minority rule last month when backbencher Fraser Ellis announced at the close of the last sitting week he was suspending his party membership after an ICAC investigation saw him charged with alleged misuse of parliamentary entitlements.

He joins fellow former Liberals Sam Duluk and Troy Bell on the crossbench, both of whom similarly severed their ties with the Government after facing separate unrelated charges.

All three matters are yet to be resolved in court.

Just minutes after the parliamentary sitting week began this morning, the three ex-Liberal MPs joined with the Labor Opposition and independents Geoff Brock and Frances Bedford to send the Government a brutal political message, backing a long-shelved push to establish an inquiry into the state’s contentious mining act.

The motion, by Frome MP Brock, has been on the cards for more than a year, but was dramatically brought on as the first order of business as the Government got its first taste of life in minority rule.

When Brock rose to introduce a motion to establish a select committee into land access provisions for mining companies under the state Mining Act – whose fraught introduction had previously seen a handful of Liberal MPs cross the floor in opposition – Liberal Speaker Josh Teague called for a division.

The Government was defeated 24 votes to 22 in the 47-seat parliament, with leader of Opposition business Tom Koutsantonis declaring “a new era has dawned in this House… the Government does not command the majority of the House”.

Mining Minister and leader of Government business Dan van Holst Pellekaan slammed the move as “a pretty extraordinary stunt”, saying its proponents had sought to “impede the good work that this House has to do” when Brock’s motion was already scheduled for debate on Thursday.

However, Brock and Koutsantonis responded that the motion had been frequently adjourned when previously scheduled.

“The House is the master of its own destiny, and to have the manager of government business reflect on a vote of the house in that way is offensive to all members, especially regional members… who ask for nothing more than a select committee to investigate what it means for mining companies… to enter their freehold land,” Koutsantonis said.

Brock declared the move was “not a stunt on my part” but “an issue that’s been on the radar for a long period of time”.

“What I wanted to do was bring an issue to this chamber and have a full debate and have a conclusion today,” he said.

“We’ve seen lots of issues being deferred, and that’s very frustrating, to be quite frank about it.”

Brock’s inquiry was established, with further salt rubbed into the Government’s wound when he successfully stacked the committee with regional Liberals, including Ellis himself and Davenport MP Steve Murray, who had both previously crossed the floor against the minister’s Bill.

Former Labor independent Frances Bedford then successfully moved for Question Time to be extended by 15 minutes a day for the remainder of the parliamentary term to allow crossbenchers to ask more questions, saying they “should not be held to the beck and call of the whims of Question Time”.

The parliamentary hijack came as a surprise to Premier Steven Marshall, who told media just minutes before the sitting day began he didn’t anticipate issues with the crossbench.

“I think we’ve got a good agenda this week, and every member of the parliament is elected to act in the best interest of their electorate,” he said.

“We do have assurances of confidence and supply … so I don’t expect anything out of the ordinary this week.”

However, he notably tempered his rhetoric about Ellis’s political future, after he previously said the backbencher “is not a member of the Liberal Party, and you need to be a member of the Liberal Party to be a candidate for [his seat of] Narungga”.

Today, however, he said: “Obviously there’s a court appearance at the end of this month, and Fraser has made it clear he’ll be vigorously defending his position.”

“I [previously] said you’ve got to be a member of the Liberal Party to be a candidate, and at the moment he’s not a member of the Liberal Party [but] he’s quite confident he’ll be able to have that court appearance and clear up any issues… and it’s his intention to be able to get this matter cleaned up as quickly as possible and return to the Liberal Party.”

The party is facing its own issues within its ranks after a Bill to entrench various emergency powers was yesterday passed by cabinet, but raised alarm bells with some party-room MPs.

It’s understood further debate was delayed until the party-room next meets.

Marshall insisted  today: “I don’t think there was anything particularly out of the ordinary in the meeting.”

However, he noted, “there was a paper that went via cabinet to the joint party room that some people said, rather than deal with it at yesterday’s meeting, ‘we’ll just deal with it at the next meeting’ and that’s what we decided to do”.

One Liberal MP told InDaily the Government now expected a torrid time pushing forward with its political agenda.

“We’re now returning serve – not serving,” they said.

The formation of the mining select committee prompted a strong response from the industry, with Association of Mining and Exploration Companies CEO Warren Pearce saying the Opposition and crossbench had “created new uncertainty over future investment and growth in the South Australian mining and mineral exploration sector.”

“The Mining Act passed in 2019, and was a much-needed update to a 48-year old Act,” Pearce said in a statement.

“The update removed redundant red tape, streamlined processes, and introduced innovations such as a register of caveats, a mining rehabilitation fund and a modern approach to financial assurance.”

He noted that it “importantly” also ruled out “issues such as right of veto over land access, which would have created major uncertainty for the mining and exploration industry and threatened future investment in South Australia”.

“It is disappointing to see the former Mines Minister, [Koutsantonis] now leading the calls for this inquiry,” he said.

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