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Crossbench raises doubts over ALP inquiry after Digance arrest

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Attorney-General Vickie Chapman is forging ahead with plans for a parliamentary inquiry into allegations of Labor Party bullying – despite the ex-MP at the centre of the claims being charged with blackmail and crossbench MPs warning the inquiry could prejudice court proceedings.

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Former Labor MP for Elder Annabel Digance and her businessman husband Greg yesterday appeared in court charged with trying to blackmail Opposition Leader Peter Malinauskas.

Charges submitted to the Adelaide Magistrates Court by police allege that “between the 12th day of February 2020 and the 28th day of March 2020” the pair “menaced Peter Bryden Malinauskas intending to get him to submit to a demand”.

Last month, Chapman moved to establish a parliamentary select committee to inquire into allegations made by Annabel.

Digance said that she was the victim of bullying and intimidation by the Labor Party after it distributed a leaflet widely condemned as “racist” to Elder voters ahead of the 2014 election.

The select committee, which is yet to be appointed members, will also inquire into “any other matter relevant to the (leaflet’s) publication”.

Chapman told reporters yesterday after the Digances were charged that she had spoken to Annabel “about her concerns in relation to the public statements that she’s made”.

She insisted the select committee would go ahead, saying it was “in relation to the 2014 election campaign conduct” and while there may be “some potion [of the committee] that’s relevant in relation to the current charges”, it was “entirely a matter for the committee as to when they progress that”.

Chapman said on ABC Radio Adelaide this morning that the 2014 election flyer and the charges against the Digances were “distinct events” and parliament “must know what the standard is going to be for the 2022 election”.

“The parliamentary inquiry relates to the publication in 2014,” she said.

“Anyone who may be called to give evidence at the select committee, of course, can get legal advice… if it were to impinge on any events from last year.”

Chapman said it would be up to the committee to decide whether Annabel Digance should be called to give evidence.

She said she had not sought advice from the Director of Public Prosecutions about whether the inquiry should go ahead.

Malinauskas told ABC Radio that the establishment of the select committee was “entirely political in nature” and Chapman needed to explain how it could start investigating given the charges.

But he stopped short of saying the inquiry needed to be suspended until the prosecution of the Digances had ended, saying Labor needed to seek legal advice before forming a position.

“It’s almost unprecedented for the government to use its parliamentary majority to set up a political inquiry into the opposition,” he said.

“Now we find out Ms Chapman has been in contact with Ms Digance regarding that inquiry, that Ms Digance was clearly going to be a star witness in that inquiry and it so turns out that Ms Digance has been charged with a major indictable offence.

“I would have thought the first law officer of the state more than anyone would want to be making sure that nothing is done that could prejudice that court proceeding.”

Independent MPs Troy Bell and Geoff Brock, who both abstained from voting to establish the select committee, have called for inquiry to be suspended.

Bell told ABC Radio that it was “perhaps prudent to go back and see if the will of the House is still there to establish this committee”.

“My personal point of view is the judicial system has to take priority,” he said.

Bell added that the 2014 Elder election campaign was “one of the most disgusting campaigns” and “those responsible should be held to account and not only held to account, they should be ashamed and embarrassed by their involvement”.

Ex-Liberal MP Sam Duluk, whose vote in support of establishing the select committee won the Liberals the majority, also expressed caution.

He told InDaily it “would be prudent for parliament to consider the future suitability of (the) select committee given recent allegations before the courts”.

But fellow crossbenchers Francis Bedford, who voted against the establishment of the committee and Fraser Ellis, who abstained from voting, said they were yet to form a view.

Bedford said MPs needed to “have a very serious look at the terms of reference and look at both sides of parliament – both the major parties”.

“The Habib flyer inquiry to me is one issue and the other issue is problems with preselections on both sides of parliament,” she said.

Ellis said he was “more interested in parliament spending time doing things that impact the lives of people in our electorates rather than playing games”.

The charge against the Digances is a major indictable offence and relates to an alleged attempt by the couple to restart Annabel’s political career, after she lost her seat to Liberal Carolyn Habib (now Power) in 2018.

The couple was released on bail with Magistrate John Wells accepting that special circumstances existed, although those circumstances were not disclosed.

Their bail conditions include that they have no contact with Malinauskas, surrender their passports and that they each lodge a $5000 surety with the court in cash.

The pair were ordered to return to court in June.

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