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'Ridiculous decision': MPs fuming as parliament sits

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A takeover bid by the Liberal Party’s conservative faction and a lavish farewell for outgoing Governor Hieu Van Le have been put on ice as South Australia plunges into lockdown, but state parliament continued to sit today – sparking outrage from some MPs.

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Two major Liberal functions were scheduled to take place this week, with ballots to install new presidents for the party’s Women’s Council and the Young Liberals.

Both have been cancelled as a new COVID outbreak forces SA into its second lockdown in the past year – which could also see next month’s party AGM delayed.

A concerted recruitment drive by Liberal conservatives, including senator Alex Antic, was expected to bear fruit at the Women’s Council meeting, with outgoing Right-aligned MP Nicolle Flint challenging incumbent Sue Lawrie for the presidency.

A ballot to appoint a casual vacancy to fill the Legislative Council seat vacated by newly-appointed UK Agent-General David Ridgway is also up in the air – it’s currently scheduled for late next week, with party moderates desperate to hold the vote before the AGM, when the expected influx of Right-faction recruits are likely to hold significantly more sway.

A major black-tie event for around 760 guests due to be held on Friday night to farewell Governor Hieu Van Le has been “officially postponed”, Government House confirmed today, with a spokesperson telling InDaily “a new date will be decided at some point in the future”.

The dinner was to be held at the Adelaide Venue Management-run Convention Centre, whose CEO Anthony Kirchner said had “experienced mass cancellations up to Friday and beyond as a result of the local COVID outbreak”.

But state MPs expressed outrage that today’s parliamentary sitting schedule forged ahead despite Level Four restrictions coming into force overnight – and even after a statewide lockdown was announced at 10.30am today, to come into effect from 6pm.

Even while the media conference confirming the dramatic measure continued beyond 11am, the bells summoning MPs to the lower house began to ring, although few hastened to the chamber when summoned.

Government frontbencher David Basham moved to suspend standing orders to allow members to “speak and conduct business from any seat within the chamber” to facilitate social distancing, but there were not enough MPs present to vote for the motion – prompting Speaker Josh Teague to call a division because “an absolute majority is not present”.

The bizarre scenes followed an email to all House of Assembly members last night from clerk Rick Crump, who advised that today’s sitting arrangements, “schedule and seating in the chamber are unchanged until further notice”.

That prompted a stinging response from Labor MP Leon Bignell, who – in a reply-all message – wrote: “Thanks for passing on the Government’s message.”

“That is a ridiculous decision and reeks of double standards,” he wrote.

“The government is (correctly) telling families they can’t sit at a table together inside a cafe, restaurant or hotel and yet those same people are saying it’s OK for us to sit with 46 other people from all around SA.

“Quite frankly, we don’t know where these people have been.”

Bignell went on to argue that “in Question Time alone we sit next to each other for 75 minutes straight”.

“What we do know about local MPs is that we are out and about at a number of community events and locations and we come into close contact with more people than many other professions or jobs,” he said.

“The government is telling many retailers not to open and yet they’re setting up the possibility of someone bringing the virus into parliament and then having MPs take it back to their local electorates in all corners of the state.

“Imagine the implications if I was to take Covid-19 to Kangaroo Island where we have an older population and few medical facilities.”

Bignell said SA had been “dealing with this virus for 18 months”, asking: “Why is the Government putting in place different standards for politicians than for the workers and businesses that will lose money in coming days because they can’t work or do business in the same way they could today?”
“What will people who are having funerals and weddings cut to just ten people think when they see images of 47 MPs and parliamentary staff all gathered together in the one room?” he said.

“It is important that we, as legislators, do everything in our power to minimise any potential spread while also showing our fellow South Australians that we are not above the rules that we set for them.”

It’s understood sittings for the remainder of the week will be cancelled, although parliament workers have been classified as exempted “essential workers” under lockdown provisions, along with any “persons necessary for the continued operation” of the parliament.

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