The Government last night sought to extend laws first implemented at the start of the pandemic, in a bid to enshrine the emergency powers of the state co-ordinator, Police Commissioner Grant Stevens.
The proposed extension would have seen the laws continue until the end of April next year – after the March state election – although Attorney-General Vickie Chapman insisted they could be wound back within 28 days if the emergency declaration ended in the meantime.
However, the plan was scuppered by an amendment from former Liberal MP for Mount Gambier, now crossbencher, Troy Bell, which was backed by rogue Government backbencher Nick McBride, who crossed the floor to vote with Labor and the crossbench.
The change will see the emergency act reviewed again before the end of the year, with both Bell and McBride saying the move is consistent with a mantra long delivered by Premier Steven Marshall: that the emergency powers shouldn’t stay in place a moment longer than necessary.
McBride said he raised concerns about the proposed extension when the Liberal party-room met last week, and insists the amendment “doesn’t change the intention [of the laws] other than bringing the date back earlier”.
“I didn’t want to be left thinking I’m not representing my electorate,” he said.
“The Premier has often said we’re not waiting one day longer than necessary – this is consistent with that language.”
Bell’s amendments also included various other provisions, which are now expected to be enshrined in law when the amended Bill goes before the Upper House later today.
Bell’s changes mandate a regional representative to be included on the state’s powerful Transition Committee, which determines the level of COVID restrictions to be imposed in response to the evolving health crisis.
“They’re now obligated to put someone on who can represent regional areas,” McBride said.
The amendments also contained a provision that SA Health must deal “expeditiously” with any travel exemption requests arising from the imposition of border restrictions, “and the Minister for Health must ensure that sufficient resources are available for that purpose such that most applications are able to be dealt with within 21 days after they have been received”.
The original amendment stipulated 48 hours, but this was declared unreasonable and altered during debate.
Bell said he had constituents kept waiting indefinitely, whose livelihoods depended on the ability to travel between jurisdictions.
“SA Health have stopped taking my office’s calls, stopped taking Nick’s office’s calls… they’re not responding to emails,” he said.
“I’m sure they’re absolutely swamped [but] the Government needs to put more resources into that area.
“We’re setting a time limit of 21 days, which I think is very fair and reasonable.”
The new Bill also mandates a briefing for MPs on any changes to COVID restrictions, where possible.
“Instead of MPs hearing about the directions on TV and in the media, where possible we should actually get a briefing, or some advice as to what’s going on, so we can help our constituents and actually support the state government,” Bell said.
He said most MPs only heard about changes as they were announced, and “the problem with that is the phones start ringing straight away with people with specific circumstances, and we’re not able to help them”.
Bell said “the rhetoric and comments [from Marshall] have always been that these quite extraordinary powers wouldn’t be in place one moment longer than they absolutely needed to be”.
“For the Government to then turn around and try to have a deadline for April next year – it’s quite a lengthy time without any possibility of review, really, between that time,” he said.
He noted too that Prime Minister Scott Morrison had put a December deadline on an anticipated 80 per cent vaccination coverage, which could then trigger the next step in his national COVID ‘exit plan’ – with lockdowns used only as a last resort.
“It just seemed like common sense to me,” said Bell.
“We have an optional sitting week in early December, so we’d extend the powers for the Emergency Management Act up till that point… let’s sit down in December and review it, and see where we up to with vaccination rates.”
He said Stevens and chief public health officer Nicola Spurrier had “done a fantastic job, but at the end of the day they’re not elected by the people – they’re appointed”.
McBride said he had “wrestled” with his decision to cross the floor – the fourth time he has done so after opposing the Government’s mining legislation in the past.
“Knowing the election is coming, I certainly don’t want to unravel any of the good work the Marshall Liberal Government has done over the last three years, or the work SAPOL or SA Health have done,” he said.
“This is just a small legislative amendment – it’s not to take away how well it’s been done.”
Asked if he expected fallout from the party over his decision, he said: “I don’t expect any changes to how I’m treated now.”
After a previous move to block Liberal legislation, he revealed he’d received “evil glares” from Marshall for his trouble, but said: “I didn’t get that this time.”
“It’s important enough to make sure that we come back to the phrase and words of our Premier, that these restrictions shouldn’t be in place one day longer than necessary,” he said.
“If they want to take it out to April, they can still do that in late November.”
McBride said there was “a great divide” between metropolitan Adelaide and the regions of SA, which had “suffered greater” than other areas, while Bell said “every direction has a disproportionate effect on those of us who live close to a border or in a border community”.
Both men are willing to serve as the regional representative on the Transition Committee, with Liberal MP Tim Whetstone and Limestone Coast LGA CEO Tony Wright also suggested.
A Government spokesperson said in a statement: “The Government was pleased to reach a compromise with the crossbench to ensure this important piece of legislation passed through the House.”
“While it can be stripped away if and when the Cabinet chooses to end the Emergency Declaration, for the time being, it is necessary to keep South Australians safe,” they said.
“All MPs have the right to vote in a way that best represents their communities.”
Marshall responded tersely today to questions suggesting Stevens had now led SA for as long as he had during his first term in office.
“Well I don‘t know what you mean [by] leading,” he said at a media conference.
“That’s [the emergency co-ordinator] not the leader of the Government… I think you’re getting a lot of things very confused there.
“The state coordinator is in place during a major emergency declaration… they’re not running the Government. They can put directions in place with regard to quarantine [and] with regard to borders… but putting directions in place is not running the state.”
Local News Matters
Media diversity is under threat in Australia – nowhere more so than in South Australia. The state needs more than one voice to guide it forward and you can help with a donation of any size to InDaily. Your contribution goes directly to helping our journalists uncover the facts. Please click below to help InDaily continue to uncover the facts.