The Attorney-General is under intense scrutiny after a long-awaited report by a parliamentary inquiry was tabled this morning, finding she had a conflict of interest, misled parliament and breached the ministerial code of conduct in relation to her decision to veto a $40 million timber port on her native Kangaroo Island, where she owns land.
The extent and use of those landholdings were probed in the inquiry’s two-week hearings, with Chapman initially conceding that a Western River Road property she inherited from her late father Ted, the former MP for Finniss, was “operated as an Airbnb”.
“Yes. Well, I say Airbnb; it’s a private rental,” she said, conceding she had derived private income from the site in the past financial year.
The revelation was significant in the inquiry, as the property is adjacent a privately-owned forest that was contracted to the port’s proponent, Kangaroo Island Plantation Timbers, for removal if the project at Smith Bay on the island’s north coast had gone ahead.
However, in a bullish final submission to the committee this week, her legal counsel, Frances Nelson QC, played down the claims about the land’s use as a commercial operation.
“The shearer’s quarters on Gum Valley were used by families who lost their homes in the [2019-20] bushfire and had nowhere to live, and by volunteer helpers at no cost,” Nelson submitted.
“Ms Chapman and her sister agreed to this in order to assist the community. They gained no financial or other benefit.
“In 2021 there has been some agistment and some short-term stays in the shearer’s quarters by employees of other properties and some hospitality workers.”
She said house rentals between July and November 2020 totalled $4000, while agistment totalled $5880 from January to June this year – while “expenses of maintaining the property totalled $27,421.37”.
“To suggest Ms Chapman has been operating anything approaching a Bed and Breakfast operation or some tourism venture is simply ludicrous,” Nelson said, adding that “the last time [the property] was marketed as a tourism venture, that is Gum Valley Retreat” was prior to 2017.
Chapman went further under questioning in parliament this week, saying: “I am going to make this absolutely clear: I am not operating a B&B.”
“I made that very clear to the committee – the evidence is clear,” she said.
I categorically deny that I am operating an Airbnb
“I have provided information to the committee as to some rental of the farmhouse and also the occupation of the shearers’ quarters, largely after the fires, for no consideration because, of course, people were desperate.
“Now there are workmen who have been in that property, so there is intermittent provision of short-term rental for workers who live in the area.
“I categorically deny that I am operating an Airbnb.”
However, inquiries by InDaily have raised further questions about the property’s recent use.
Internet searches related to the property’s specific address – which InDaily has chosen not to publish – link to a since-deleted Facebook page which appears to spruik the Gum Valley property to potential visitors.
While the digital footprint of that page barely exists, the cached text corresponds with material on an aggregator site, Glotels.com.
The site contains a page for the minister’s Gum Valley address, featuring several historical posts spruiking it as an apparent tourism enterprise.
Hi all, After a challenging year with bushfires and Covid, we’ve listed Gum Valley on Airbnb
The oldest post listed on the page, a cover photo of the property, dates from mid-2013.
The most recent, from September 2020, reads: “Hi all, After a challenging year with bushfires and Covid, we’ve listed Gum Valley on Airbnb!”
It goes on: “There’s plenty of dates available over the summer so if you are keen to take a group away for an overseas holiday that doesn’t involve leaving South Australia, look us up!”
Chapman was appointed Planning Minister in July 2020, with the Smith Bay port assessment proposal already well in train.
She eventually opted to veto the plan in August this year.
A spiel on the site explains the property offers “comfortable accommodation for up to 20 people”.
“Gum Valley is ideal for group bookings or multiple families wanting to stay together,” it says.
“The Retreat provides 8 bedrooms (each with its own ensuite), a commercial kitchen and a large open plan lounge and dining room.
“Fully self contained, it’s an extremely affordable way for a large group of people to stay together and enjoy the wonders of Kangaroo Island.”
It says Gum Valley is “located on the north western end of KI being close to all major tourist attractions but also the serenity of the northern beaches”.
“The best of the outdoors is nearby: abundant fishing, incredible diving, bushwalking and lots more awaits you if you’re feeling adventurous,” it goes on.
“Alternatively, kick back on the white sands of Western River Cove or sit by a log fire with a good book. Whatever your preference, Gum Valley is well suited to enjoying the best that Kangaroo Island has to offer.”
Another post, from February last year, exclaims: “We’re open for bookings!”
“As part of the #BookThemOut campaign, we are keen for people to come to KI and make the most of what the Island has to offer!” the post reads.
“After the fire period, our Accommodation is re-opening from March 1. At this stage, the March long weekend is available, as is Easter, school holidays, and plenty of times in between.
“We’re offering a 20% discount for week long bookings; bookings for long weekends etc are by negotiation depending on the length of stay.
“Find a group of friends or invite your whole family.
“Given we can accommodate 20 people, it’ll be one of the cheapest stays per person on KI for self contained accommodation.
“The KI economy really needs you and we just want to make your stay as cost effective for you as we can.”
The rental is described on the site as a “Self Contained Accommodation on Kangaroo Island for large groups at an affordable price… Perfect for Fishing, Diving and School groups as well as friends and families looking to holiday together”.
The page contains a link to the property’s page on Airbnb’s website, but the link appears dead, yielding an error code 403.
The page directs telephone inquiries to one of Chapman’s adult children.
Chapman told the committee earlier this month that her children “have no interest in any property at Western River” but that one of her sons had, at her request, “arranged some paid short-term stays at Gum Valley” after “the family who had been renting the property moved out but continued their agistment in 2021”.
“The shearers’ quarters on that property were used by families who had lost their homes and by volunteer helpers at no cost,” she told parliament.
In response to questions today from InDaily, a spokesperson for the Deputy Premier said in a statement: “After the devastating 2019-20 bushfires, a charity group was invited to use the shearer’s quarters to accommodate volunteers… the charity group was sponsored by Airbnb and required accommodation to be listed on that website.”
“Due to Covid-19, these volunteers had to leave prematurely [and] after that, the website remained live, but was not promoted or closely monitored,” she said.
To class this as a tourism venture is simply ludicrous
“As outlined in the Attorney’s statement to the committee, it was available for short-term rentals, on an ad hoc basis – the rental income did not cover expenses.
“No bookings have been taken since January 2021, and the property is now leased to a neighbour who requires extra accommodation for staff.
“To class this as a tourism venture is simply ludicrous.”
The saga’s latest twist comes as the inquiry this morning tabled its final report, which was backed by three of the committee’s five members – Labor MPs Andrea Michaels and Tom Koutsantonis, and ex-Liberal independent Sam Duluk – with Liberals Matt Cowdrey and Peter Treloar voting against the recommendations.
Those two MPs released their own Dissenting Statement, taking issue with “the entirety of the Select Committee Report on the Conduct of The Attorney- General”.
“In our view, the Attorney-General complied with the Ministerial Code of Conduct in determining she did not have a conflict in this matter [and] accordingly… was not in breach of the Code in dealing with this application in the way she did,” they said.
In tabling the majority report, chair Michaels acknowledged “the seriousness of the allegations against the Attorney-General”, whose office “must accept and uphold standards of conduct to the highest order.”
“She did not do that,” Michaels told parliament.
“It is with grave disappointment that this report demonstrates that those standards were seriously breached in this instance.”
She highlighted Nelson’s “quite remarkable” and “unwarranted” criticism directed to the inquiry’s counsel assisting, Dr Rachel Gray QC.
“Dr Gray was appointed as an independent Senior Counsel to assist and advise the Committee and upheld her role at all times – that role is significantly different to that of Ms Frances Nelson QC [whose] role is to act for and advance the interests of the Attorney-General as a client,” Michaels said.
“It therefore came as no surprise that Ms Nelson’s submissions simply sought to advance the personal and political interests of the Attorney-General from a subjective point of view, rather than the objective and impartial assessment of the evidence and analysis of legal principles in the approach adopted by the independent Counsel Assisting the Committee.
“It is in those circumstances that I reject the submissions of Ms Nelson QC.”
Michaels said the “blatant denialism of objective evidence and plain truth does the Attorney-General no favour”.
“Trumpesque at best, simply repeating that one has done no wrong does not make it so,” she argued.
The Committee recommended the House “should find the Attorney-General guilty of contempt for deliberately misleading Parliament” in making “statements that were false and were known to be false by the Attorney-General at the time each of those statements were made and were intended to mislead the House”.
The report urges parliament to consider a range of penalties, including “ordering the Attorney-General to be brought before the Bar to be admonished by the Speaker”, insisting she issue a “public and unreserved apology for her conduct” and suspending her “from the service of the House for a period of no more than 11 days”, with a recommendation for a nine-day suspension “based on a punishment of three days’ suspension for each finding of misleading the House”.
Further, the Committee found that in “failing to disclose her conflict of interest [Chapman] breached the Ministerial Code of Conduct”, and that parliament consider a legislative review, arguing “that a single decision maker in respect of major developments is not desirable”.
Of greater concern for the Government could be the recommendation to refer the Attorney to state Ombudsman Wayne Lines for further investigation, as well as “the role that any other public officer undertook relevant to the Attorney-General’s decision, including the role and responsibility of the Premier, Chief Executives and other public officers, including Crown Law Officers”.
“The Premier, pursuant to the Ministerial Code of Conduct, has a responsibility to address any failure to disclose a conflict of interest and the Premier has a responsibility to take appropriate steps to ensure members of the Cabinet act in accordance with their fiduciary duties,” the report said.
“Whilst there was no evidence before the Committee to make any adverse finding of maladministration against any public officer or the Premier, significant factual matters concerning proper governance practices have been raised during this Inquiry, which warrant referral to the Ombudsman for investigation.”
Liberal MP Josh Teague, the former Speaker who determined Chapman had no matter of privilege to answer relating to the port decision, responded to the report, lamenting the “prejudgement at the core of all this”.
“It lacked almost all of the features of a thoroughgoing inquiry, beginning with good faith and objectivity,” he said.
“The grave conclusion here is that there may be serious consequences indeed for the subject of the committee’s inquiry but] there are even more serious consequences for the reputation and good standing of this House.
“It should be rejected, as it brings the House into disrepute.”
Question Time will today be suspended to debate a motion of no confidence, with the volatile state of the House – including six crossbenchers, including Speaker Dan Cregan, whose casting vote may be critical – leaving open the real prospect of Chapman becoming the state’s first minister to lose such a vote in the Lower House.
UPDATE: Chapman loses confidence motion – FULL STORY HERE
Such a result could prompt an unprecedented constitutional crisis, with the Premier’s ongoing “100 per cent” backing of his Deputy giving rise to questions as to whether the Government can continue to claim a working majority in parliament.
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