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Up to me whether Chapman breached ministerial code, says Marshall

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UPDATED | Premier Steven Marshall has questioned the authority of the state’s Ombudsman to make a finding of misconduct against his former deputy Vickie Chapman, arguing determining breaches of the ministerial code is “my area”.

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It comes amid ongoing confusion about Chapman’s ministerial status, with Marshall unclear for much of today about whether she would continue to receive her ministerial pay “bump” of around $150,000 on top of her $200,000 backbench salary, even if she then handed it back.

The Premier has repeatedly insisted he “100 per cent” backs Chapman, who today relinquishes responsibility for her various ministries – but will remain a member of cabinet, albeit not attending meetings for now.

She will remain “stood aside” from her Attorney-General role pending the outcome of an Ombudsman’s inquiry into whether she had a conflict of interest or breached the ministerial code of conduct in relation to her decision to veto a $40 million timber port on her native Kangaroo Island.

But in an interview on ABC Radio Adelaide this morning, Marshall was asked if his unequivocal support would backfire if Ombudsman Wayne Lines made a finding, in line with last week’s parliamentary inquiry, that Chapman did breach the ministerial code of conduct.

“The Ministerial Code is administered by me, not by the Ombudsman,” he replied.

“So I’d be surprised if he made a finding with regards to that – that’s my area that I look after.”

The comment is at odds with Lines’ recent misconduct finding against former Liberal minister Stephan Knoll, whose attempt to remove board directors without the statutory authority to do so was deemed a “minor” breach of the Ministerial Code requiring ministers to “act diligently in the performance of official powers and functions”.

Tellingly, that finding included the observation that under the Code “the Premier has the discretion to determine what course of action, if any, is taken in relation to any prima facie breach of the Code”.

“This can include actions that would, in the ordinary sense, be regarded as disciplinary actions, such as issuing a reprimand or asking the relevant Minister to step down,” Lines wrote in his August 2020 finding, which was finally published a year later after lengthy legal wrangling.

“Whilst the Premier may not exercise the discretion in every case, this does not, in my view, alter the fact that there exists grounds for such action to be taken.”

An Ombudsman does not make findings in a judicial sense but can form a view as to whether a breach has occurred.

However the Premier appeared today to reserve the right to disagree if such a finding is made, and suggested he had already formed a view on the evidence presented to the parliamentary committee – which is expected to form the basis of the Ombudsman’s inquiry.

“Vickie Chapman has done a great job, she’s made the right decision [and] there’s been no conflict of interest as far as I’m concerned – and I do not accept any new evidence that’s come via that select committee as being compelling whatsoever,” Marshall said.

“Let’s wait to see what the Ombudsman comes back with but I’m very confident that Vickie Chapman made the right decision with regards to the port on Kangaroo Island, there’s been no conflict of interest [and] I hope this matter can be cleared up as soon as possible.”

Marshall also told the ABC Chapman would, as of today, “go back to that normal salary of every other MP who doesn’t have higher level responsibilities”.

However, he later remained unclear as to whether she would continue to receive a higher salary – and repay it to Treasury or otherwise divest it – or forego it entirely.

“She’s not retaining any of that ministerial bump, she’s made that very clear to me” Marshal ltold reporters, but was said he was unaware of whether the money would continue to be paid to her, under the Parliamentary Remuneration Act.

“I just don’t have the answer to that technically but what I know is she won’t be retaining any advantage from being in the cabinet now that she’s been stood aside,” he said.

“The appropriate action is for her to stand aside but she doesn’t leave cabinet – she just doesn’t attend it going forward.”

Marshall said he did not think “there’s any suggestion she’ll be paying money to a charity” but was unsure as to how she would forego it if it was paid to her.

After 5pm today Treasurer Rob Lucas clarified that “the Government has just received Crown Law advice confirming that the Honourable Vickie Chapman MP is able to relinquish her entitlement to additional Ministerial salary for the entire period that another minister is performing the functions and discharging the duties of the Attorney-General”.

Ex-Speaker Josh Teague was sworn in as her replacement today, taking over the Local Government and Planning portfolios on an ongoing basis but acting temporarily in the Attorney-General’s role.

The deputy leadership vacancy will be filled at a party-room meeting on Thursday afternoon, Marshall confirmed today.

David Speirs, Dan van Holst Pellekaan and John Gardner are the three touted candidates, with the latter telling InDaily today: “I’ll listen to colleagues and make a decision in due course.”

However, with no foremention of the fact, van Holst Pellekaan was quietly sworn in as Deputy Premier this afternoon – a fact initially publicly announced via the Government Gazette – with the Premier’s office saying it was an interim role, which fell to the Energy Minister on the basis of cabinet seniority.

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