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Chapman stalemate as COVID ravages Lib frontbench

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Retiring ex-Deputy Premier Vickie Chapman appears able to front up to parliament’s reopening tomorrow despite Crown Law advice that she has already vacated her seat – but several of her Liberal colleagues will be absent as COVID hits the Opposition party-room.

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With fledgling Liberal leader David Speirs already isolating, his newly-elected deputy John Gardner on the weekend tested positive to the disease, and will be similarly unable to front up to the first parliamentary sitting week since the election of the Malinauskas Government.

Rising star and shadow Health Minister Ashton Hurn is also quarantining with COVID, as is failed leadership aspirant Nick McBride – with whom Speirs spent a day in his MacKillop electorate last week – and former Health Minister Stephen Wade.

The SA Liberal outbreak, which has also hit federal MP for Sturt James Stevens, will see the party’s first foray on the Opposition benches take a distinctly low-key turn, with a stand-in leader to be decided at a meeting of the reduced party-room this afternoon.

Several members of the party’s staff have also contracted COVID, including the entire media unit.

It’s been confirmed former frontbencher David Pisoni is among those being considered to lead the charge from tomorrow – despite not being included in Speirs’ shadow cabinet.

Other possibilities are former acting Attorney-General Josh Teague, who garnered five votes in last month’s leadership ballot, and Vincent Tarzia, who ran unsuccessfully in the vote for the deputy leadership.

The Libs aren’t the only party hit by COVID casualties, with ministers Zoe Bettison and Andrea Michaels to miss parliament this week for the Labor side.

But the high profiles of the Opposition frontbenchers affected will put more intense scrutiny on the standoff featuring the party’s former deputy leader Vickie Chapman.

Speaker Dan Cregan, a former Liberal who is set to be reinstalled in the chair when parliament resumes tomorrow, wrote to Chapman on the weekend informing her that he had received Crown law advice that her resignation letter – in which she flagged Tuesday May 31 as her leaving date – was in effect a letter or resignation that was effective immediately.

“I’ve sought and received advice on this important issue,” Cregan said yesterday.

“SA’s constitution doesn’t appear to allow a member to resign but choose some future date on which their resignation may be effective.

“I’ve written to Ms Chapman to outline the problem as I see it.

“The constitution is what it is.”

Cregan’s letter to Chapman was circulated to every member of parliament.

READ THE SPEAKER’S LETTER BELOW:

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Chapman responded by declaring she had “received an emailed letter from the Speaker of the House of Assembly”.

“I confirm I have given notice of my intention to resign [but] I have not resigned,” she said in a statement.

“I will continue my correspondence on this matter with the Speaker.”

It is understood she has since outlined her own legal advice, on which Cregan is expected to take further Crown Law soundings – a process that could take several days.

That would allow Chapman to take her seat in parliament from tomorrow in the interim – despite uncertainty as to whether she is allowed to do still do so.

A six-day parliamentary ban stemming from last year’s finding that the Bragg MP misled the House and a subsequent vote of no confidence is unlikely to be enforced, as it lapsed when the previous parliament dissolved.

Chapman has not responded to inquiries and her colleagues are unclear as to whether she intends to attend tomorrow’s parliamentary opening – in which she would be sworn in as a returning MP by the chief justice.

However, it appears unlikely anything would prevent her doing so if she opted to.

Sources say if the earlier resignation date stood it would be unlikely to impact on her estimated $300,000 superannuation, which kicked in after she had served 20 years and one month as an MP – with the date of the 2002 election in which she entered parliament, in February of that year, seemingly ensuring her retirement fund is safe.

One insider suggested her determination to remain in parliament was more likely driven by a desire to responds to a looming Ombudsman’s inquiry report into her decision to veto a $40 million timber port on her native Kangaroo Island – a decision that prompted the inquiry that saw her leave the frontbench last year.

But another colleague said the standoff had only come about because of Chapman’s decision to resign on the same day Speirs was elected leader, labelling her actions a “dummy spit”.

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