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Ombudsman’s Chapman finding ‘extraordinary’: Premier

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Premier Peter Malinauskas has described an Ombudsman’s finding that former Deputy Premier Vickie Chapman had no perceived conflict of interest when she vetoed a $40 million timber port on her native Kangaroo Island as “extraordinary”, revealing he has charged his new chief executive with establishing a new framework to clarify ministerial guidelines.

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In an apparently unguarded moment during a radio interview, Malinauskas was asked by ABC Radio Adelaide presenter David Bevan about the ministerial code, with the interviewer noting a recent report by Ombudsman Wayne Lines “was quite clear – he looked at what Vickie Chapman did and he said ‘No problem here’”.

“Yeah, I know – it’s extraordinary,” Malinauskas replied.

He then appeared to backtrack, replying when asked what was extraordinary: “This weather.”

After a few moments he pressed on, saying it was “extraordinarily difficult for a senior cabinet member or any cabinet minister, indeed any MP” to interpret the disparity between the Ombudsman’s findings and an earlier parliamentary inquiry, advised by QC Dr Rachel Gray.

When told by Bevan that he was allowed to concede that “you disagree with the Ombudsman”, Malinauskas said: “Well, what I can say is that we’ve got two very different interpretations of Miss Chapman’s actions.”

Chapman was found by a parliamentary inquiry to have had both real and perceived conflicts when she rejected a bid for a timber port, despite departmental advice that it could proceed, but Lines later found she had no actual, perceived or potential conflict of interest.

Malinauskas later told InDaily he had asked his new CEO of the Department of Premier and Cabinet, Damien Walker, to review both findings and provide a framework to prevent similar confusion in future, citing the “extraordinary circumstances that cabinet now finds themselves in”.

“There are a number of formats this could take,” he said, including a definitive interpretation “for the cabinet about where discussions about conflicts are required and should take place, and what does best practice look like”.

“Whether we have rigorous set of guidelines, a code that provides a greater degree of clarity, or something more proactive such as an independent source of information that a minister could go to where there’s complexity that can provide more definitive advice,” he said.

“We had a parliamentary inquiry that substantially established Ms Chapman had a perceived conflict of interest… and an Ombudsman’s inquiry finding something quite different.

“In terms of how the cabinet is supposed to make informed judgements in that context, it’s difficult.”

Asked about his earlier remarks, and whether he agreed with Lines’ findings, he said: “I think the Ombudsman does a good job.”

He added that the Ombudsman had provided a “a piece of work” and “we accept it”.

“I think the combination of the parliamentary inquiry’s work in conjunction with a preeminent QC, and the Ombudsman’s work… they appear to be in direct conflict with each other and that raises very serious questions,” he said.

“I want to have those questions answered.”

He suggested the new framework would both clarify ministerial guidelines and strengthen them.

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