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"Untenable": Labor demands Bell resign from parliament

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Labor has come out swinging after Troy Bell’s court appearance this morning as it seeks to intensify pressure on Liberal leader Steven Marshall, with Treasurer Tom Koutsantonis declaring the Mount Gambier MP’s continued presence in parliament is “untenable”.

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But Bell’s fellow ex-Liberal crossbencher Duncan McFetridge says he feels for his former party colleague and fears for his mental health, telling InDaily it is “important no matter what that [politicians] do support each other”.

Bell was placed on bail and must seek permission to travel interstate after today facing charges of dishonestly dealing with sums totalling more than $2 million. He has strenuously denied the allegations and says he will fight the charges.

He quit the Liberal Party late last week after the charges were laid following an ICAC investigation, but has determined to remain in parliament – a decision his former leader Marshall on Friday declared was “a matter for him”.

“I support the presumption of innocence until proven guilty,” Marshall said at the time, adding he believed it was appropriate for Bell to remain an MP.

“Look, I do… I think he’s so adamant about this situation, he’ll be in court next Tuesday… let’s see what happens then.”

But after today’s court appearance in Mount Gambier, Koutsantonis took aim at the Liberal leader, telling reporters: “How can Steven Marshall still think it’s appropriate Mr Bell remain in parliament?”

With less than seven months until the March state election, Koutsantonis said Bell would now be “spending every hour of every day defending himself rather than fighting for the people of Mount Gambier”.

“How can Mr Bell possibly do his job as a member of parliament, while there are 30 volumes of accusations and charges against him relating to $2 million worth of theft?” he said.

“Quite frankly, it’s untenable now… it’s untenable for Mr Marshall to continue to support Mr Bell.

“The right thing to do for our state is for Mr Bell to continue to defend these accusations as a private citizen – not as a member of parliament.”

Marshall’s office said he would not be commenting on the matter today, and was now off on “pre-arranged leave” from late this morning until the end of the week.

If Bell resigned, it would trigger a by-election in the south-east seat, despite a general election in the offing. While Mount Gambier is a safe Liberal seat, it has been held by a succession of independents since 1997, one of whom – Rory McEwen – helped bolster the Rann Government’s majority when he joined Labor’s frontbench.

Bell is the second sitting MP to face charges in recent years, after former Labor MLC Bernard Finnigan – who also hails from the south-east – stood trial on child pornography charges.

At the time, Premier Jay Weatherill demanded Finnigan relinquish his seat.

“No-one’s saying [Bell] is not innocent… what we’re saying is how can he possibly do his day job?” Koutsantonis said.

“He needs to seek the permission of the police to travel… how is he going to do his job as a member of parliament?

“The only people who are going to visit his electorate office in the next seven months are going to be the police, prosecutors, his lawyers and the media… no-one from Mount Gambier’s going to walk into his office seeking his assistance.”

The Treasurer said he didn’t believe Labor would win a by-election in Mount Gambier, but said the electorate has now “got no-one representing them”.

“They’re basically a group of people now without representation… for the benefit of the institutions and Mount Gambier – and probably Mr Bell himself – the best thing to do is resign,” he said.

However McFetridge, who quit the Liberals in May after being rolled for preselection and is now running as an independent, said he empathised with the “public pain that all politicians feel nowadays”.

He told InDaily he had sent Bell a text message last week asking if he and his family were okay, because he was concerned about “these circumstances he finds himself in”.

“Mental health is an important [issue] to me… from mental health point of view, I’m not going to ostracise him or refuse to be seen with him,” he said.

McFetridge and Bell will likely find themselves seated together when parliament resumes as independent conservative crossbenchers, and McFetridge said he would not “move away or place a pile of books between him and I”.

“This is above politics,” he said.

“Obviously I know Troy well – I was on committee with him, I’ve stayed at his place and I know his family pretty well… I was stunned at what’s come out, I obviously had no knowledge of it beforehand.”

He said Bell was a “straight up and down guy” who was “upfront on issues”.

“Having campaigned with him, he’s well-respected in the community down there [and] that would say a fair bit about his credibility… but what will be will be,” he said.

“I’m sure he’ll be feeling a lot of pain today, and so will his family… he’s innocent until proven guilty [and] I’ll be happy to talk to him and give him the benefit of my very short experience as an independent.”

Asked whether it was appropriate for Bell to remain in parliament while he contested the charges, McFetridge said: “It’s his decision… I’m not going to pre-judge him.”

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