Bell last week resigned from the party and has come under political pressure to quit the parliament, after facing court yesterday charged with a raft of dishonest dealing offences dating back to his time in the education sector in Mount Gambier.
His former Liberal Party branch will meet tonight to pick up the pieces, with local councillor Christian Greco confirming to InDaily he was considering putting his hand up to replace Bell as the party’s candidate.
That will likely be at the March state election, but could be earlier if Bell relents to stand aside.
Speaker Michael Atkinson confirmed to InDaily today he has asked the assistant clerk of state parliament “to gather all the precedents” on previous instances where a seat fell vacant only months out from a general election.
That advice showed that on only two occasions – out of 186 House of Assembly by-elections – casual vacancies were not filled owing to an impending general election. These two elections were in 1859 and 1911, when Speaker Harry Jackson opted against a by-election to replace Sir Jenkin Coles, who died in December, before a general election due the following February.
However, in 1982 former Member for Florey Harold O’Neill resigned in August owing to a terminal illness and a by-election was held in September, with a general election following in November.
Atkinson noted that since 1985, the state’s Electoral Act has maintained the Speaker “must issue a writ for a by-election” in the event of a casual vacancy.
However, the Speaker told InDaily he did not believe that necessarily held him to calling a by-election with a fixed term general election in the offing, saying: “I don’t think it does”.
“I would use some common sense,” he said.
Atkinson’s Labor colleague Tom Koutsantonis yesterday intensified the pressure on Bell to quit his seat, saying it was “untenable” for him to remain in parliament while he faced several serious charges of theft totalling more than $2 million.
Asked whether he might opt to forego a by-election if Bell chooses to resign, Atkinson said: “That’s a possibility.”
With parliament now in winter recess, there are only five more sitting weeks before year’s end – with an option for a sixth – before parliament closes its doors for the final time before it is dissolved ahead of the March state election.
Atkinson said there was legislative provision stipulating a cut-off date for supplementary local government elections, but not at state level.
The Local Government Act holds that a supplementary election “will not be held… within seven months before polling day for a general election”.
There are also federal precedents in which the House of Representatives Speaker has not issued writs for by-elections because of impending general elections, in 1928, 1966 and 1992.
A separate precedent close to home may also play on the Speaker’s mind. As InDaily revealed in February, Labor sought legal advice about the ability of Police Minister Peter Malinauskas to continue to serve in the ministry when he is forced to quit the Upper House to formally nominate to replace Atkinson in his Croydon seat when he retires.
Nominations to contest lower house seats close in February, but Malinauskas was told he could vacate the Legislative Council as early as November and still hold cabinet office for “three calendar months”.
This may imply that three months is regarded as a benchmark period for which a state seat may stand vacant.
However, given the time it would take to hold a by-election campaign – and the cost to taxpayers – it is possible the Speaker will decide against holding one altogether, even if Bell stands aside.
For now though, Bell is staying put, insisting last week: “I won’t quit parliament – I’ve done nothing wrong.”
“I’ll hold my head up high, and I’ll continue to serve the people of Mount Gambier as an independent up until the next state election… we’ll decide what we do from there,” he told reporters.
His lawyer Bill DeGaris yesterday told reporters outside court in Mount Gambier Bell “will be defending all the charges, but we just need wait for court processes to take their course”.
The Liberal Party last week threw open a preselection process to select a new candidate to replace Bell at the general election, if not an earlier by-election.
InDaily has been told Greco – a Mount Gambier councillor who also works as sales supervisor at the Border Watch newspaper – is a likely frontrunner.
Greco told InDaily he was considering nominating but things would be clearer after a meeting of the party’s local branch tonight, the first since the news of Bell’s resignation broke.
“I haven’t ruled it out at all [but] I haven’t confirmed I will [nominate] either,” Greco said.
“We’re currently still obviously reeling from the news of Troy, but at this stage we’ve got our meeting tonight… I’d like some water to go under the bridge before I make any comments about what I’m doing.”
Liberal leader Steven Marshall left yesterday on prearranged personal leave until the end of the week.
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