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Premier defends fallen ministers as reshuffle takes shape

Politics

A state cabinet reshuffle is expected to be announced as early as tomorrow after three senior ministers and the president of the Legislative Council quit their posts, with Premier Steven Marshall insisting the resignations were prompted by accountability rather than deliberate dishonesty in response to outcry over the country allowance saga.

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Marshall repeatedly claimed on radio this morning that he did not sack Transport Minister Stephan Knoll or Primary Industries Minister Tim Whetstone for wrongdoing, but instead suggested they offer their resignations to put an end to a “very large unacceptable distraction” for the Government amid snowballing questions about the living arrangements and allowance claims of several country-based MPs.

Knoll and Whetstone tendered their resignations on Sunday after wrongly claiming taxpayers’ dollars in accommodation allowances.

Trade Minister David Ridgway also left the ministry after previously indicating he did not wish to serve in a reshuffled cabinet, while Legislative Council president Terry Stephens will stand down from his position when parliament returns.

The resignations have forced the first major cabinet change since the 2018 election, with Marshall now faced with the “extraordinarily difficult” task of reshuffling his frontbench to restore public confidence midway through a global health pandemic.

The Premier told reporters this afternoon he would today begin contemplating a new-look cabinet, with an announcement to be made in the next 24 hours.

“There is not going to be major changes in terms of portfolios but of course there will be new faces in the cabinet,” he said.

“They are good arrangements, I’m just finalising those details now.

“All will be revealed very quickly.”

I just genuinely don’t believe that there was any deliberate dishonesty

He praised the resigned ministers on FIVEaa radio this morning for showing “accountability” in response to their involvement in the allowance saga, which has also engulfed several other country Liberal MPs and is now subject to an investigation by the Independent Commissioner Against Corruption.

“It (the scandal) was a massive and unacceptable distraction at a time when, quite frankly, I didn’t need it, the Cabinet didn’t need it and neither did the people of South Australia,” Marshall said.

“I think (what) we’ve seen from these ministers who resigned is accountability … it’s something that we haven’t seen from Ministers for a very long period of time.

“Can you point to any example where ministers were accountable for issues that affected the performance of the Government and resigned?  The answer to that is no.”

Asked on ABC Radio Adelaide why he didn’t sack Knoll or Whetstone, Marshall said the former ministers agreed with his view that their involvement in the allowance saga was a distraction.

“They’ve all been excellent performers in the cabinet since we formed government; they knew this was a distraction, they offered their resignation,” he said.

“I just genuinely don’t believe that there was any deliberate dishonesty.”

But he admitted he was yet to personally assess the transactions in question, claiming that responsibility fell to the MPs themselves.

He also did not rule out a future ministerial role for Knoll – the most high profile of the resigned MPs – should the Liberal Party win the next state election.

Knoll last week agreed to pay back $29,574, insisting he was doing so only because of “ambiguity” over the allowance rules, which were amended by the Remuneration Tribunal in November 2018 to stipulate eligible MPs must “incur actual expenditure”. He admitted to an “administrative” error, but that total was a small proportion of the whole he repaid.

Meanwhile, Whetstone has repaid just $6,993 but amended 92 nights worth of claims, blaming “administrative errors” but insisting he was still eligible for the allowance on other dates he had not previously claimed.

One of those withdrawn claims coincided with dates he was on a taxpayer-funded 12-day study trip to the United States.

On one of the nights for which Knoll billed taxpayers he posted a photo of himself and his family attending the cricket at Adelaide Oval.

Knoll has conceded he claims the allowance for nights he stays at his parents’ inner-city home, with his father Franz last week saying they had a private arrangement for board.

“I think he (Knoll) has been a talented minister and I think all three of the ministers who resigned on Sunday morning have been good for the Government,” Marshall told the ABC this morning.

“We just need to see where we’re going to be after the next election if we form a Government, what positions become available and how this matter plays out.”

The cabinet reshuffle could cause factional tensions within the Liberal Party, with Knoll previously the only right-wing representative on Marshall’s frontbench.

But Marshall downplayed suggestions of factional brawling on FIVEaa, saying there was a “huge amount of stability” in the party.

“Of course there are people with different ideas and thoughts and ideology which exists in our party because we are the party that represents the broadest group of people in our society,” he said.

Meanwhile, Deputy Premier Vickie Chapman described the weekend’s events as “pretty good” when asked by InDaily this morning.

Deputy Premier Vickie Chapman leaving Parliament House this morning. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

She declined to comment further as she left Parliament House, saying only “thank you very much” to questions about whether the factional tensions could be balanced within the notoriously fractious party-room.

Speaker Vincent Tarzia, whom sources said was packing up his parliamentary office today, is regarded as a “dead cert” for the ministry, with another four first-term moderates – David Basham, Josh Teague, Carolyn Power and Stephen Patterson – all in the mix for elevation.

Sources say Basham – who holds the Fleurieu seat of Finniss – would be a likely contender for Whetstone’s vacant Primary Industries portfolio.

Tarzia told InDaily today he was “happy to serve” but it was “probably best not to comment on things at this stage”.

“Today I’m still the Speaker – [I’ve had] no news as such, we’ll see what happens,” he said as he arrived at Parliament House.

Speaker Vincent Tarzia arriving at Parliament House this morning. Photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

First-term MP Dan Cregan is the most likely nominally conservative-leaning MP to be elevated, and could take over the Speaker’s role.

Industry and Skills Minister David Pisoni told 7 News Adelaide he would “serve however the Premier decides” when asked about a potential shift to the transport portfolio.

“I’m enjoying what I’m doing now, we’re getting some very good results,” he said.

“I’ve got a lot of work to do in that space still.”

In the interim, Marshall has temporarily taken over the trade and investment portfolios, Chapman primary industries and Treasurer Rob Lucas transport and local government.

The Opposition described the weekend’s events as “chaos”.

“It (the Government) has lost nearly a quarter of its cabinet in one day,” Labor leader Peter Malinauskas said.

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