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Richardson: If this is decisive action, the Libs are in trouble

Opinion

Two months ago an MP behaved badly at a Parliament House Christmas Party. So why can’t the Government just deal with it?

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Late on Friday, Premier Steven Marshall took – in his own words – “decisive action” against his troubled and troublesome backbencher Sam Duluk.

What was this Decisive Action? Well, he asked him not to attend party-room meetings any more for the time being.

BAM!

Inspired by this dizzying display of raw leadership, Duluk himself elected to suspend his own membership of the Liberal Party – again, for the time being – and to stop attending parliament, while nonetheless still being a parliamentarian and, of course, getting paid.

Marshall’s “decisive action” was categorised in some sections of the media as “sacking” Duluk, although “advising Mr Duluk that he is no longer to participate in any meetings of the Liberal Parliamentary Party” comes across rather more like asking him for a bit of a favour than telling him he’s toast.

Of course, back in mid-December, when he first heard that the Waite MP’s behaviour at a Parliament House Christmas function had been less than exemplary, Marshall also took Decisive Action.

He told him it would be a good idea if he privately apologised to SA Best MLC Connie Bonaros, whose backside Duluk had reportedly allegedly groped (no-one has yet actually said they saw this happen, although no-one has yet denied it either).

As Marshall explained it to media early on Friday – before he decided on the aforementioned decisive action – Bonaros initially “raised the issue” with Deputy Premier Vickie Chapman, who in turn “rang me immediately” to pass on Duluk’s alleged indiscretions.

“I called Sam Duluk and said ‘my understanding is there was behaviour which was unacceptable in Parliament House last week’,” Marshall explained.

“He agreed it was unacceptable, and I then said ‘look, my strong advice is you make an immediate apology’ and he committed to do exactly that.”

Sadly for all concerned, this flawless mea culpa “was frustrated because I don’t think he had the ability to sit down with Connie Bonaros at the time”.

From here it gets a tad confusing: Marshall insists the current parliamentary process – an independent investigation instigated by Speaker Vincent Tarzia – was in train before the matter was initially reported in the media.

And yet, he also insists that the first he heard of Duluk ‘touching Connie Bonaros on the behind’ – which appears to have become the universal phraseology – was when it was first reported by News Corp.

Putting aside the logical inconsistencies in this timeline, it does make you wonder what Marshall thought he was telling Duluk to apologise for in the first place.

I mean, did Chapman not give him any specifics in her initial briefing?

Did Marshall not demand answers from his backbencher about his alleged unacceptable behaviour?

Things just got more decisive from that point on.

Once the matter surfaced publicly, Duluk tried to show his apology was well-meant by also resigning as chair of the unrelated Economic and Finance Committee, which allowed the Premier to insist: “I think he’s paid the price for it in terms of the financial penalty, and a very serious reputational penalty for what’s occurred.”

Since then new allegations have surfaced at various intervals about various comments to various people (at least one of whom, Labor’s Justin Hanson, evidently had either bad short-term memory loss or a keen sense of theatre, since he didn’t manage to publicly recall his own conversation with Duluk till early February, coincidentally on the week parliament resumed).

Collectively, these subsequent allegations (some of which are third-hand and all of which remain merely allegations) cover the full gamut of Unacceptable Christmas Party Behaviour, including sexism, racism and homophobia.

Marshall, though, insists he was unaware of any of it back in December when he so decisively determined that a simple apology was all that was required.

He did, however, nominate one possible reason as to why he was so in the dark about it all: “I think it’s fair to say that Sam didn’t have perfect recollection of what occurred on Friday December 13, and I think that has been a frustrating component of what’s occurred.”

An observation, one might ponder, that Duluk’s legal team might not find particularly helpful.

And at almost every turn, Duluk has responded with another minor act of repentance: temporarily standing down from all committee work, seeking counselling for alcohol use, realising he was actually on a “journey of recovery” and finally stepping away from parliament, party-room and party.

That final move was prompted by last week’s twist: police had reported the former rising star for “basic assault” after Bonaros made a complaint to SAPOL.

That fact alone might have been enough to justify Marshall’s sudden shift in tone, but the Premier threw in another bombshell of his own: he had “become aware” of new, further allegations “regarding incidents involving the Member for Waite, Mr Sam Duluk, and his behaviour at Parliament House on Friday 13th December 2019”.

The plot thickens.

You may well have some questions about all this, so here are a few helpful ones ABC presenter David Bevan put to the Premier this morning:

Q: When did you receive the new information about Sam Duluk?

A: I think early Friday afternoon. Late morning or early afternoon.

Q: And who told you the new information?

A: My office.

Q: And where did they get it from?

A: They’d spoken with people that had come forward.

Q: New people who have come forward?

A: That’s correct.

Q: And have they told you that this new information could be the subject of other work by the police or any other body or is it just, is it more scuttlebutt around Parliament, or what did they say to you?

A: Well look as I said, and I’m not trying to be difficult but I’m just not going to be drawn on these additional allegations because I think that we already have two investigations which are underway, and they’ve got to run their course.

Q: Do you think there’s any course, any path back to redemption for Sam Duluk?

A: I think it would be extraordinarily difficult.

So after everything we’ve heard alleged – touching a fellow MP on the bottom, accusations of sexist, racist and homophobic rhetoric – it was evidently these secretive new revelations that prompted the Premier’s self-described “decisive action”.

Shouldn’t he then refer these allegations to police?

Or detail them in state parliament?

Or is it enough to suggest the embattled MP stays away from his Liberal parliamentary colleagues for the time being, thanks very much.

Certainly, some in his party are pondering why the Premier saw fit to vaguely suggest a level of offending beyond all that has thus far been reported – and then opt to keep the details quiet.

The nub of all this, of course, is an alleged assault that now appears destined to be sorted out through the courts – a development that will likely delay any public airing of the independent inquiry.

But the fact this issue has dominated the political agenda for almost two months now, and we’re no clearer on the events of that evening nor closer to a resolution – that is, at least in part, down to a failure of leadership.

A lack, indeed, of decisive action.

In the course of that brief ABC radio interview excerpted above, for instance, Marshall managed to defer various key questions to three different people – Tarzia, Chapman and state director Sascha Meldrum – while also conceding he doesn’t understand exactly what’s going on vis a vis the police report because “I’m not a lawyer [and] I don’t understand how that specifically works”.

To say the least, it didn’t exactly scream: “I’m all over this one.”

But this appears to be a recurring theme with the Marshall Government: an inability to cauterise wounds, a willingness to let problems drift along unresolved.

We saw it last year with land tax, when a poorly received policy was left hanging like a poised executioner’s axe for the best part of six months while the economy flailed along on its unmerry way.

And then, only this morning, Transport and Infrastructure Minister Stephan Knoll released some strange “new data” that he said “revealed wait times at Service SA centres are being slashed by 30 per cent and more people than ever are transacting online as key reforms deliver better services”.

It felt, of course, like another softening-up exercise in the inexorable journey towards him actually telling people what he’s doing about those three Service SA centres whose demise was unveiled in the Liberal Government’s very first budget, almost 18 months ago.

There’s been no action nor information on that highly unpopular move ever since, but the Government has – again – been content to simply let the issue just coast along.

Unresolved, undecided and wreaking enormous political damage in the interim.

Which, given the bar the Premier has set for “decisive action”, suddenly seems entirely unsurprising. 

Tom Richardson is a senior reporter at InDaily.

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