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Chapman has failed the pub test and must resign: Brindal

Opinion

Deputy Premier Vickie Chapman has no choice but to follow the example of her party predecessors in the face of serious questions over her conduct – and resign, argues her former Liberal colleague Mark Brindal.

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Fervent supporters of any cause are often oblivious to its wider context.

A football supporter, for example, so consumed by love for the club that they are prepared to undermine the code in which their team plays is not only a fool, they are a danger to their own side.

The scenes being played out in the Parliament of South Australia threaten the very fabric of our parliamentary system.

Every thinking voter should call this for what it is – a shameful disgrace

And it’s that system, not the parties within it, that make our country the peaceful, prosperous and stable place that it is today.

Even if we are charitable enough to believe that a few parliamentarians, enjoying the view from the government side of the chamber, believe the cant they are spreading, every other member, the media and every thinking voter should call this for what it is – a shameful disgrace.

The parliament is not them, it is us.

Every one of them was elected by the adult franchise of South Australia. They bear a heavy responsibility, for their seats are not theirs, they are ours. They occupy them at our pleasure, as our representatives, holding an ancient but valued institution in trust. Present indications are that that trust is being abused.

No parliament can operate effectively unless it is in full possession of the known facts and can fully and frankly debate them.

When the parliament is not properly informed, its deliberations are diminished and wrong decisions can be made. That’s why, when a minister is accused of misleading the House – either by lying or through deliberate evasion – it is considered a serious offence.

Because it is effectively an offence committed against every voter, even a serious accusation generally results in resignation and the end of a political career.

Labor Premier John Bannon was an honourable man. No-one has ever suggested that he was personally involved in the decisions that led to the State Bank debacle. However, because he was in charge, but did not have the relevant knowledge and therefore did not inform parliament of the bank’s disastrous problems, he resigned.

In the Olsen Liberal Government, the former Deputy Premier Graham Ingerson was accused of misleading the House.

While the matter was trivial and did not affect the parliament or its deliberations, a privileges committee determined that he had misled the House. He resigned.

One of SA’s best tourism Ministers, Joan Hall, was identified as having a “possible” conflict of interest in respect to her relationship with soccer in SA. No inquiry was held and, despite many of her colleagues counselling her to stay, she resigned.

Then-Premier John Olsen was accused of doing a “side deal” by offering an extra incentive to entice Motorola to SA – creating hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in economic activity.

While an inquiry concluded that he had done so and had, therefore, misled the House in several statements, it emphasised that no personal gain was involved, no laws broken nor rules bent and that his actions had been the interests of the state. Indeed, had he simply informed the parliament in the beginning that that’s what he did, he would have been supported.

Instead, he resigned.

These are all decent people but their resignations were the right thing to do.

Importantly, however, when it was discussed with each of them at the time, they all made a similar observation. It was, broadly: “No matter how we try to sell this, if I stay, it will never pass the ‘pub test’.”

And the ‘pub test’ – the conclusions reached by the average voter after debating an issue over a beer in the front bar – is the ultimate arbiter of what it’s possible to achieve in any representative democracy.

When I was Minister for Water Resources, my head of Department alerted me to a problem. My recently retired ex-colleague, leader and friend, Dale Baker, had applied for ownership rights to water that lay beneath his neighbour’s property and, because water and land had been separated, the law legally entitled him to do so. We were alerted when one of his neighbours complained.

As Minister I could veto his application but, if he challenged the matter in court, he would win. I rang Dale and told him that, while he was legally entitled to do as he had, I was vetoing his applications. I informed him that I was doing so because granting him the entitlements would never pass the pub test but that, if he contested the matter, he would win.

Despite bearing the responsibility for the unnecessary cost, losing publicly in court was preferable to appearing to support a colleague and mate enriching himself in a way that seemed to unfairly disadvantage others.

Despite a tirade of purple expletives, he never contested my decision. The law was quickly amended.

My point? In any representative democracy, there are rules and conventions, boundaries and avenues for appeal.

There is the ‘high court’ of Parliament and, as some Members describe them, the “real” courts. But the highest authority, and the only one that can neither be manipulated nor gainsaid, is the ‘pub test’.

Circumstances, which the current State Government created, have given rise to a situation that the Opposition has cleverly exploited.

It has enabled them to set up a parliamentary inquiry into Attorney-General and Planning Minister Vickie Chapman’s refusal of a development proposal for Smith Bay port on Kangaroo Island – despite the unchallenged economic and employment opportunities which the project would bring.

Despite established practice, parliament authorised the employment of a senior QC to assist the committee.

After collecting evidence alongside the committee, the QC, Dr Rachael Gray, has recommended that the committee report three instances in which the Attorney is alleged to have misled the House, the possibility that breaches of the Ministerial code of conduct constitute a contempt of the House – another serious allegation – and that, because she has formed the belief that the Attorney had not only a perceived but real conflict of interest, that matters be referred to the Ombudsman for an investigation that could have legal consequences.

Allegations that the inquiry has been some ‘kangaroo court’ are a sideshow, as has been the poor conduct of some members. People are uninterested in whether it was the Attorney’s or anyone else’s right to determine whether a conflict existed – or, indeed, who has the right to dismiss her.

The double standards are clear.

It’s my assessment that the Attorney has failed the pub test

The same benchmarks have recently seen so many Liberals consigned to the crossbenches before the ink is even dry on the accusation against them.

Ministers have lost their jobs.

The same standards have not been applied to the Deputy Premier.

Voters are canny. They routinely sort wheat from chaff. They reach conclusions. It’s my assessment that the Attorney has failed the pub test.

If I am correct, she has no choice.

No matter how much she resists, it is not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’ – and the longer she delays, the more she allows the Opposition to taint the Government, perhaps to the point of their defeat at the next election.

No politician is indispensable. The Parliament is.

She would do well to remember the words of another lawyer-turned-politician, Oliver Cromwell, who dismissed the ‘rump parliament’ with these words: “You have tarried in this place too long for any good that you might do. In the name of God, go.”

Mark Brindal was Member of the South Australian Parliament from 1989 to 2006, and was Minister for Water Resources, Local Government, Youth and Employment and Training during the Olsen and Kerin governments.

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