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Westminster confusion in South Australia

By Scott Prasser - posted Wednesday, 24 November 2021


Last week's events in the South Australian parliament and the responses by the Marshall Liberal Government highlighted its lack of understanding of the principles of Westminster democracy, the premier's poor political management, and in these COVID times, the fragility of our democracy.

A Parliamentary Select Committee had concluded that Vicki Chapman, Deputy Premier, Attorney General and Minister for Planning and Local Government, had an undeclared conflict of interest concerning her decision about a proposed port development on Kangaroo Island, had misled parliament and should resign from the ministry.

Parliament subsequently endorsed the Committee's finding. The lower house voted that Chapman had lost the confidence of parliament and should resign as minister.

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According to Professor Anne Twomey under the Westminster conventions of individual ministerial responsibility a "vote of no confidence in a minister in the lower house will result in that minister losing his or her commission, and most likely a change in government or an election".

The duty of the premier in these circumstances as the chief adviser to the governor is to inform the incumbent of Parliament's decision and in line with Westminster conventions, that Chapman's commission as minister be withdrawn.

Instead, Marshall's response was a complete abrogation of Westminster principles and accepted conventions. He argued that Parliament's motion did not require him to advise the governor to dismiss Chapman and that only he, as first minister, advises the governor on the hiring and firing of ministers.

This response ignored the conventions of Westminster government that although the premier provides advice to the Governor, he must communicate unambiguously the will of parliament and follow Westminster principles.

Under Premier Marshall's interpretation of the Westminster system even if parliament passed a no confidence motion in his government, he could advise the Governor to reject such a resolution and carry on in office. Marshall is ignoring the whole basis of our democratic system of responsible government. This is a dangerous precedent, particularly in the current climate of political extremism.

Complicating the matter was that the Governor, if wanting independent constitutional advice would have to consult the Solicitor-General, an officer in the Attorney-General's Department of which Chapman is minister. Consequently, if Chapman remained as Attorney-General such advice would not be seen as independent.

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This week, Chapman has herself wisely ended the crisis, at least in the short term by voluntarily standing down from her ministerial positions including as Attorney-General. However, she did not resign as the convention dictates and its is only a temporary respite.

Of course, we understand that the Premier's responses reflect his government's current political vulnerability.

For instance, although only elected in 2018 the Marshall government has since lost two members to the cross-bench and thus from the beginning of this year became a minority government. Last month another disaffected Liberal resigned and is now the Speaker of the House of Assembly – the very person whom Parliament resolved should advise the Governor of its recent resolutions.

Marshall could have avoided this shambles. When allegations about Chapman first emerged, he should have stood her down immediately, and appointed his own 'independent' review. This would have shown decisive leadership and possibly headed off the appointment of the more hostile and politically motivated parliamentary committee inquiry.

Overall, Marshall has shown poor political judgement. His deputy, even if exonerated, will still be damaged goods. This does not bode well for a minority government facing election in March. Worse, the South Australian Liberals have shown scant regard of Westminster principles about which they are supposed to be such staunch defenders. This will further undermine the public's already declining trust in our current system of democracy.

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About the Author

Dr Scott Prasser is author of Robert Menzies: Man or Myth and is Series Editor of Connor Court's Australian Biographical Series, and has written numerous academic articles and chapters on federal and state Liberal parties and Coalition politics.

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