Marshall’s SA Government – Just like a duck

Moderate Marshall is calm on the surface – but paddling like mad underneath…

SA Liberal Premier Steven Marshall has sailed smoothly through the storms of COVID – so far at least. Blessed with a strong public health sector and a skilful Chief Public Health Officer in Nicola Spurrier, he has listened to the experts and followed their advice, and for that, he has gained due credit from the community. However not far beneath that calm surface a number of stormy issues have arisen, none of which reflect well on the government. Marshall has a reputation as a moderate, a reasonable man who will remain calm and assess each situation on its merit. He likes to show that he can listen to the public and respond sensibly. He presides over a cabinet dominated by moderates in a party that has a strong and recently discontented right-wing.

The first – and still smouldering, the problem was Sam Duluk, a right-wing Liberal MP who disgraced himself at a Parliament House Christmas party slapping SA Best MP Connie Banaros on the backside – as well as freely offering his racist and homophobic opinions. Bonaros complained, Duluk has been charged with assault, has suspended his party membership and says he will not appear in parliament until the case, which is scheduled for an October hearing, is resolved. However, he has lost Marshall’s support and the dries are manoeuvring to set up a preferred candidate for pre-selection. South Australia has a great tradition of toxic factional feuds within the Liberal party. Under Marshall, even if the hatchet has not been buried, the knives have at least remained sheathed, until now.

Meanwhile, Stephan Knoll, Minister for Planning, Transport and Infrastructure has not been making life easy for the Premier. Knoll picked up the ball previously kicked off by his Labor predecessor John Rau in pursuing planning reforms aimed at encouraging and regulating urban infill while moving much of the zoning powers away from local government and into his own department. These plans continue to cause electoral concern particularly in leafy middle ring suburbs with significant heritage architecture. It’s ethically and politically fraught territory and young new ministers should tread warily. On the one hand, protestors can be dismissed as self-interested ‘not in my backyard’ standing in the way of progress. On the other, the government can be seen as rolling over to the demands of property developers and destroying the liveability of the city and the state.

While the heritage battles are predominantly in safe Liberal electorates the impact of the proposed changes goes much wider. The new planning and design code will be accessed via an online portal, but the portal development process has been marked by mass resignations of key staff and a procession of delays. Implementation (like so many ominous measures) is scheduled for September.

Minister Knoll has been seen as a rising star and perhaps destined to take over as Treasurer in a likely second term Marshall government. He has publicly described himself as a simple sausage maker from the Barossa Valley. Perhaps he should remember Bismark’s observation that the making of laws, like sausages is best not observed. His rise and rise came to an abrupt (bus) stop last week. Minister Knoll announced that the renegotiation of the privatised contracts for management of Adelaide’s bus services would be on the basis of a new plan for routes and bus stops. Initially, it was announced that 500 stops and some suburban routes would go to enable the establishment of more ‘go-zones’ along major arterial routes.  The abolition of timetables would prevent motorists from being irritated by buses idling at bus stops to keep within timetables.

Instead, routes and stops would be classified into maximum wait times of 15- 60 minutes. An online public consultation process invited people to give their impressions of the new service before anyone had experienced it or full information was available. The opposition managed to procure a leaked map showing details and provided it to the press. The Minister had to explain that perhaps it was really 960 stops or more and that some would only be for school buses. Groups of government MPs in the more marginal electorates were deluged with concerns and complaints. Within a fortnight Marshall pulled the plug announcing that in the light of the public consultation the plans had been dropped. And minister Knoll’s light was rather dimmed.

No sooner was that little fiasco neatly put to bed another rather more difficult and indeed, sinister one arose. An ABC investigation has revealed that the President of the Legislative Council, Liberal Terry Stephens has been claiming a $30K country members housing allowance. This is meant to compensate country MPs for the costs of accommodation when they leave their usual residences in their country electorates to attend parliament. Mr Stevens has claimed the maximum allowance for the last 2 years. During that time he claimed to be living at Victor Harbor – in his electorate and at 85 kilometres from Adelaide, just outside the minimum distance for a claim.

However, it appears that his claimed residential address had been let on on Air BnB for the period. Initially, Mr Stevens used his position to refuse opposition calls for full disclosure of the allowance allocations but soon backed down with the Premier saying he saw no reason why the allocations should not be made public. Even as Mr Stephens proclaimed his innocence the ABC went on to reveal that his Adelaide house was land tax-exempt – an exemption normally reserved for a principle place of residence. The SA Police have now referred the matter to the Independent Commissioner Against Corruption.

The Labor opposition is pushing hard for a full inquiry (secure in the knowledge they have only one member who represents a country electorate and is eligible to receive the allowance). With the possibility of other senior government parliamentarians becoming involved, it is hard to see this ending well for the Marshall government – especially with more storm clouds on the horizon as budget cuts start to bite with planned hospital staff reductions against the backdrop of growing COVID-19 anxiety.

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Paul Laris is a semi-retired health and human services policy tragic, health care users advocate, medical regulator, community activist, gardener and sailor.

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