On North Terrace here in Adelaide there is a fine building known as Parliament House. This ornate structure is home to the most laughable legislature known to man. There are plenty worse around- Zimbabwe’s springs to mind just at the moment, but for comic ineptitude, it is hard to beat South Australia.
I’ve never felt comfortable writing comedy, which is why I do not normally write about South Australian politics. However, the Comedy Club which is known as the South Australian Parliament is starting to tread on some old liberties. But bear with me while I fill you in on some ancient history.
In the wake of the fall of the Olsen government, South Australian electors were left with the choice of Premier two slightly unlikely figures. Rob Kerin was the incumbent Liberal Premier. Nice bloke, Rob. Known for liking a beer, he struck you as the sort of country worthy that you’d trust to run the local football club, town council or other such civic necessity. It all seemed slightly improbable that he ever got into Parliment, and it all seemed even more unlikely that he ever got to be Premier.
But Premier he was. Something very ‘South Australian’ about him. People could identify with him.
He was up against ALP leader Mike Rann. While Kerin comes from the farms and dales near Crystal Brook, and strikes you as everyman, Rann is not even a South Australian, but a New Zealander. He came to Adelaide to be Don Dunstan’s press secretary, it seems, and never went back.
Competent fellow, but he has the smarmy air of a spin doctor. Competent, to be sure, but with a slightly ‘icky’ air about him.
Faced with the choice of a likeable bloke that seemed out of his depth, or a smarmy Blair-lite figure, the good citizens did what we all hope happens more often – they returned a hung Parliament. Power, therefore, resolved to one Peter Lewis. From this result, all else has followed.
Peter Lewis was the long time member for Hammond. Hammond is the area around Murray Bridge; it’s not quite rural redneck Queensland, but…
Lewis was a Liberal MP who had long proved to be more a menace to his own Party then anything the ALP could come up with. He has a long record of causing headaches to Premiers Brown, Olsen and Kerin, and needless to say it was with some relief that he lost his Liberal pre-selection. However, Lewis did not take this lying down- he ran as an independent, and won his seat.
In the wake of the 2002 election there were three Independents, and the ALP needed the support of one to form government. In theory, this should not have been easy. Lewis could be classed as an Independent Liberal, as can Rory McEwan, and then there was a National Party MP; an exotic creature indeed in a South Australian legislature. Unlike in other states, there is no Coalition agreement between the Liberal Party and the National Party.
But Lewis was first to do a deal with Rann and the ALP, giving them government in return for the Speaker’s Chair.
Since becoming Speaker, Lewis has enjoyed himself immensely, and has proved to be a thorn in the side of Mike Rann as he has to all other Premiers before him. But Rann, a master politician whatever else he is, seduced McEwan and National Party MP Karlene Maywald into his government by giving them Cabinet postings- a move that caused the local Bruvvas much heartburn, but a handy piece of insurance, particularly as one disaffected MP, Kris Hanna, left the party to serve as a Green MP.
Despite shoring up his majority, Rann would have been happy to keep Lewis as Speaker of the House, but Lewis’ general insanity (I do not know if he is medically insane or not, but he’s political lunacy personified) has made that impossible. Recent allegations by Lewis about the sexual proclivities of MP’s have enraged the government, particularly since Lewis has been alleging a coverup and possible police involvement. As a result, Lewis resigned yesterday and did so in high drama by marching out of Parliament House in his full Speaker’s Regalia, marching across King William Street and into the Governor’s Residence to do it.
Lewis is a full on drama queen.
But now it gets murky. Lewis is now a back-bench independent MP, and from that platform, he can make any allegation he likes. So the latest gambit from ‘Media’ Mike Rann is to introduce emergency legislation – the Parliamentary Privilege (Special Temporary Abrogation) Bill. This is aimed squarely at Lewis to allow police to search his office and to prevent him from naming names in Parliament. Crikey.com.au’s Christian Kerr was blunt about this legislation in today’s email:
Premier Rann denies the government’s legislation sets a dangerous precedent by restricting free speech. His government has dressed it up as a simple measure to facilitate police investigations. As if.
It’s not standard law and order legislation. It’s an unprecedented rollback of the Westminster tradition, of freedom of speech and a crass move to scare off Adelaide’s already placid media.
A senior cabinet minister who briefed the media on the bill yesterday admitted it had no sunset clause and admitted that it would create one set of laws for public officials and one for punters. “Come and talk to us,” said the briefer when asked if it would apply to journalists you’re with us or against us, in other words.
The legislation is likely to make it through the lower house, thanks to tame independents bought off by cabinet posts. The Legislative Council is another matter. Even if it gets through, however, it wouldn’t last five minutes in the High Court. And the allegations can still be aired in any other parliament. So far, Lewis’s and his volunteers’ claims have not stood up.
If truth is on the government’s side, then they should state the truth not legislate against the freedom to speak it. Suspending privilege even over one matter turns Westminster democracy on its head. It’s hard to know whether to describe the legislation and the spin attached as shameful or shameless. Actually, it’s both.
Of course, it merely continues South Australia’s reputation as a joke of a state, and if it wasn’t for the wine, I’m sure the rest of the nation would vote to expel us from the Commonwealth. Just give me enough warning to get out first, okay?
UPDATE- It looks like the legislation mooted will not pass the Upper House. This means that Lewis can continue to make allegations with Parliamentary privelige. Good in one way, but awfully bad for the people named, if they are in fact innocent. It is true that the South Australian government’s reaction has been totally over the top but Lewis is at least as culpable in my view.