South Australia- state of confusion

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?

Anyway, Gary Sauer-Thomson has more here and here.

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.

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Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

My goodness. I hadn’t been following any of this. It’s both bizarre and frightening. I would have thought legislation of the sort you describe may well be unconstitutional, because the implied right to political free speech has been held by the High Court to apply at state as well as federal level. Hopefully, if Lewis is even half as loopy as you say, he might ignore Rann’s appalling legislation and spill his guts anyway. That way, we’ll eventually get a definitive High Court ruling on the constitutionality of the legislation.

Nicholas Gruen
2022 years ago

Thx for the post Scott. All news to me too.

observa
observa
2022 years ago

Summed it up beautifully Scott. I’m glad in a way my friends interstate haven’t got a clue about all this judging by Ken and Nicholas comments. It’s been clogging up The Advertiser and airwaves here for weeks.

It was disgusting watching the two majors woo this maverick fruitcake when the election turned up a hung parliament. You just knew it would all end in tears for our bloody democracy and here we all are. All the bloody Libs can take out of it is they were lucky they weren’t successful in bribing Lewis enough to throw in his lot with them again, after they’d done the decent thing with him once before.

As for protection of parliamentary privilege all I can say is something I never thought I’d say again- Thank God for the Dems in the Legislative Council. Both the majors deserve everything they get from Lewis now.

saint
2022 years ago

Ken – South Australian politics has been bizarre and frightening for decades. If you ever want a case for abolishing state governments, ours is it.

observa
observa
2022 years ago

We orta declare war on the Yanks and get us a decent Marshall Plan.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Having just watched the 7.30 Report segment on this saga, I realise I had misunderstood the intended effect of the proposed Rann government legislation. It wasn’t intending to muzzle Lewis as such, just rob any disclosure he might have made of Parliamentary privilege. That sort of law wouldn’t infringe the implied constitutional freedom of political speech. Indeed it probably wouldn’t even be justiciable. Parliament has long been accepted as the master of its own powers and privileges, in respect of which the courts will not interfere (except indirectly as in Egan v Willis). Thus it’s solely a question for Parliament whether it abrogates the absolute privilege of its members in respect of speeches made in Parliament.

Of course, that doesn’t make Rann’s proposed law a wise one, and I’m very pleased the Democrats have decided to join the Liberals and block it in the SA upper house. That said, I also agree with those who suggest Lewis’s actions (like his NSW predecessor Franca Arena) are themselves reprehensible.

Recalling the antics of Franca Arena and a couple of other NSW MPs only a few years ago, I’m not sure Scott’s sense of embarrassment at the antics of his State MPs is justified in a comparative sense. It isn’t at all obvious that they’re any more childish or silly than their NSW (or NT) counterparts.

The NT Parliament recently witnessed the charming spectacle of a Labor Minister taunting an Opposition MP, who had been the victim of child sexual abuse, with a sneered taunt of ‘poofta’ across the chamber. The same Minister had previously taunted the same MP by holding up in Parliament a vegetable shaped like a penis saying “this is for the Member for McDonnell. He’d probably like it” (or words to that effect). To Clare Martin’s eternal discredit, she failed to discipline him.

Andrew Bartlett
2022 years ago

Good to see some nice comments about the Democrats for a change! Seriously, it also shows why having an Upper House that is not controlled by the Govt (whatever the party) is so important.

Parliamentary Privilege can seem a bit arcane, but weakening it without a lot of advance thought and debate is appalling – particularly just for a single case.

This allegation wasn’t just about ‘sexual proclivities’, as Scott’s post suggests, it was also about pedophilia which is quite different. What Lewis has done annoys me a lot, not because he makes policiains in general look bad (people don’t really need much reason to dislike politicians) but because he has made people who campaign against pedophila look loopy (as did Franca Arena). I believe most Governments have been negligent in tackling child sexual (and other) assault, and it does need to be strongly tackled, but just finger pointing at a few people with unsubstantiated allegations harms everybody involved and puts the general cause of child protection backwards.

Nabakov
Nabakov
2022 years ago

PETER LEWIS [in Parliament]: “Let me tell you in those places in the world where you can’t afford to buy another human being, what they do is paint up a tree log that’s been hired out for you and fit it up with a duck.”

I think Peter Lewis should be declared a living national treasure, removed to a secure location where we can marvel at him and take piccies, but never, never to be released back into the wild again.

blank
blank
2022 years ago

Mike Rann is a Pom.
Born in 1953 in Sidcup in Kent.
The family moved to NZ in 1962.
I’ve never noticed anything NZ in his smarmy speaking style.

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
2022 years ago

I’m sorry Scott, it’s a brave attempt but I have to agree with Ken. Peter Lewis is clearly as mad as a cut snake but compared to Franca Arena he looks pretty bog-standard. All you’ve got down there is a couple of dead poofs in the parklands, a bunch of “volunteers,” wearing knitted underwear on their heads, making ‘allegations’ out of the Speaker’s office and rumours about paedophilia. Isn’t this kind of ‘situation normal’ in Adelaide? :) I admit that Speaker Lewis rushing into the Governor’s place in full drag is impressive but presumably the staff had sufficient forewarning to flee for their lives- or at least lock their doors.

Franca wept, screamed and ranted like Callas on speed. She accused the Premier, the Leader of the Opposition, much of the state’s Bench and Commissioner Woods of being in cahoots on paedophilia conspiracy suppression. She also ‘secured’ the suicide of Judge Yeldham and claimed to know of satanic goings-on in high and powerful places. She’s the acknowledged Diva Assoluta of nutjob pollies.

Scott Wickstein
2022 years ago

Yes, I see your point, but at least she was never Speaker of the House!