Marshall lurches into minority government as MP faces criminal charges

The Marshall Government has fallen into political upheaval, with its parliamentary majority evaporating overnight as the ongoing parliamentary entitlements scandal saw a first-term MP charged with falsely claiming more than $18,000 – and the state’s corruption watchdog revealing it continues to investigate others.

Feb 19, 2021, updated Feb 19, 2021
Photo: Tony Lewis / InDaily

Photo: Tony Lewis / InDaily

Fraser Ellis, whose Narungga electorate takes in the Yorke Peninsula, rose in parliament around 2.10am overnight – after a marathon debate that saw abortion law reforms pass the lower house – to reveal he had been charged and was stepping away from the Liberal Party to sit on the crossbench.

“I would like to take this rather unconventional time to inform the house that yesterday I was charged with alleged offences arising from the recent ICAC investigation into the country members’ accommodation allowance,” Ellis told parliament.

“I am completely innocent, and I will be vigorously defending these allegations to the full extent of my resources and the law.”

He said that he had informed Premier Steven Marshall on Thursday that, “conforming to established precedent”, he would be suspending his Liberal Party membership immediately and sitting on the crossbench “while attempts are made to prove the disputed allegations”.

His revelation appeared to catch Independent Commissioner Against Corruption Ann Vanstone on the hop, prompting a hurried statement around 10am this morning.

She revealed she had sent a brief of evidence to the Director of Public Prosecutions in December. Her office has previously refused to comment on questions from InDaily as to whether a file had been turned over to the DPP.

Vanstone said the DPP “filed an Information in the Adelaide Magistrates Court” on Wednesday, “charging Mr Fraser Ellis MP with 23 counts of Deception, contrary to section 139 of the Criminal Law Consolidation Act (SA)”.

“I would not ordinarily name a person charged as a result of an investigation by me, but in light of Mr Ellis’s statement in parliament this morning, it is appropriate that I do so on this occasion,” she said in a statement.

“It will be alleged that between 13 May 2018 and 12 June 2020, Mr Ellis made 78 fraudulent claims for the Country Members Accommodation Allowance, totalling more than $18,000.”

The Country Members Accommodation Allowance is available to Members of Parliament whose usual place of residence is more than 75 kilometres from Adelaide, and who are required to stay in Adelaide overnight to attend to Parliamentary or other relevant duties.

The ICAC said it would be alleged “that Mr Ellis claimed the allowance for nights he did not spend in Adelaide”.

Ellis was yesterday served a summons to appear in the Adelaide Magistrates Court on March 31.

The Commissioner also revealed her “investigation into claims by other Members continues” – but her office declined to identify which or to how many MPs this alluded.

Marshall today deflected questions about the case, telling reporters at a media conference to update progress on the north-south corridor: “We’re just getting on with delivering for the people of SA.”

“A statement has been made – I’m not going to comment on a matter which is now before the court,” he said.

He said Ellis had briefed him late yesterday afternoon and informed him he intended to make his statement at the conclusion of last night’s debate.

“He’s made it clear he will be suspending his membership of the Liberal Party [but] I have received written confirmation from Fraser Ellis he’ll be continuing to support the Government on confidence motions and in terms of supply,” Marshall said.

He said he did not know the identity of the other MPs referred to by the ICAC.

“What I can say is all the information you’ve got – the public statements from the ICAC – is the same information that I’ve got,” he said.

“I haven’t sought a meeting with the ICAC commissioner and it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to do so.”

Asked whether he would want any MPs who know they are the subject of an investigation to notify him – and whether he would instruct them to do so – Marshall said: “There are laws that govern the administration of that [ICAC] Act, and I always make sure I comply with those.”

However, he declined to say whether such an edict would contravene those laws, saying: “That would be a question you might like to direct either to the Commissioner or to the Attorney-General.”

Marshall suggested the Liberal Party would seek to endorse a new candidate in Narungga, saying repeatedly that Ellis “is not a member of the Liberal Party, and you need to be a member of the Liberal Party to be a candidate for Narungga”.

“That’s a matter for the state executive, but I just make the point you can’t be a candidate if you’re not a member of the Liberal Party and Fraser Ellis is not a member of the Liberal Party,” he said.

Asked whether he thought the SA public would be concerned about the number of Liberals forced to the crossbench facing various charges, Marshall said: “The people of SA just want to keep our state safe and our economy strong.”

“I’m actually focussed on one thing and that’s the people of SA,” he said.

Today’s developments are the latest in an ongoing scandal that first rocked the Government last year, when questions about accommodation allowance claims made by then-Upper House president Terry Stephens snowballed into a broad review by former Independent Commissioner Against Corruption Bruce Lander.

After expense claims dating back a decade were tabled in parliament, Stephens, Transport and Infrastructure Minister Stephan Knoll, Primary Industries Minister Tim Whetstone and Marshall Government whip Adrian Pederick all stepped down from their roles, with Knoll later declaring he would not recontest his Barossa-based seat.

Lander told InDaily last August he was investigating an unidentified number of MPs as part of a “criminal” corruption inquiry, Ellis, Stephens and Pederick penned a joint statement identifying themselves as the subject of that investigation.

Ellis’s case reportedly related to claims he made for city accommodation expenses while staying rent-free in a Norwood property owned by Stephens, whose daughter is Ellis’s partner.

However, after succeeding Lander as ICAC, Vanstone announced she had wrapped up inquiries into several MPs, and would take no further action against Pederick, Knoll or Whetstone, along with fellow Liberals David Basham, Dan van Holst Pellekaan, Nick McBride and Peter Treloar, Labor’s Eddie Hughes and independent Geoff Brock.

Stephens told InDaily today he had received no contact from ICAC about the status of its inquiry into his claims.

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Ellis told parliament overnight that he repeated previous assertions that he has “never acted dishonestly”, and that “any error in a claim form completed by a relatively inexperienced member was simply that: an error”.

“There is a significant difference between an error and any proof beyond reasonable doubt of a crime in a court of law,” he said under parliamentary privilege.

“These were the result of genuine errors by a new member, for which I have already apologised.”

He said he made his statement statement pre-empting any public comment from the ICAC or the DPP “because I have nothing to hide” [and] “my conscience is clear”.

“My constituents and those who know me know that I am not and never have been a dishonest person,” he said.

“The allegations are contrary to who I am and what I stand for. I have great faith in the judicial system of this state, and I look forward to being exonerated by an impartial court, free of influence from other arms of government.”

There are now three former Liberal MPs facing separate unrelated charges going into next year’s state election, with Waite’s Sam Duluk facing a basic assault case stemming from an incident at a 2019 Christmas Party in a parliament house corridor, and Mount Gambier’s Troy Bell – who contested and won his seat in 2018 as an independent – defending theft and dishonesty charges relating to an alleged misuse of public funds in a former role.

Ellis told parliament he intended to re-contest his seat, saying: “I have significant unfinished business which I intend to complete.”

“I will not be resigning or put off from the task of continuing to represent, and in 2022 being re-elected to represent, the electorate that I love,” he said.

“These charges are mere allegations, not proof of what is alleged against me.

“We all know, from everyday life, that allegations are easy to make but that they need to be proved based on evidence as opposed to supposition or innuendo. I have the benefit of the presumption of innocence, and I ask our friends in the media to remember and honour that and report on this matter fairly and ethically.”

The Marshall Government was elected in 2018 with 25 seats in the 47-seat state parliament.

However, with a Liberal Speaker and Duluk’s move to the crossbench, its majority in the House of Assembly had already effectively disappeared, while Ellis’s departure officially plunges it into a minority government of 23 seats.

However, this is unlikely to have much practical effect, given Ellis and Duluk – both hailing from the party’s Right faction – are unlikely to oppose the Government line on key divisions and Ellis has guaranteed his support on confidence and supply.

Ironically, the Liberals spurned a recent bid by former Labor MP-turned-independent Frances Bedford to take over the Speakership when Vincent Tarzia was appointed to the ministry as part of a reshuffle sparked by the spate of resignations linked to the same scandal.

Instead, they elected first-term Liberal Josh Teague, foregoing his vote on the floor of the house.

Labor leader Peter Malinauskas this morning declared the Government “in crisis”.

“In the past year alone, this Government has had three Ministers resign and two MPs quit the party after being charged with offences – as well as the resignations of the President of the Legislative Council and the Government Whip,” he said.

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