Independent inquiry to probe parliament’s “nightmare before Christmas”

An independent third party will be brought in to investigate claims of misconduct against Liberal backbencher Sam Duluk, with the Equal Opportunity Commissioner approached about leading the inquiry, InDaily can reveal.

Jan 07, 2020, updated Jan 07, 2020
Sam Duluk in parliament. Photo: Al Fraser

Sam Duluk in parliament. Photo: Al Fraser

The episode has also prompted calls for the Equal Opportunity Act to be overhauled, with the Commissioner suggesting the current law may not be “in line with modern community standards”.

Speaker Vincent Tarzia has confirmed to InDaily that he will bring in “a third party” as a “priority” to conduct an inquiry into claims the Waite MP acted improperly to several people, including SA Best MLC Connie Bonaros and two parliamentary staff, at a December 13 Christmas party hosted by crossbench Legislative Councillors.

It can be revealed the party – to which it’s understood Duluk was not formally invited – was themed “The Nightmare Before Christmas”, highlighting its scheduling on Friday the 13th of December.

An emailed invitation sent by a parliamentary staffer reads: “In keeping with tradition, we’re planning our usual cross-bench end of year party for Friday 13 December from 3.00pm in the Lower Ground Leg Co [legislative council] corridor.”

“All cross-bench Members and staff are invited… Just bring your own drinks and a plate of food to share.

“The theme this year is: The Nightmare Before Christmas (as it’s Friday 13th)… the party starts from 3.00pm, games will start after 4.00pm.”

The invite noted there was “no need to dress up but there is a prize for best dressed”.

Decor from the ‘Friday the 13th’-themed Christmas party. Photo: Supplied

Duluk has already posted a public apology on Twitter to Bonaros “and anyone else who was offended by my actions”.

Tarzia has instigated an inquiry, but the Labor Opposition has called for an independent investigation.

InDaily understands Equal Opportunity Commissioner Niki Vincent has been sounded out about the prospect of overseeing the inquiry, but the Speaker did not comment on her involvement beyond confirming his staff had contacted her office last week.

The Commissioner told InDaily: “I certainly have not been formally invited to undertake an inquiry at this stage.”

However, she acknowledged the discussion with Tarzia’s office was about “what were the options in that regard [and] whether that would be an option”.

“It’s not an option under the act formally,” she noted, but added that she could hypothetically “be asked to conduct an independent review of this matter… outside of the Act”.

Vincent said she had “a general discussion with the Clerk of the House of Assembly in relation to the interpretation of the Equal Opportunity Act”, which she said was “quite specific around how complaints against members of parliament can be dealt with”.

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“It’s different to the way other people… are dealt with,” she said.

“It was a discussion to get clarity around that.”

Under the Act, if a complaint concerning an MP is lodged with the Commissioner, they must refer it to “the appropriate authority” – either the Speaker of the Legislative Council president – if the matter is likely to impinge on parliamentary privilege.

Asked whether a complaint had been raised with her in this case, Vincent said she couldn’t “confirm or deny” whether this was the case, as her role is to remain neutral and preserve confidentiality.

“I bring the parties together and conciliate complaints,” she said.

The implication of the Act is that the Commission’s jurisdiction “does not apply to anything that’s part of parliamentary procedure”, but may apply for matters arising outside the chamber.

“I don’t think people should be groped wherever they are,” she said, as a general comment.

Vincent suggested the law needed updating, saying: “One of the things this has raised for me is whether our Equal Opportunity Act is in line with modern community standards.”

She said the Act was last revisited in 1996, adding: “I’d say our community standards have changed quite dramatically since ’96.”

“It’s certainly raised for me – for the first time really, having to think about these things – the idea that we might need to look at the Act,” she said.

Vincent said the 1996 changes to the Act were predicated on a review by Justice Brian Martin that argued MPs “are in a different position from the normal workplace participant” and “are frequently adversaries in the public eye”.

“Other means of coping with offensive behaviour are readily available and there are dangers associated with an attempt to intrude into these relationships,” the Martin report reads, according to Hansard.

Under the Equal Opportunity Act, it is “unlawful for a member of Parliament to subject” staff members, parliamentary staffers or fellow MPs “to sexual harassment”.

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