Parliamentary games in South Australia

Back in 2013, in the course of explaining the demise of Julia Gillard, I noted that “‘Losing control of parliament’ is not some abstract notion; it means what it says.” I’m not going to take back that comment, but it’s time to admit that sometimes the situation is a bit more complicated, as illustrated this week in South Australia.

The South Australian government of Liberal premier Steven Marshall was elected in 2018 with 51.9% of the two-party-preferred vote and a reasonably healthy majority: 25 seats in the House of Assembly against 19 Labor and three independents. Two of the independents, Geoff Brock and Troy Bell, sit for what would otherwise be safe Liberal seats.

The Marshall government has won good reviews for its record in dealing with Covid-19, but its experience with its own MPs has not been so happy. Three of them have left the Liberal Party to join the now crowded crossbench as independents: Sam Duluk last year, following an assault charge (of which he was later acquitted) arising from his conduct at a Christmas party; Fraser Ellis last February, on being charged with rorting his expense claims (the case is still pending); and Dan Cregan last week.

That left the government with just 22 seats in a House of 47. And the independents (with the partial exception of Ellis) have all shown their willingness to vote against the government. With their assistance, Labor carried a motion on Tuesday to set up a select committee to investigate allegations against the deputy premier, and late that night the same alliance pushed through changes to give the Speaker control over the sitting calendar and to require the position to be held by an independent. Cregan was then elected to the job, replacing Liberal Josh Teague.

So, does the Marshall government still have control of parliament? In an obvious sense, no – it has had legislation carried against its wishes. And unlike, say, the medivac legislation, on which the federal government was defeated in early 2019, this doesn’t look like an isolated policy question; it looks more like a concerted effort to take the initiative away from the government.

On the other hand, the opposition shows no sign of wanting to force the government from office, which it could easily do by a vote of no confidence if the independents supported it. In this respect it is more like the case of Jeff Geoff Shaw in the Victorian parliament in 2013-14, where the opposition exploited a rogue independent to cause maximum embarrassment to the government without forcing an early election.

Like Victoria, South Australia has fixed four-year terms, but parliament in both cases can be dissolved early if the government is defeated on a vote of confidence. (South Australia’s rules are a bit more liberal.) The difference, however, is that an election in South Australia is almost due anyway: the state goes to the polls next March, making it more like the medivac case, which also took place in the shadow of an impending election.

So Labor has no reason to try to entice the independents (and its own MPs) to sacrifice a few months of their term to get an election in November rather than March. Better to let Marshall twist in the wind for a bit. And however sordid Cregan’s motives might have been, it’s fair to say that an independent Speaker is a good idea, as is loosening the executive’s control over parliament.

Disarray on this scale would usually count against a government, but Labor’s strategy also carries risks. We know that these are good times for incumbents; if voters see the opposition preoccupied with point-scoring and gumming up the works of government to no good purpose, they may not be impressed.

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