A deputy premier goes down

A parochial story today with a wider moral: South Australia’s deputy premier, Vickie Chapman, announced this morning that she was stepping down from her position and standing aside as a minister pending the outcome of an ombudsman’s investigation into a controversial planning decision on Kangaroo Island, in which she has been accused of a conflict of interest.

What makes this more than a routine affair is its relationship with the unusual parliamentary situation in South Australia. As we saw last month, Steven Marshall’s Liberal government has lost its majority in the lower house, the House of Assembly, and can no longer be assured of controlling proceedings. Its opponents, on the other hand, have shown no inclination to try to remove it by a vote of no confidence.

They were, however, prepared to go after Chapman. A parliamentary inquiry, set up against the government’s wishes, last week found her to have misled parliament and to have breached the ministerial code of conduct in relation to the Kangaroo Island affair. The House of Assembly then passed, 23-22, a motion of no confidence in her, asking the Speaker to inform the Governor of its wish that she “no longer serve as Deputy Premier, Attorney-General, Minister for Planning and Local Government and as a member of the Executive Council.”

That was on Thursday. Marshall stood by her and toughed it out over the weekend, but by this morning Chapman had agreed to step aside. Although that isn’t everything parliament asked for, it will probably be enough to take the heat out of the issue for the time being. But it leaves the constitutional question unanswered: can the lower house force the removal of a single minister?

The British House of Commons – whose powers and privileges the House of Assembly has broadly inherited – spent centuries trying to win the power to dictate the monarch’s choice of ministers. It fought a civil war over the issue in the 1640s, but when the monarchy was restored in 1660 it remained unresolved. Several times it impeached ministers, not because it thought they were guilty of ordinary crimes but because it wanted to force them from office or prevent their return.

Finally in 1742 Robert Walpole resigned when he lost his majority in the Commons, recognising that he could not govern in the face of a hostile parliament. Others followed; when Lord North resigned in 1782, following the British defeat at Yorktown, he informed George III that “in this country, the Prince on the Throne cannot, with prudence, oppose the deliberate resolution of the House of Commons.”

Nonetheless, at the end of 1783 the king appointed William Pitt the younger as prime minister, knowing that he had no majority in the Commons. For three months the house passed a series of votes of no confidence against him, but the opposition’s majority was fragile and it was not willing to risk the more drastic step of withholding supply. When Pitt eventually went to the polls he won a crushing majority.

Since the nineteenth century it has become fully established that a vote of no confidence is enough to force a prime minister to either resign or call an election. But Pitt’s example remains as a reminder that that convention ultimately depends upon the fact that the lower house has larger powers in reserve: to impeach ministers, to refuse supply, to cripple governments by defeating essential legislation or by passing legislation against their wishes.

In a similar way, the house’s control over the government’s actions, which in ordinary circumstances goes without question, depends ultimately upon its power to remove a government that refuses to obey it. A government that is willing to tough it out cannot be directed by votes in parliament – that is our remaining vestige of the separation of powers.

So when the House of Assembly takes exception to a particular minister, the Governor of South Australia would be quite entitled – indeed would be obliged – to reply that she takes her advice from the premier, not from parliament, and that if it disagrees with that advice then its constitutional remedy is to vote down the government as a whole.

Interestingly, the initial version of the motion that was moved last week contained a clause calling on the premier to immediately advise the Governor to dismiss Chapman. But Marshall indicated that he would do no such thing, and the independents voted with the government to delete that clause before the motion was passed.

That suggests that the independents would not have gone all the way with a vote of no confidence in the government if Chapman had stuck firm. She may nonetheless have not wanted to take the risk, or she may have had an eye purely on the political damage. And with an election due in March in any case, the most the opposition could have done was bring it on a few weeks early.

The lesson is an important one for parliamentary government. Parliament’s power to control the executive (other than by actual legislation) is indirect rather than direct. As I put it a decade ago:

[Parliament’s] supremacy is complete, provided it is willing to push an issue to a change of government if need be.
If a parliamentary majority isn’t willing to take that final step … then the government doesn’t have to worry too much about its approval. It can call the parliament’s bluff and proceed with its policies regardless …

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