A rogue MP, ‘white-hot anger’, tied votes: What happened in SA politics this week?

While the New South Wales government went to war over koalas this week, the SA government watched one of its own go rogue, resulting in “white-hot anger” from some MPs, while votes were tied in both houses.

It’s a week the Marshall-Liberal government will be looking to put behind it, and one few will forget.

What happened this week?

The resumption of Parliament after the winter break is usually a time for the government to reassess its policy direction and set its priorities for the remainder of the year.

If a reset is what the government was after, it got an almighty one.

Shuffling portfolios around after three ministers resigned amid the expenses scandal, exposed by the ABC, meant there were two positions yet to be filled — the Upper House President and the Lower House Speaker.

A composite image of a woman and a man
The battle for the presidency of the Upper House between Jing Lee and John Dawkins dominated state parliament on its return from winter break.(Facebook)

Usually these appointments are procedural, with the opposition and cross-benchers supporting the government’s chosen nominee.

But this time was different.

The government’s nominee for President, Jing Lee, had a challenger.

Party statesman goes rogue

John Dawkins has been a Liberal party member for 48 years and always said he’d put his hand up for the job.

Jing Lee is the first Malaysian-born Chinese person to be elected to South Australia’s Parliament and won her party’s support.

But on Tuesday morning, John Dawkins confirmed he would run for the role.

It was a break of tradition but an unprecedented move. The difference this time? He almost had the numbers.

With Labor supporting his bid, all he needed was a couple of cross-benchers to write his name down on the ballot paper, and they did.

The first vote was tied, as was the second.

So two names were drawn at random from a box: “The honourable J.S.L Dawkins,” read the Legislative Council Clerk.

That secured Mr Dawkins the presidency, a $150,000 pay-rise, a chauffeured car and a parliament house portrait — a great raffle to win, by anyone’s standards.

White man sits in large wooden chair with red lining smiling
John Dawkins won the presidency without his party’s support, after his name was drawn from a box.(Supplied: SA Parliament)

But by day’s end, he had been unanimously booted him from the parliamentary party — the first such move in 20 years.

Treasurer Rob Lucas said it was the result of the “white-hot anger” some MPs held over his decision to run.

The government’s pain was almost doubled in the Lower House, after Independent MP Frances Bedford challenged government-favourite Josh Teague.

It was a long shot but the first vote was a tie — 23-all and one informal vote, despite the government holding the majority (24 of 47 seats) in the House of Assembly.

It was clear someone within their own party was sending them a message.

The second time around Liberal MPs could be seen showing each other their votes and the party line was followed. Josh Teague won 25-22.

‘You’re the speaker, not the king!’

Mr Teague’s first task as Speaker was to give an explosive first speech to the Parliament.

In it he addressed the ICAC investigation into country MP expenses, and claimed comments by Opposition Leader Peter Malinauskas were “problematic and usually unlawful.”

Mr Malinauskas had publicly told all Labor MPs to comply with the ICAC investigation or risk being booted from the party.

A man sits in a wooden chair lined with green leather with a stern expression in front of a small microphone
Josh Teague’s first speech in the Speaker’s chair caused quite a stir in the state opposition.(Supplied: SA Parliament)

The new Speaker claimed this action “risks constituting, among other things, a contempt of the Parliament.”

His statement was met with outcry from the Opposition’s Minister for Government Accountability, Tom Koutsantonis, who took issue with Mr Teague commenting on party business.

Mr Koutsantonis was kicked out of the chamber within three minutes of the speech beginning.

“You’re the Speaker, not the king!” he said before leaving the chamber.

Conventions broken on both sides

There’s no doubt the results in both houses are embarrassing for the Marshall Government.

They got their pick in the Lower House but not without controversy and the fallout from the Upper House decision is still playing out.

It’s the first time since 1979 that the Government of the day hasn’t had Parliament support its pick for a presiding member.

South Australian Parliament
It was a historic week in state parliament, with traditions and conventions broken on both sides of politics.(Gary Rivett: ABC News)

Despite being kicked out, John Dawkins maintains he wasn’t going to attend their meetings anyway.

The matter of his party membership will be dealt with by the state executive.

But it wasn’t just Liberals breaking convention this week.

Labor was just as unruly.

It’s tradition that when a new Speaker or President is appointed the members of respective chambers walk with them to Government House in a formal procession, to watch them be sworn-in by the Governor.

This time however, Labor MPs in the House of Assembly boycotted the ceremony in an obvious act of protest — a move that has undoubtedly set the tone for the rest of the Parliamentary year.

What happens next?

Liberal MPs will now be hoping they can put this week behind them and get back to the job of governing the state.

But with an opposition that’s even more fired up than before, it’s unlikely the events of the week will be forgotten soon.

Legislation to ban single-use plastics passed the Parliament on Wednesday proving that, despite all the chaos, some work was achieved.

There’s also an ICAC investigation to consider, with Independent Commissioner Against Corruption Ann Vanstone continuing the work into country MP allowances which was started by her predecessor.

So now, the biggest question mark over the Government is what findings, if any, the Commissioner will make.

Until then, the cloud of uncertainty will hang over the heads of the MPs involved, and the government at large.

There’s already two former Liberal MPs sitting on the crossbench — Sam Duluk and Troy Bell — both of whom have court proceedings underway.

The Government has a clear majority over Labor for now but if it loses more MPs to the crossbench it could be a long and bumpy road ahead.