Former SA deputy premier Vickie Chapman calls parliamentary inquiry a ‘witch-hunt’ after ombudsman clears her of conflict of interest

South Australia’s former deputy premier has told state parliament last year’s parliamentary inquiry into her was a “witch-hunt” that amounted to “nothing more than a kangaroo court”.

The parliamentary inquiry found Vickie Chapman had a conflict of interest and misled parliament when, as planning minister, she blocked an application for a timber port on Kangaroo Island.

It referred the matter to the state ombudsman for an investigation but, in a report tabled in parliament yesterday, he found there was no such conflict.

“Both reports are public and the content speaks for themselves, though I think it’s fair to say the findings couldn’t be more different,” Ms Chapman told parliament.

“His (the ombudsman’s) findings were clear: no conflict of interest, no breach of the ministerial code of conduct and no maladministration.”

The parliamentary inquiry was set up when former Liberal MP Dan Cregan quit the party, giving Labor the numbers in parliament to move against Ms Chapman.

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ABC reporter Charles Brice explains the background leading up to what happened on Tuesday.(ABC News)

Ms Chapman said it was “farcical” that the committee only had 37 days to investigate the matter.

“it is my view that this inquiry was and remains motivated by political objectives of at least three of its members, including the chair (Labor MP Andrea Michaels).”

‘Flaws’ in committee findings and process

Ms Chapman told parliament that an example of a flaw in the committee was the finding that there was a contract in place between Kangaroo Island Timber Plantations and independent forestry owners to harvest plantations near a property she owned on the island.

“This formed the basis of their finding that I had an actual conflict of interest. The ombudsman uncovered in his investigation that there was no contract at all. It didn’t exist,” she said.

“Now I suggest the most junior lawyer would understand the importance of having evidence of a contract before making such an assertion. There was none.”

An aerial photo of a house next to a forest
The house owned by Vickie Chapman (bottom) and the timber plantation on Kangaroo Island.(ABC News)

The committee took the unusual step of appointing a QC to assist the inquiry, a move Ms Chapman did not criticise.

But she questioned why she was not then allowed to have her own legal representation appear before the committee.

“The question of legal representation does need to be fully explored and I would urge the parliament to do so,” she said.

“Failing to do so would again put the parliament at risk of criticism.”

Ombudsman criticises referral

In handing down his report, ombudsman Wayne Lines expressed dismay that he was being asked to investigate the same matter parliament had already inquired into.

“The problem with the referral from the select committee was that the whole process was political,” Mr Lines said.

“There wouldn’t have been a select committee if the government hadn’t lost the number on the floor of the house.

“The committee was comprised, yes, two from Liberal, two from Labor and an independent, but it was certainly run along party lines.”

Mr Lines warned that asking him to investigate a matter on which parliament had already made a finding risked politicising his office.

“It’s very important that my position is politically neutral and for the public to have confidence in what I do,” he said.

SA Ombudsman Wayne Lines wearing a blue shirt and black jacket
Ombudsman Wayne Lines says he is concerned about potential attempts to politicise his office.(ABC News: Isabel Dayman)

In light of the ombudsman’s findings, the opposition called on the new Labor government to apologise and retract previous statements its members made on the matter.

But the manager of government business, Tom Koutsantonis, told parliament he stood by the committee’s findings.

“The fact is you can have two legal officers look at the same thing and come up with different points of view,” he said.

“It happens all the time, hence we have appeals.”

Mr Koutsantonis said the parliament found Ms Chapman misled the house, an accusation the ombudsman did not investigate.

“That was a matter for us, that’s been settled. Tick. Misled the parliament, penalty imposed,” he said.

Ms Chapman was suspended from parliament for six days over the finding.

Dispute over eligibility to stay in parliament

Ms Chapman also used her response to the ombudsman’s report to highlight her position in the new parliament.

Questions have been raised over her ability to sit after she wrote to Speaker Dan Cregan telling him she would resign at the end of the month.

Mr Cregan tabled legal advice that showed by writing to him, her seat was automatically vacated, and a by-election should be triggered in her seat of Bragg.

Ms Chapman disputed that advice and today highlighted she was sworn in and welcomed by the Governor.

“During Her Excellency’s address to parliament yesterday, she welcomed 14 new members to the parliament and I had my welcome,” she said.

Mr Cregan said Ms Chapman’s future was now a matter for parliament, but there had been no moves from the government or opposition to have her removed.

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