Former SA Deputy Prime Minister Vickie Chapman calls parliamentary inquiry a ‘witch hunt’ after ombudsman clears her of conflict of interest

The former deputy prime minister of South Australia told the state parliament last year’s parliamentary inquiry into her was a “witch hunt” amounting to “nothing more than an arbitrary tribunal”.

The parliamentary inquiry found that 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.

He referred the matter to the state ombudsman for investigation but, in a report presented yesterday in parliament, found that there was no such conflict.

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

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

The parliamentary inquiry was launched when former Liberal MP Dan Cregan resigned from the party, giving Labor the numbers in parliament to move against Chapman.

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

Chapman called it “a farce” that the committee had only 37 days to investigate the matter.

“I am of the opinion that this investigation was and continues to be motivated by the political objectives of at least three of its members, including the chairman (Labour MP Andrea Michaels).”

‘Flaws’ in committee findings and process

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

“This formed the basis for his conclusion that I had a real conflict of interest. The ombudsman found in his investigation that there was no contract at all. It did not exist,” he said.

“I now suggest that the younger lawyer would understand the importance of having evidence of a contract before making such a claim. There was none.”

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

The committee took the unusual step of appointing a QC to assist in the investigation, a move that Ms Chapman did not criticize.

But he questioned why he was not then allowed to have his own legal representation before the committee.

“The issue of legal representation needs to be thoroughly explored and I urge parliament to do so,” he said.

“Failure to do so would once again put parliament at risk of criticism.”

Ombudsman criticizes referral

Delivering his report, Ombudsman Wayne Lines expressed dismay that he was being asked to investigate the same matter that Parliament had already investigated.

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

‚ÄúThere would not have been a select committee if the government hadn’t lost the number on the floor of the house.

“The committee was made up of, yes, two Liberals, two Labor and one Independent, but it was certainly run along party lines.”

Lines warned that asking him to investigate a matter on which parliament had already reached a verdict could politicize his office.

“It is very important that my position is politically neutral and that the public has confidence in what I do,” he said.

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

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

But government affairs manager Tom Koutsantonis told parliament he backed the committee’s findings.

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

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

Koutsantonis said parliament found that Chapman misled the camera, an allegation the ombudsman failed to investigate.

“That was a matter for us, that was resolved. Tick. He misled parliament, a sanction was imposed,” he said.

Mrs Chapman was suspended from parliament for six days for the finding.

Dispute over eligibility to remain 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 about his ability to sit after he wrote to President Dan Cregan saying he would resign at the end of the month.

Mr. Cregan submitted legal advice showing that by writing to you his seat was automatically vacated and a by-election should be started on his Bragg seat.

Ms. Chapman challenged that advice, noting today that the Governor swore in and welcomed her.

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

Cregan said Chapman’s future was now a matter for parliament, but neither the government nor the opposition had done anything to remove her from office.

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