Liberal MP Fraser Ellis has been charged with deception. Here's what it means for the SA Government

In South Australia, Steven Marshall's first-term Liberal Government has been plunged into minority after backbench MP Fraser Ellis was charged with 23 deception offences, relating to allegedly fraudulent claims of a parliamentary allowance.
It all began with an ABC investigation.

In South Australia, Steven Marshall's first-term Liberal Government has been plunged into minority after backbench MP Fraser Ellis was charged with 23 deception offences, relating to allegedly fraudulent claims of a parliamentary allowance.

It all began with an ABC investigation.

Here's how the dramatic turn of events unfolded, and what it means for the State Government.

What has happened?

It was a big night for the South Australian Parliament.

The House of Assembly sat into the early hours this morning to reach agreements on a significant piece of legislation — a bill to decriminalise abortion.

After a marathon debate and conscience vote, the bill passed.

But at 2:13am, as tired MPs prepared to adjourn for some sleep, Liberal MP Fraser Ellis rose to his feet, and sought the indulgence of a weary house to deliver a bombshell.


"Yesterday I was charged with alleged offences arising from the recent ICAC investigation into the Country Members' Accommodation Allowance," he said.

"Mr Speaker, I am completely innocent and I will be vigorously defending these allegations to the full extent of my resources and the law. I repeat now what I've said previously and my position has not changed."

In keeping with fellow MPs Troy Bell and Sam Duluk, who are facing criminal charges over separate matters, Mr Ellis revealed he was suspending his membership of the Liberal Party, and moving to the crossbench.

What are the charges?

By mid-morning, the Independent Commissioner Against Corruption Ann Vanstone had issued a public statement, adding detail to Fraser Ellis's statement in Parliament.

It revealed that the Director of Public Prosecutions had charged Mr Ellis on Wednesday afternoon with 23 counts of deception.


"It will be alleged that between 13 May 2018, and 12 June 2020, Mr Ellis made 78 fraudulent claims for the Country Member's Accommodation Allowance, totalling more than $18,000," the statement read.

"It will be alleged that Mr Ellis claimed the allowance for nights he did not spend in Adelaide."

The Country Members' Accommodation Allowance is a nightly payment made available for country MPs who live more than 75 kilometres from Adelaide, and are required to stay in the capital city overnight to attend to parliamentary or other official duties.

What does it mean for the State Government?

Mr Ellis moving to the crossbench is a big deal, because it means Premier Steven Marshall no longer has a majority in the 47 seat House of Assembly.

Mr Ellis told Parliament that he informed the Premier Steven Marshall about the charges yesterday.(Twitter: Sascha Meldrum)Liberals Steven Marshall and Fraser Ellis smile.

He started his term with 25 members. He's now down to 23.

That means the Liberal Party can no longer pass legislation without the support of others.

However, things are not quite as bad for Mr Marshall as they look.

The Premier said Fraser Ellis has provided him written confirmation that the now crossbencher would continue to support the government in matters of confidence and supply — meaning he won't vote with Labor to unseat the government or block its budgets.

In addition, Fraser Ellis is not Robinson Crusoe on the crossbench.

There are two other former Liberals, Troy Bell and Sam Duluk, who are facing criminal charges on separate matters.

The State Government would usually be able to rely on at least one of these three to provide it a majority.

Former Liberal, now independent, MP for Waite Sam Duluk outside court.(ABC News: Meagan Dillon)A bald man in suit and tie outside a court surrounded by reporters

Former Labor premiers Jay Weatherill and Mike Rann both led minority governments, but had the benefit of duchessing crossbenchers by offering them seats in cabinet — a gift that Mr Marshall cannot realistically bestow on any of the three men facing charges.

The challenge is, at this stage all three MPs intend to face the March 2022 election.

The Liberal Party will have to decide whether to run candidates against them.

If they do, the three crossbenchers have already voted against their Liberal colleagues on some matters. If they band together and start looking for ways to differentiate themselves from brand Liberal, some chaos could ensue.

How did this happen?

Few people had ever heard of the Country Members' Accommodation Allowance until June last year.

That's when the ABC published a series of exclusive stories raising questions over the eligibility of allowance claims by one of Parliament's most senior office holders, Legislative Council President and veteran Liberal Terry Stephens.


Mr Stephens had claimed the allowance while living in Victor Harbor, but the ABC observed him spending significant time at his second home in suburban Norwood.

Further stories also revealed he was paying no land tax on that suburban property.

It also emerged that Fraser Ellis had been regularly staying rent-free at Mr Stephens's Norwood townhouse during parliamentary sitting weeks.

Both MPs have steadfastly denied any deliberate wrongdoing.

The ABC's stories also forced the Parliament to release a decade's worth of previously unreleased allowance claims.

It proved to be a political pandora's box for the Marshall Government.

Before the claims were published, Fraser Ellis committed to repaying $42,130 in claims made since he was elected.

Two senior cabinet ministers, Tim Whetstone and Stephan Knoll also paid back thousands of dollars in either incorrect or doubtful claims.


All denied wrongdoing, and all were supported by the Premier — until the damage proved too much to take.

On the same day, Mr Knoll, Mr Whetstone and Mr Stephens all announced they would resign from their positions of power, and move to the crossbench.

Within days, another Liberal, Adrian Pederick was also resigning after questions about his eligibility to claim the allowance.

In the background, the state's ICAC swung into action, launching investigations into Fraser Ellis, Terry Stephens and Adrian Pederick, with all three MPs publicly outing themselves as targets.

In addition to those formal investigations, the ICAC's public shopfront, the Office of Public Integrity, also looked over claims made by several regional MPs, including Stephan Knoll, Tim Whetstone and Adrian Pederick.

The Commissioner later issued a public statement saying that because there was no evidence of misconduct, those inquiries would not be widened.

What next?

There's another thing, there's no sign the allowances scandal is behind the State Government, and there's no clear indication yet what voters will make of it all.

In her public statement today, Commissioner Ann Vanstone issued this perhaps ominous warning:

"My investigation into claims by other members continues."