South Australian country Liberal MP Fraser Ellis says he is entitled to spend thousands of taxpayers’ dollars on a business owned by his family, amid questions over whether he has a potential conflict of interest.
- Documents obtained under FOI show Fraser Ellis spent more than $6,000 on advertising with the Yorke Peninsula Country Times
- The paper is owned by his family, but Fraser Ellis says he derives “no financial benefit” from it
- The Opposition says more transparency is needed
Documents obtained by the ABC under Freedom of Information (FOI) reveal the Member for Narungga spent $6,701 on advertising with the Yorke Peninsula Country Times (YPCT) newspaper in two months this year.
The most prominent local newspaper covering most of Mr Ellis’s electorate on Yorke Peninsula is owned by members of his family including his father, Michael Ellis, who is the managing director.
In his annual parliamentary declaration of interests, the Liberal backbencher has declared himself a “general beneficiary” of the Yorke Peninsula Country Times Pty Ltd for the Michael Ellis Family Trust.
The newspaper is also listed on his declaration under “other substantial interests”.
In the 2019-20 financial year, the backbencher spent $26,955 on advertising using his taxpayer-funded Global Allowance — more than any other Lower House MP in the same period.
It is not clear how much of that was spent with the YPCT.
It is common for regional MPs in larger electorates to spend more money on advertising in regional newspapers and with smaller media organisations.
Fraser Ellis said the payments in question covered advertising for a four-month period.
Passes ‘no pub test anywhere’
The taxpayer money comes from the Global Allowance fund, which is given to each MP to help cover electorate office costs.
Rules state that “each Member is individually accountable for his or her use of entitlements”.
“In accessing the Global Allowance entitlement, Members must be willing to defend their decisions against both public and parliamentary scrutiny.”
Mr Ellis declined to answer the ABC’s questions on how much taxpayer money he had spent with the YPCT since becoming an MP.
“I am completely transparent in all my dealings with the newspaper,” Mr Ellis said.
He denied making money from the paper.
“I have a beneficial interest in the family trust at the discretion of the trustee, which I do not control, and I do not receive an income from the trust. I have no financial interest in the newspaper business itself.”
He said he had been a member of the family trust since he was seven years old and spoke about his connection to the paper in his maiden parliamentary speech.
Shadow Treasurer Stephen Mullighan said the lack of detail about the spending was concerning.
“It’s up to Steven Marshall and Fraser Ellis to demonstrate to taxpayers that there is no conflict of interest here,” Mr Mullighan said.
Mr Ellis said the payments made to the newspaper for advertising purposes were within the rules.
Treasurer Rob Lucas said Mr Ellis had told him he had continued the same advertising arrangement as his predecessor, Liberal MP Steven Griffiths.
“The Yorke Peninsula Country Times is the major media outlet for the Yorke Peninsula and it would be unreasonable to argue that a local MP could not communicate with his constituents in the same way as previous local MPs for the area,” Mr Lucas said.
He did not answer questions on what steps Mr Ellis had taken to address the potential conflict of interest with his office or the Department of Treasury and Finance (DTF).
Questions on what checks and balances were made by DTF and Parliament to adequately manage potential conflicts of interest when spending public money were also not answered.
No code of conduct
The rules governing potential conflicts of interest in South Australia involving the expenditure of public money are not always clear.
MPs are required by law to disclose their pecuniary interests on their register each year.
But unlike ministers and public servants, MPs are not bound by a code of conduct detailing definitions or consequences around managing potential or actual conflicts of interest.
“Ministers should avoid situations in which their private interests conflict, have the potential to conflict or appear to conflict with their public duty,” the ministerial code of conduct states.
“A conflict of interest does not only encompass actual or direct conflicts of interest between a minister’s public duty and private interests. A potential or perceived conflict of interest may also constitute a conflict of interest.”
In a report published days before his retirement as Independent Commissioner Against Corruption (ICAC), Bruce Lander criticised Parliament for repeatedly failing to adopt a code of conduct as other state parliaments had done.
“The current arrangement fails to inspire confidence,” Mr Lander wrote.
The Opposition said it supported a code of conduct for MPs.
“We have seen some vague assurances from the Attorney-General and the Government that they were looking at this, that they were looking to bring something forward,” Mr Mullighan said.
“If that doesn’t materialise then we will have to give serious consideration to whether we need to bring something together before the Parliament and try and restore public confidence in the behaviour of Members of Parliament.”