SA MP Fraser Ellis defends spending taxpayers’ money on his family’s newspaper business

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 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”.

The Yorke Peninsula Country Times has been in the Ellis family for four generations.(ABC News: Patrick Martin)

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.

A document with columns of bills paid to various media organisations, including the Yorke Peninsula Country Times
An FOI request revealed the breakdown of advertising expenses during the last quarter of last year by Fraser Ellis.(Supplied: SA Department of Treasury and Finance)

“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.

A man wearing a suit next to a window with blinds
Stephen Mullighan says there needs to be more transparency.(ABC News: Lincoln Rothall)

“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.

Fraser John Ellis's list of interests as tabled in parliament, which includes that of his family's newspaper.
MPs have to declare their financial and other significant interests, which Fraser Ellis has done.(Supplied: Parliament of South Australia)

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.”

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Cricket 2020: Justin Langer ‘take a knee’, consultation, Adam Goodes, Cricket Australia board, Liz Ellis, Richard Freedman, Sports Sunday

Former Australian netball captain Liz Ellis has called on Cricket Australia, coach Justin Langer and the players to “educate themselves” over the Black Lives Matter movement.

After the death of George Floyd sparked protests around the world, the sporting world has been grappling with its response.

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The restart of the NRL and AFL seasons saw players in both codes taking a knee before kick-off. In the F1, it has become a weekly feature before the national anthems, while the likes of the NBA saw players able to pick social justice messages for the back of their jerseys.

There have been a series of varying responses to the movement with cricket no exception.

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Stephen Silvagni comments on Papley, Betts, McGovern, Dow, Ellis and more

Former Carlton list manager Stephen Silvagni has provided his perspective on a number of players that have raised questions in the Blues’ orbit in recent years.

Silvagni, who departed the club at the end of 2019, spoke in depth about the aspects of the Eddie Betts trade that he didn’t agree with, the recruitment of Mitch McGovern, the drafting of Paddy Dow and more.

Read his thoughts below.

Eddie Betts

“We all agreed that Eddie Betts should come to the Carlton Football Club. We all agreed on that, but it was at a price in terms of what the deal looked like and what his deal looked like,” Silvagni told SEN Breakfast.

“When someone above decides to change those rules, the reason you get a little bit annoyed and frustrated at times, is when we went into the Carlton Football Club and it wasn’t just myself it was Andy McKay and Steven Trigg … our list wasn’t in a good state and neither was our salary cap.

“You work really hard to get your salary cap and TPP into a position that you can look after the players now and you can look after players in the future, but when certain people start splashing money out after we all agree what that payment should look like and particularly as a list manager, when you’ve got to look after other players and other managers, and you’ve got a 17-year player sitting there who you’ve actually just done a deal with and you look eye to eye with them and say ‘this is all we can pay you’ and he’s been very loyal to his club, and I’m talking Carlton, and then another player comes in (Betts) that you’re bringing back and then you want to pay that player more than the player that has been sitting at your club, I don’t find that fair.

“We all have a responsibility to make sure the players that are loyal to the club are looked after and when you have players at clubs overrule your decisions that you’ve worked so hard for, and because they want memberships to look great or they want the accolade that they’re bringing someone back, is their intention the right intention for the Carlton Football Club and I don’t think it was.

“100% (it was a decision by Cain Liddle to go over my head).”

Tom Papley

“The Tom Papley approach got a little bit messy. When you have a contracted player you have to work with their management group really closely and also that manager needs to condition (Sydney) and give them some significant time to get themselves prepared should a deal be able to get done,” Silvagni said.

“When it comes at the last minute and it’s really difficult for clubs to do deals because they need to be respected and search the marketplace and get their list into order and see what else is out there, but when it comes late those players that are contracted, it’s very difficult to get done.

“For me, on that deal, we gave Sydney a very good offer, but you’ve got to understand he’s contracted to them and they opted not to accept their deal and that’s what happened.”

Dan Butler

“Dan Butler was certainly in the equation at some point, but as a list management team we decided not to go there,” Silvagni said.

“It’s really difficult. Eddie Betts was coming in, Tom Papley was supposedly coming in and then you had Butler as well.

“Ultimately you’ve got to be able to get the deal done and you also had Jack Martin coming in as a forward as well.

“At some point you’ve got to say which ones are your priority and which ones are you going to let go and be respectful to that player and let them go and search for another club.”

Brandon Ellis

“We certainly had a discussion about him, we obviously met him, was he a priority? Probably not high priority, but certainly there was interest depending on whether we got our other priorities through the trade period,” he said.

Mitch McGovern

“Mitch is a great guy and I think he has got a lot of talent. I think Mitch was a better player at Adelaide than he has been at Carlton.”

“Which I guess is a bit his own fault because of the way that he prepares and gets up for training each week, but I just feel as though the club hasn’t done him any favours because they’ve played him when he’s been unfit and out of form.

“We needed to get a player through to the club and he’s got some x-factor and particularly with the key forwards we’ve got there, he’d be something from left-field that would be really hard to match up on, particularly with Charlie Curnow and Harry McKay. I thought Mitch could get out on the loop a little bit.

“But having said that, he probably hasn’t delivered. He needs to get moving a bit because he has got talent, but for what we got him in the club for and what he’s getting paid, he needs to get moving.

“I just think he’s been given a bit of a free ride at the minute and this is just my opinion, I think he’s been very lucky to play a lot of footy this year.”

Charlie Curnow

“I think Charlie is a special player, but people are going to need to be patient because he hasn’t played for two years,” Silvagni said.

“He’s going to need some time to get his touch back.”

Paddy Dow

“What I do know is Paddy’s first year was very good. Second year he battled, probably second year blues, but having said that what I do know about his season this year, he barely did a pre-season and he was injured for most of the year.”

“Then you’re in a hub situation where even from a form point of view, you’re playing 12 versus 12 games and then trying to pick up and play at AFL football at the highest level.

“I think Carlton supporters need to realise Paddy was injured for most of the year.”

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Liberal MPs Terry Stephens, Adrian Pederick and Fraser Ellis revealed as trio under ICAC investigation

Three South Australian Liberal MPs have identified themselves as the subjects of an ICAC probe into potential corruption, but have rejected claims they are trying to “frustrate” the investigation.

Terry Stephens, Adrian Pederick and Fraser Ellis released a joint statement this morning, acknowledging they were at the centre of the investigation instigated by former Independent Commissioner Against Corruption (ICAC) Bruce Lander.

The ICAC investigation relates to MPs’ use of the lucrative Country Members Accommodation Allowance and was sparked by an ABC report.

In their statement, Mr Stephens, Mr Pederick and Mr Ellis confirmed they had been contacted by the ICAC and been asked to “produce documents for the purpose of that investigation”.

“The requirement captured information and documents that would ordinarily be kept confidential and protected by parliamentary privilege,” the statement said.

“It expressly included documents such as diary entries and records of appointments, and also naturally extended to notes of meetings.”

The trio denied they were trying to use parliamentary privilege to stifle the investigation, and denied “any allegations of criminality”.

However, the MPs have said they would let Parliament “rule on parliamentary privilege” before they made a decision on whether to comply with the ICAC’s requests for information.

MPs want to clear their names

The MPs said Mr Lander agreed the question of parliamentary privilege and its extent can only be decided by Parliament.

They said they would fully cooperate with “any lawful requests” and looked forward to clearing their names.

Former Independent Commissioner Against Corruption Bruce Lander launched the criminal investigation.(ABC News)

Mr Lander’s seven-year term as commissioner ended earlier this week, meaning the future of the investigation is in the hands of his successor, Ann Vanstone QC.

Speaking to ABC Radio Adelaide on Tuesday, Mr Lander agreed that it was up to Parliament to decide how privilege can be invoked.

But he rejected the idea that parliamentary privilege was meant to protect MPs from criminal investigations.

Mr Lander confirmed that three MPs were under criminal investigation but declined at the time to name them.

The Country Members Allowance provides $234 a night for MPs who live at least 75 kilometres away from the Adelaide General Post Office and who need to be in the city for official business.

Expenses scandal has rocked the SA Government

Questions about Terry Stephens’s allowance claims, first raised by ABC News in June, ballooned into an expenses scandal that forced the resignation of SA Government ministers Stephan Knoll, Tim Whetstone and David Ridgway.

Mr Stephens, who denies any wrongdoing, stepped down from his position as Upper House president over the scandal.

A woman sits in a chair. She is wearing a black robe with a red sash and a white collar.
Ann Vanstone has succeeded Bruce Lander as anti-corruption commissioner.(ABC News)

Mr Knoll and Mr Whetstone admitted to administrative errors in their claims for the Country Members Accommodation Allowance.

Mr Ridgway had admitted to signing blank timesheets for his chauffeur while he was away overseas.

Mr Knoll committed to repaying $29,000 for all allowance payments he had received since December 2018 and Mr Whetstone unreservedly apologised for claiming in error more than $20,000 for 90 nights between 2012 and 2020.

Fraser Ellis agreed to repay $42,130.

Questions remain unanswered

Arriving at a Liberal Party strategy meeting in the Adelaide Hills today, Terry Stephens referred reporters to today’s statement.

“I’ve got nothing further to add. We’re certainly not hiding behind anything and look forward to a speedy resolution so we can get on with our lives,” he said.

Mr Stephens declined to answer questions about whether he was claiming a land tax exemption on his second residence in Norwood, or why he chose to move into a rented apartment in Victor Harbor when he owned two other apartments in the same building.

Adrian Pederick denied the trio were seeking to exercise privilege.

South Australian Parliament
Parliament is expected to consider whether privilege can protect MPs from handing documents to ICAC.(Gary Rivett: ABC News)

“We’ve made a statement. We’re not seeking privilege, and you’ll all see that statement I assume at some stage,” Mr Pederick said.

“We don’t acknowledge any criminality at all and we’re not making any comment until the end of the inquiry.”

Mr Ellis also referred reporters back to the statement.

“I want to reiterate I’ve got nothing to hide and I’m not hiding behind anything,” he said.

‘Trial by media’

Mr Whetstone said he would not be using parliamentary privilege.

“This is a trial by media at the moment and I’m very disappointed that it’s not being able to run its own course,” he said.

“I’ve corrected the record on my behalf and I’ll allow my colleagues to do the same.”

Mr Whetstone also clarified discrepancies in further expense claims, after an ABC audit of parliamentary records indicated Mr Whetstone had sought reimbursement for staying in two different places on the same night.

The former minister said he had not been double paid for those nights, and that the documents published by the Parliament were wrong.

Other country Liberal MPs arriving at the meeting sought to distance themselves from the scandal.

MPs pledge cooperation with ICAC investigation

Member for Flinders Peter Treloar said he had fully cooperated with the investigation.

“I’ve complied with any requests from the ICAC and I will continue to do so,” he said.

Member for MacKillop Nick McBride said he would not be seeking to use privilege, as did Stephan Knoll.

“I have cooperated with this investigation and have worked with the commissioner in the way he asked but I won’t be making further public comment given the nature of the inquiry,” Mr Knoll said.

Another Liberal backbencher, Steve Murray, indicated he did not support the use of parliamentary privilege to hamper an inquiry.

“We’ve all got a responsibility to our constituents and the people of South Australia and doing the right thing by them is what’s important in my view,” he said.

Nominations made for president and speaker

Josh Teague was selected unopposed as the Liberal Party’s nominee for speaker of the Lower House.

It follows the reshuffle of cabinet following the expenses scandal that saw former speaker Vincent Tarzia promoted to the front bench after three ministers resigned.

Independent Member for Florey Frances Bedford has also nominated herself for the role of speaker.

She said she has the support of independent MPs Troy Bell and Sam Duluk.

“It’s really difficult for other people to claim the same level of impartiality.”

Jing Lee won a party vote over fellow Liberal John Dawkins to become the Government’s nominee for president of the Upper House, following Terry Stephens’s resignation.

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