The senior Liberal MP at the centre of South Australia’s parliamentary expense scandal is seeking a court order to keep secret the address where he nominated for the 2018 state election.
Terry Stephens is arguing release of the address would invade his privacy and security.
That is despite a tribunal accepting it is likely he does not live there now, did not live there at the election and was using a different address to claim tens of thousands of dollars in Country Members Accommodation Allowance.
The ABC sought access to Mr Stephens’s electoral nomination form under Freedom of Information, applying to the South Australian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (SACAT) for access to the document after being denied by the state Ombudsman.
Lawyers representing Mr Stephens told the tribunal releasing the address would invade he and his family’s privacy.
But SACAT rejected those arguments, accepting the ABC’s “powerful” evidence that Mr Stephens was not living in the property declared on the form at the time he nominated and that there was a requirement under electoral law to declare the address publicly.
SACAT Senior Member Kathleen McEvoy ruled that while the address did constitute his personal affairs, it should be released.
“There is no substantive information before the Tribunal to suggest that Mr Stephens’s or his wife’s privacy and security are threatened,” Senior Member McEvoy wrote.
“It (the address) is already in the public domain (put there by Mr Stephens), and its disclosure will not threaten his or his wife’s privacy or security.”
The address remains suppressed while the MP seeks leave to mount his latest legal appeal.
Mr Stephens declined to answer questions for this story.
Terry Stephens was one of several MPs who became the subject of investigation by the Independent Commissioner Against Corruption, after an ABC investigation raised questions about their entitlements to claim the $234-a-night payment available to regional MPs required to be in the city overnight for work.
The ABC investigation last year uncovered the then-President of the Upper House was claiming the allowance while spending lots of time at his Norwood property in suburban Adelaide, while publicly claiming to live in Victor Harbor.
The apartment he owned in the seaside town had been leased as a short-term holiday rental since early 2017.
Under scrutiny over his living arrangements, he told Parliament he lived in Victor Harbor:
“From 2010 to 2017, I lived in an apartment that I owned and from 2017 to the current day, I live in an apartment in the same complex which I lease.”
In seeking to test this statement, the ABC sought access to Mr Stephens’s nomination form held by the Electoral Commission of South Australia (ECSA) in the expectation it would show his home address in 2018.
Mr Stephens has always denied any wrongdoing since questions over his use of the allowance were first raised last year.
The legal battles
Mr Stephens’s nomination form was approved for release to the ABC by ECSA under Freedom of Information laws in December, 2020.
At Mr Stephens request, that decision was reviewed by the Ombudsman who subsequently overturned the call to release it, on the grounds it would amount to an unreasonable disclosure of his personal affairs.
The ABC disagreed with that ruling and sought a review in the South Australian Administrative and Civil Tribunal (SACAT).
The ABC’s barrister, Michelle Hamlyn, submitted that there was significant public interest in releasing the information.
The tribunal heard that a letter from Mr Stephens’s lawyer to the Ombudsman indicated the nomination address put forward by Mr Stephens in February 2018, was the same Victor Harbor apartment the MP had told Parliament he had moved out of almost a year earlier.
The ABC submitted that if that was the case, the address on the nomination form sat at odds with the address Mr Stephens had used to submit monthly claims for Country Members Accommodation Allowance from May 2017 onwards.
Ms Hamlyn submitted there could be no issue of unreasonable disclosure given he stopped living at the property more than four years ago and it is owned by someone else.
Naomi Kereru, for Mr Stephens, did not directly address the issue of ownership or use of the Victor Harbor property by her client, but said the ABC was “making assumptions” concerning the address contained in the nomination form.
Terry Stephens’s lawyers also argued the address should stay secret because he had applied for silent elector status in February 2021 — after the ABC’s FOI request was lodged.
But Senior Member McEvoy dismissed the argument.
“There was no suppression of his name prior to the 2018 election, and suppression of his address in February 2021 cannot change that fact,” she said.
The Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether Mr Stephens can appeal against the tribunal’s ruling next month.Internet Explorer Channel Network