The South Australian MP Sam Duluk “behaved like a drunken pest” but has been acquitted of assault after allegedly slapping a fellow MP on the bottom at a parliament house Christmas party.
The accusation stemmed from Duluk’s conduct towards the SA-BEST upper house MP Connie Bonaros at the celebrations in December 2019.
He pleaded not guilty to the charge at a hearing earlier this year, with Adelaide magistrate John Wells on Tuesday ruling the allegations had not been proved beyond a reasonable doubt.
Wells said the two versions of what happened at the party, one from Bonaros and one from another woman who saw the incident, could not be reconciled, despite both being credible and honest witnesses.
“Neither version can be renounced. Both versions are separately credible but jointly unreliable,” Wells said. “It follows that I must acquit the accused.”
However, the magistrate criticised Duluk’s behaviour towards Bonaros, including his attempts to put ice down her dress, putting a bottle of alcohol to her mouth and lifting her up as she sat in a chair.
“None of this conduct is illegal,” the magistrate said. “All of this conduct shows you were insensitive, uncouth and disrespectful. You behaved like a drunken pest.”
In her evidence, Bonaros said the lower house MP had approached her from the side or from behind and had “proceeded to put his arm around me and whack me on the bottom”.
However, a witness to the incident, Emily Bird, described the slap as more like a pat or a touch, indicating that Duluk had not swung his arm before making contact.
Wells said Bonaros showed grace, poise and courage during her testimony and he regarded her evidence as composed, confident and clear. But he said Bird was also an honest witness who was calm and unhurried.
Duluk offered no comment on his acquittal as he left the court but in a later statement said he was grateful for the opportunity to clear his name and described the past 20 months as challenging.
“In reflecting on the magistrate’s remarks, I reiterate the personal apology I conveyed to Ms Bonaros after the event,” he said.
Bonaros said she did not want an apology as Duluk’s not guilty plea would discount any such action. She said the events on the night in question and his conduct “still sicken me” and the “shame is all his”.
“I do not want any woman or girl thinking the outcome I have experienced should stop them standing up and saying enough,” she said.
“I am pleased I took this action in spite of the toll and in spite of the verdict. I have sent a message to him that what he did was wrong. I have sent a message to those in positions of power who feel entitled and untouchable that their time is up.”
Duluk was banished from the Liberal party room over his alleged behaviour and suspended his wider party membership as he continued to sit in parliament’s House of Assembly as an independent.
A parliamentary inquiry launched into his conduct was put on hold while the police investigations were under way and the premier, Steven Marshall, said that inquiry would now likely resume.
The Liberal party executive was expected to delay any decision on Duluk’s return to the party until after the inquiry was completed.