Expelling MP Geoff Shaw Should Not Be The Only Way Out For The Napthine Government

Resolving the Geoff Shaw crisis ought to be relatively simple. Ought to be, if a) the previous Labor government hadn’t fundamentally broken the flexibility of the Westminster system, and b) Daniel Andrews wasn’t trying to score disgracefully undemocratic political points by seeking to expel a fellow member of parliament.

Last time someone was expelled from Victoria’s Legislative Assembly was in 1901 and he had insulted the king. Shaw’s offence is even less serious than that.

Denis Napthine struggles to control the lower house. Now that Geoff Shaw has “gone rogue”, the Coalition’s previously razor-thin parliamentary majority is an unworkable one. Some days the government loses control of proceedings. This is not sustainable.

But nor is it particularly unusual. Sometimes governments lose control of the lower house. It happens.

Under a bog-standard Westminster system, Napthine would be able to call an election to resolve the problem once and for all. (Last week the Premier said he would have liked to go to an election six to 12 months ago. It might have been a tough election for the Coalition. But better than this damaging farce.)

Alternatively, the Governor of Victoria Alex Chernov could require that the Premier demonstrate he has control of the lower house. If Napthine was unable to do so, Chernov could appoint a new government or issue writs for a new election.

But we no longer have a bog-standard Westminster system. If you’re looking for someone to blame for the crisis, blame Labor’s decision to move to fixed terms a decade ago.

In 2003 the Bracks government introduced a four-year fixed parliamentary term, taking the decision to call an election out of the hands of the premier, and stripping the governor of their reserve powers.

It’s now obvious there is a fundamental contradiction between a Westminster system and fixed terms.

In the Westminster system, government is formed on the floor of the house. The ability of the premier to call an election provides the fail-safe mechanism if they lose control of Parliament. A secondary fail-safe mechanism is vested in the governor.

In 2003 those fail safes were eliminated. Instead, the electoral reforms jerry-rigged a complex workaround if the government lost control of the house outside predetermined election times. But – here’s the problem – that workaround relies on the opposition introducing a vote of no confidence in the government.

If the opposition refuses … well, then the whole process gets stuck.

Right now the only political actor with room to move is Andrews. Yet Andrews won’t pursue a no-confidence motion in the government because he says Shaw’s vote – necessary for a successful motion – is “tainted”.

Instead, he wants to simply to kick Shaw out of Parliament. What an undemocratic, unjust and entirely political ploy.

Vote taint is not a thing. Votes don’t go off. They don’t get spoiled. Vote taint wasn’t a thing when the federal Coalition claimed Craig Thomson’s vote was tainted. It isn’t a thing in Victoria now.

Yes, Shaw is dislikeable. He is anti-abortion. He is also a duly elected member of Parliament. The voters of Frankston chose him as their representative. He has a political constituency and his views are shared by a sizeable minority of the population.

Nor has it been shown that he has committed any crime that would make him ineligible to hold public office.

In an opinion piece last week former Labor speaker Ken Coghill suggested the basic problem is that Victoria lacks a corruption watchdog with sufficient heft to turf Shaw out of Parliament.

The argument that a corruption watchdog could sort out an essentially political problem is as strong an argument against such bodies as ever devised.

Shaw misused his parliamentary car for personal business. He shouldn’t have done so. But it’s clear that Shaw’s biggest misdeed is simply that he is in the way – that he holds the balance of power, has strong policy preferences, and is disinclined to compromise.

Obstinate? Absolutely. But Shaw isn’t being much more obstinate than Andrews is.

Shaw has one thing going for him. He isn’t so morally bankrupt as to try to banish a legitimately elected fellow member of Parliament for political convenience.

Labor’s legal advice suggests parliament can expel a member as long as the stated reasons for doing so are sufficiently “general”. Apparently detailing too many particulars – that is, particulars of what mortal sin Shaw is actually guilty of – would expose the expulsion to legal challenge.

One anonymous Liberal told The Age this weekend “We can’t just get rid of someone because they’re a tool.”

But, ultimately, a well-designed parliamentary system should be able to function or dissolve itself even if some of its members are tools.

Victoria’s Parliament is no longer well-designed.

There’s no reason to believe that fixed parliamentary terms has given us better government. Has there been any discernable increase in “long-term thinking”? Are we better off for letting the Shaw saga stagger along?

It’s easy to be seduced by grand plans for social reform. Fixed terms was one such plan – a parliamentary rule change that was supposed to reduce political uncertainty. We’re now living with the disastrous consequences of that seduction.