Victoria’s Election Endgame: Political Lunacy, Hypocrisy, Geoff Shaw

VICTORIA’S IMMINENT STATE ELECTION has had a new and ridiculous element added to the mix, with a surprise move by Premier Denis Napthine to seek the expulsion of notorious MP Geoff Shaw from Parliament; it is a high-risk manoeuvre that has already brought the hypocrisy and lack of principle of the ALP sharply into public focus, but the real question is how voters respond. This column believes Dr Napthine’s move is one of political lunacy.

The question of Frankston MP Geoff Shaw (and what do with him) has exercised the minds of political figures on all sides in Victoria for years now, not mere weeks or months; it seems no solution — actual, potential or otherwise — has the capacity to resolve the issue once and for all: only a state election, which is now just eleven weeks away, can do that.

In the meantime, there remains no limit to the damage Shaw can inflict on Victoria’s Coalition government, and it seems — as of yesterday’s date — that Premier Denis Napthine has opted to double down his bets in an all-or-nothing attempt to terminate Shaw’s presence in Spring Street forthwith.

Irrespective of the outcome of debate on Napthine’s expulsion motion this morning — and depending on preference, readers can access Murdoch or Fairfax coverage for some background — I think, despite the clear risks of having Shaw anywhere near Parliament for even the seven sitting days left before the election, that Napthine has overplayed his hand and badly miscalculated.

Back in June, when Shaw was first suspended from the Legislative Assembly, we discussed these matters at length; at the time, it was the government that refused Labor’s demands for Shaw to be expelled, and whilst I was initially inclined to agree that throwing the member for Frankston onto the street would do the Victorian taxpayer a favour, the “reimbursement, apology and suspension” penalty sought at that time by Napthine was clearly the best of the range of inadequate options on hand.

Now, with Shaw having paid back the money at the centre of allegations against him of misusing entitlements, served his suspension and made an apology to the House, Napthine is seeking to expel him from Parliament anyway; the rationale rests upon comments Shaw made subsequently to Melbourne’s Herald Sun newspaper that his punishment had been a “political farce” and that he had been “made to jump through hoops” — ostensibly providing the grounds on which the government could argue his apology for the alleged misdemeanours was not sincere and genuine as required, and could thus enable steps to expel him to be taken.

Unsurprisingly — ahead in all published opinion polls and 11 weeks from a state election — the ALP has reversed its position of three months ago, and signalled its refusal to support Shaw’s expulsion. This matters simply on account of the numbers in the lower House: 44 Coalition MPs (including the Speaker), 43 from the ALP, and Shaw himself.

There is little reason to regard Shaw as anything other than an odious presence at best in his capacity as a member of Parliament.

The issues concerning his misuse of parliamentary vehicular entitlements are well known and not in dispute; in arrogating to himself the virtual balance of power on account of the finely balanced numbers on the floor of the Legislative Assembly, Shaw has arguably engineered the demise of the former Premier, Ted Baillieu, as well as that of the former Speaker (and arch foe) Ken Smith, neither of whom met the rather opaque standards Shaw apparently expects of others — and especially those in responsible positions of authority and seniority.

He has made a fool of himself and invited public ridicule with an infamous stunt in which he draped a grovelling, pusillanimous banner across a freeway flyover in Melbourne’s south-east, appealing for reconciliation with his estranged wife.

There are unsubstantiated allegations — now the subject of a corruption probe — that Shaw sought to demand and influence appointments to the judiciary, apparently in return for his political support, and which appear to have been motivated by his hardline social conservatism and his entrenched opposition to abortion in particular.

There are other suggestions, raised just last week, that he approached senior figures in the government to obtain taxpayer-paid travel for himself and his current partner to facilitate their marriage abroad.

And despite a self-professed “hatred” of Labor he has perpetuated chaos and mayhem in Parliament, repeatedly voting down the government’s legislative agenda, and ensuring the Coalition has been unable to consistently control state Parliament — all the actions of a man whose “hatred” of the opposition seems to find a rather curious mode of expression.

Getting rid of Geoff Shaw from Parliament is not just an action that would assist the Coalition; it would render a service to the State of Victoria.

Yet having presented the suspension-based penalty in June — and having prevailed in the face of Labor’s demands for Shaw to be expelled at that time — Napthine’s move to now seek to expel the member for Frankston is a stupefying, perhaps lunatic development.

The Labor Party — a creature not known for its consistency, decency, or any principles of value — has instantly signalled its refusal to play ball with Napthine; the 180 degree backflip this represents is breathtaking in its hypocrisy and appallingly devoid of any moral mettle at all, but it should have been foreseen as a certainty by the Premier and those closest to him.

When it is noted that senior Liberal MPs have briefed the press that Napthine failed to consult the ALP prior to announcing his expulsion motion, the lack of attention to this most basic of details defies belief.

Napthine’s government — despite a stellar political performance since his assumption of the role 18 months ago — has languished in reputable opinion polling; some of this can be attributed to the fracas over the Abbott government’s federal budget, but much of it derives from Geoff Shaw and the chaos he has instilled within the state Parliament.

Clearly, Napthine is seeking a circuit breaker, and quickly; the government has an excellent story to tell voters, and the three months in which Shaw has been absent from Spring Street have seen the government’s fortunes stabilise to a degree in the wake of the clear air that time has afforded. Seven sitting days might not be a great amount of time, but the capacity for Geoff Shaw to generate a phenomenal amount of bad press for the government by making mischief with the numbers in such a short period cannot be understated.

However the vote on Napthine’s motion later this morning pans out, it is clear that his bid to seek Shaw’s expulsion once and for all is an all-or-nothing attempt to cauterise an issue that has dragged on for far too long.

If Shaw is expelled, Labor can claim the credit; if the motion fails Napthine can blame Labor all he likes, but the failure will be used against him by the opposition to paint a picture of a weak government led by a Premier with no effective control over the Parliament, and which isn’t — in Labor’s narrative — fit for or deserving of re-election.

In other words, the ALP could win either way from this exercise.

The real question, of course, is how Victorian voters respond; if published polling is any indication — as I have already noted — then the portents aren’t promising.

For Napthine to bet the house on his expulsion motion galvanising public sentiment behind him requires, to use the vernacular, balls of solid rock. We will soon know whether granite cojones are enough to have made the entire gamble worth the trouble.

Personally, I think it’s strategic stupidity, and an act of political lunacy to boot.