A Not-So-Shaw Thing

20 / 06 / 2014

By Sarah Capper

While Independent member for Frankston Geoff Shaw chose not to attend Victorian parliament last week while they were debating the small matter of, ahem, himself, he did keep one commitment in his diary – and that was appearing at the Wheeler Centre, in conversation with comedian Sammy J on Friday night.  Amongst other shenanigans, Shaw used the event to tell the story of how a ‘miracle’ healing of a football injury led him to re-embrace God (and a local pentecostal church) and capped off the night with treating (for want of a better word) the audience to playing the bagpipes.  

Perhaps this was appropriate, given he’s surely caused more than a few headaches as his time as an MP.

And at the end of this long week of a migraine was the question as to whether he would, as directed by Premier Denis Napthine, apologise for the misuse of his parliamentary car and other entitlements.

An apology of sorts was teased out of Shaw at the event – indeed, he told the audience he was “exceptionally sorry”, but also said he’d been “screwed” over by the Parliament. The offering was later rejected by the Premier, who clarified Shaw’s need to apologise in the Victorian Parliament, as opposed to a “comedy” night of sorts.

It was a bizarre end to an unprecedented week, in which the Parliament voted to suspend the MP, fine him, and demand an apology. The vote to suspend Shaw, as opposed to expelling him from parliament altogether, as the Labor Opposition had proposed, essentially came down to one vote – that of former speaker Ken Smith who in the end sided with his Coalition colleagues.

Shaw has until 2 September to formally apologise to Parliament and repay approximately $6,800 in misuse of his parliamentary car and entitlements.

Until then, the Napthine Government will have to rely on the vote of their speaker in the now deadlocked Lower House.  Shaw had previously held that feted balance of power position after defecting from the Parliamentary Liberal Party in March of last year (he resigned as a member of the Liberal Party itself, earlier this year).  Many saw last year’s defection as costing the premiership of Ted Baillieu, who resigned “hours” after Shaw quit the Parliamentary Party, with Napthine then taking over.

While Shaw’s independence would have meant the Liberals no longer had to defend one of their MPs in the face of increasing questions over entitlements misuse, it instead propelled Shaw to a more influential position of making demands on the Government to secure his vote over legislation.  

And this includes demands well and truly outside of his role in serving his constituents in Frankston – like threatening to repeal hard-fought-for abortion law reforms that just five years ago were subject to both a thorough examination (including community consultation) by the Victorian Law Reform Commission, as well as a lengthy parliamentary debate.

For those outside of Victoria, Shaw represents the electorate of Frankston on the Mornington Peninsula, which in recent years has been unfairly labeled ‘Frankghanistan’, which, if anything, at least indicates it is an area crying out for improvements and a bit of TLC to basic services and infrastructure. It’s an area you can imagine would keep a local MP very busy – but which instead has increasingly seen Shaw view himself as kingmaker, such as his showdown with Ken Smith over his role as Speaker (which Napthine smoothed over/placated by installing Christine Fyffe in the role), and in playing right-wing-religious politics over the issue of abortion (which included bizarre references to “tummy eggs” and distractive proposals to address non-issues like “gender selection abortions” (non-issues because experts agree there’s little evidence of it occurring in Victoria or Australia, and of the few cases cited, inquiries about gender selection abortions are typically for good reasons – like checking a history of chromosomal abnormalities)).

The “rogue” MP, as he’s become known, made these comments after recently returning from a part-taxpayer funded “study” trip to the USA, where he met with people of the likes of Paul Broun, a Tea-Party backed Georgian congressman who is known for such views like blaming science for preventing people “from understanding that they need a saviour”. Yup. Another right-wing conservative male politician playing politics over women’s reproductive rights in the so-called name of religion. Shaw’s planned mid-Winter trip to France now hangs in the balance as part of his suspension prevents him from using his entitlements to cover any interstate or overseas travel. Yup and yup.

Recent state and federal governments have demonstrated that hung parliaments can still function with the vote of crossbenchers. It is how these crossbenchers have taken on this responsibility which highlights the current stalemate in Victoria.

Two weeks ago, when Premier Denis Napthine accused Shaw of making demands recently for a “particular judicial appointment” and declared that, “I as Premier will not be held to ransom by some rogue MP from Frankston”, the keyword was “ransom”.

It was a huge call, particularly coming from a leader less than six months out from an election who should be giving the impression that the Victorian Coalition is capable of providing stable, effective government.

Despite the former Opposition leader and now PM Tony Abbott’s broken-record description of the minority Gillard Government as being deeply “dysfunctional“, Gillard holds the record in terms of having the highest rate of legislation passed during her time as PM, followed by Hawke, Fraser, Keating, Whitlam and then Howard. And it could be argued that a government with the highest rate of legislation passed is pretty bloody functional.

Gillard’s hold on power was thanks to a deal with the Greens and conservative independents Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor after the 2010 hung parliament result. Windsor is an interesting case in point, given he held the balance of power while in NSW state politics – in which instance he sided with the conservative Greiner Government. As Windsor explained to the ABC’s Australian Story, “Some people have forgotten that I was in a hung parliament that elected a Liberal government.

In recalling the events of 2010, Windsor has said it came down to the leadership of both major parties in deciding who could provide stable government. During negotiations with both major party leaders at the time, Windsor has said that it quickly became apparent that Julia Gillard was “streets ahead” of Tony Abbott.

Flying in the face of Napthine’s “ransom” remark, contrast Tony Abbott’s take on Victoria in which it seems minority governments are completely different scenarios when it’s his Coalition colleagues holding the balance of power:

We’ve got a good government in Victoria, it’s getting on with the job, it’s getting on with building a strong economic future, it’s getting on with building the infrastructure of the future and that’s what should happen,” the Prime Minister said, before flying to Canadia.

Curiously, Abbott also commented about an “extremely excited” Opposition, led by Labor’s Daniel Andrews, without any seeming sense of irony. Frrrngh.

While Labor stopped short of securing Ken Smith’s vote last week, they appear like a party itching to go the polls, while Napthine appears the opposite, grasping onto hope that the next few months can turn around over a year of negative polling that predicts a return to a Labor Government after just one term. Indeed, even if Shaw were to return to Parliament in early September to throw a spanner in the works and resign, it would most likely appear too close to the set November poll to call an early by-election – which was surely Napthine’s motivation behind the suspension option.

The occurrence of hung parliaments around the country in recent times – state and federal – is most likely demonstrative of dissatisfaction and apathy towards both major parties. Typically when there is a major party “tie” in the lower house, as with the situation federally in 2010, leaders then negotiate with crossbenchers for their support. Inducements are offered – eg. Abbott offered Andrew Wilkie a $1billion Hobart hospital upgrade in his failed bid to secure the Tasmanian independent – but at the very least, such offers are made for the seeming benefit of the electorates the crossbenchers represent.

In the Upper House or Senate, we’ve become used to having crossbenchers, albeit a mix of minor party reps and kooky single issue candidates holding the balance of power (hush now, no one tell Ricky Muir). Perhaps this tendency to not leave Upper House power in the hands of the major parties is in part thanks to a hangover from the very effective (but now defunct) Australian Democrats mantle of ‘keeping the bastards [in this case, the major parties] honest’. No doubt more likely it is because of the above-the-line proportional representation model of voting which allows backroom preference deals (and as with the case of Muir, preference flow-ons then allow someone who receives just 0.51% of the primary vote to get elected).

In Shaw’s case, perhaps he has taken a leaf out of the ‘good book’ [cough, cough] of former Tasmanian Senator, the late Brian Harradine. On paper, Harradine was an “independent”, but journalists like Mungo MacCallum would preface his “independent” label with “so-called”, as he was more renowned as being the “Senator for the Catholic Church”, insisting on repealing sex education and information about safe abortion as part of foreign aid packages as he did in ushering through the Howard Government’s sale on Telstra. But as well as this ideological, and downright irresponsible (how’s that HIV rate faring in African and other developing countries, huh?) agenda, Harradine was also renowned for securing a lot of funding for his representative state of the apple isle.

Was Shaw elected to represent the conservative evangelical miraculous footy-knee injury repairing churches? No, no and no.  But unlike Harradine, Shaw has been criticised for not using his position to the benefit of his Frankston electorate. AS Frankston Mayor Darrel Taylor explained earlier this week:

“Given the balance of power position [held by Mr Shaw] the streets of Frankston should be paved with gold,” Cr Taylor said. “The balance of power has not be used to great affect in Frankston.”

Not so long ago, parties returning from opposition to secure government in lower houses with cross-bench support were then able to shore up [pun intended] more votes to then govern in their own right following the next election – eg. Peter Wellington’s support of the initial Beattie Government in Queensland; and in Victoria in 1999, Craig Ingram, Russell Savage and Susan Davies’ support of Steve Bracks following the defeat of the Kennett Government.

The obvious appeal in voting for an independent is that they are not beholden to toeing any party line and can vote freely in support of their constituents’ views. With the right level of grassroots engagement they can tap into the mood of the community – ala Cathy McGowan’s recent victory over sitting Liberal Sophie Mirabella in the federal seat of Indi. With the right passion and personality they can serve as a F-you to the major parties – ala Phil Cleary’s stint in Wills, winning Bob Hawke’s seat for a term during the Keating Government. With the right level of integrity they can prove popular choices – ala Tony Windsor’s increasing of his primary vote at every election he stood for in the seat of New England (even, as rumoured, securing the vote of Barnaby Joyce’s Mother, prior to her son taking over the seat, but of course). And they can work to the benefit of the interests of their electorate in working with the major parties – ala Craig Ingram working with Steve Bracks in returning flows to the Snowy River.

But like the recent defection of former South Australian Liberal leader Martin Hamilton-Smith to supposed arch-enemy Labor and subsequent securing of government for Premier Jay Weatherill, or Tony Crook’s toying with cross-party status following the 2010 federal election result, for some, hung parliaments offering the balance of power to cross-benchers can represent an opportunistic, self-serving exercise in power-play.  And as with Shaw’s misuse of his parliamentary car and entitlements, far from serving the electorates they are elected to represent, they appear like they are merely serving the individual.

In terms of the political events in Victoria over the last week, one positive development is that Premier Napthine has ruled out any debate on abortion law reform between now and the election – something we have been calling on the Premier and the Opposition Leader to do for months now.

Who knows what Geoff Shaw will do when he returns from his parliamentary suspension in a couple of months time. Bagpipes could well be in the mix.

While very different governments, the more recent experience of the 2010-2013 minority Gillard Government may shed an ominous warning in terms of the re-election chances of the Coalition Government in Victoria – and Geoff Shaw ain’t no Tony Windsor – that’s one thing for shaw/sure.