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November 20th 2013 print

Terry Barnes

Spring Street’s Unstoppable Circus

A snap election would almost certainly end the chaos that has made Victoria's lower house a crucible of impotent fury. Alas, a fixed-term provision in the state's Constitution stops voters bringing down the curtains on a sad and tangled farce

clownLast Monday a confident Victorian Premier Denis Napthine announced a major-facilities grant to the local sailing club in the marginal seat of Carrum.  You’d never have guessed that the Parliament is a joke, and the Napthine government can’t control the Legislative Assembly.

On Tuesday last week the maverick member for Frankston, Geoff Shaw, voted with the Labor opposition to show he had no confidence in the Liberal speaker, Ken Smith.  If not bad enough, that same Thursday chaos reigned when Labor tried to lure Shaw into voting against the Speaker’s rulings and so to bring him down.  Humiliated, Smith shut down proceedings rather than face a vote.

Shaw continually has embarrassed the state Coalition since his election, and also awaits trial on a major charge that could cost his seat if convicted.  Since going rogue in March, Shaw has seen off former Premier Ted Baillieu, is erratic in his political actions, and simply is a magnet for trouble.  That’s highly unlikely to change before the state election in November, 2014: deputy Liberal leader Louise Asher rightly said last week that Shaw calls the shots in Spring Street.

Shaw isn’t solely to blame for this mess.  The Liberal Party preselected him, then bent over backwards to appease him as he became ever more embattled and embittered.  Labor leader Daniel Andrews and Opposition MPs cynically exploit Shaw’s unpredictable casting vote to create constant uproar, aided by the Speaker’s weakness.

All Napthine can do is plead, pathetically, with Labor to behave.  He can’t call an early poll, because the state’s Constitution fixes the election date.  Without some circuit-breaker, the otherwise competent Napthine government is in grave political trouble.

In legislating for fixed terms in 2003, then Labor premier Steve Bracks allowed only two exceptions. The first is a government losing the confidence of the Lower House.  The other is irreconcilable legislative deadlock between Upper and Lower Houses.  Unless either of these conditions materialises, and that’s unlikely, Napthine must stumble through to November 2014.  This may suit an opportunistic Andrews, but jeopardises the stability of Victoria’s government, essential services and economy.  Because of Shaw’s antics, we aren’t getting the stable government we deserve, of whichever party, to deal with challenges facing our state, including very ugly social problems laid bare by last week’s Betraying Their Trust report on institutional child abuse.

But this debased parliament can regain some honour, and Napthine regain control of his political destiny.  They can change the Constitution to end the Shaw standoff, and ensure it doesn’t happen again.

The same 2003 legislation enshrining fixed terms also provides that constitutional change relating to parliamentary terms and elections requires a “special majority” of three-fifths of the combined membership of both Houses.  No referendum is involved, so there’s nothing stopping the government from legislating to allow for an early election if Parliament becomes unworkable, provided the Governor is satisfied that this is in the best interests of Victoria as a whole.  A rogue MP making Parliament his personal plaything fits this definition.

If the Coalition and Labor vote together, the special majority is assured.  Napthine therefore could seize the initiative by promising an immediate election when the change became law.  Andrews could then be pressured to support the constitutional fix: Labor’s 2003 reforms unwittingly set up this farce and Labor should help repair the damage.  And if Labor also wants the Coalition government out, surely it wants that to happen as soon as possible?

The chances of the Napthine government winning an early election probably are 50:50 at best.  Even without Shaw, a hostile redistribution, poor polls and any voter backlash against the new Abbott federal government make the Coalition’s electoral task an uphill, if not impossible, battle.  If the Premier made this bold move and regained the initiative, he may risk dying on his feet rather than living on his political knees, but he would give himself a real fighting chance.

Shaw’s curse must be broken.  Both major parties caused this mess, and both have a duty to Victorians to clean it up.  Napthine should move, and Andrews support, this simple constitutional change and go to the polls quickly so that the people, not Geoff Shaw, decide who governs our state.

Terry Barnes, a former federal and state Liberal senior ministerial adviser, is the principal of Cormorant Policy Advice