Victorian Parliamentary Circus Remains A Shaw Thing


You’ve got to hand it to Victorian MLA Geoff Shaw. He certainly makes state politics interesting.

The maverick Victorian politician has single-handedly destroyed the Coalition governments of Ted Ballieu and Denis Napthine, using his position as the swing vote in Victoria’s finely balanced lower house to frustrate and destabilise the Victorian parliament.

The power wielded by an obscure and trouble-prone independent all comes down to one thing: the numbers.

In a parliament split right down the middle, Shaw in effect holds the casting vote. Under Westminster conventions, the Coalition government of Denis Napthine relies on his support to retain the “confidence of the house”. In other words, to stay in government. 

Four years ago, Ted Ballieu won office after narrowly winning the 2010 election against John Brumby’s Labor. The Coalition won a number of critical marginal seats to gain government by a solitary seat.

That was always going to make governing tricky. Four years is a long time in politics, and the misfortunes of scandal, illness and even death can befall sitting members.

And so it proved for the Ballieu government. Shaw quickly became a magnet for scandal, getting into a roadside fight with another motorist in 2011, writing strange letters to his constituents, insulting the mother of a teenager with a mental illness, and erecting a huge banner across a busy Frankston road, asking for his estranged wife’s forgiveness.

The colourful member was notorious for his erratic presentation – for instance, making obscene hand gestures in parliament – and for his aggressive interactions with local media.

Shaw’s problems really began in 2012, however, when allegations surfaced that he had been using his parliamentary vehicle and fuel allowance to make deliveries for his personal hardware business. A police investigation followed, and charges were laid.

Although Victoria Police eventually dropped the charges, the scandals forced Ballieu to act. As the Liberal Party administration moved to discipline Shaw for his electoral rorts, Shaw beat them to the punch. He resigned, declared himself an independent, and moved to the cross-benches.

From then on, Shaw has systematically worked to wreck the Coalition government.

It didn’t take long for the damage to mount. Just a day after Shaw moved to the cross-benches, Ballieu was gone, after losing the support of his party room. The mishandling of Shaw’s defection, and the general air of crisis that seemed to dog his government, were key factors in his downfall.

Bailieu’s replacement was a former Liberal leader and mild-mannered country vet named Denis Napthine. Napthine proved a much better media performer than Baillieu, and even began to claw back some ground in opinion polls. But he couldn’t change the arithmetic in the parliament.

Aided by a Labor Party only too happy to use him for its own political purposes, Shaw then attacked the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly, Ken Smith. Smith was an unpopular speaker whose habit of kicking out opposition members did not endear him to Labor.

When Smith referred Shaw to the parliament’s privileges committee over the allegations about misusing his parliamentary car, Shaw announced he had lost confidence in the Speaker. In a major miscalculation, Smith then prorogued parliament for a fortnight, completely derailing Napthine’s legislative agenda.

Shaw won that round, too: with Labor against him, Smith had to be replaced as Speaker by the deputy, Christine Fyffe (but not before he let fly with a vitriolic speech criticising Shaw as “unworthy”).

Then, in May, the privileges committee reported. In a split decision, government members found Shaw had misused $6,800 in allowances, but wasn’t in contempt of parliament. A minority report by Labor members found that he was. Labor then announced they would move to expel Shaw from parliament. Shaw’s old enemy Ken Smith announced he would cross the floor and support Labor to do it.

Independent Victorian MLA and former Liberal member, Geoff Shaw.

Sometime after this, Shaw appears to have demanded an assurance from Napthine that he would vote against any motion to expel Shaw from parliament. Napthine apparently refused.

As a result, Shaw’s long-simmering conflict with the Coalition exploded into an outright constitutional crisis. When Shaw announced yesterday he was withdrawing his support for the government, a media circus ensued.

Phones ran hot and journalists flooded up the steps into Victoria’s stately parliament building. Napthine tried to keep a stiff upper lip, but he was forced to admit his government hung by a thread.

It’s another disastrous moment for Napthine’s government – perhaps a terminal one. At every step of the process, Shaw has comprehensively outmaneuvered the Coalition, defeating first Bailleu and then Smith by adroit use of his balance of power.

As of this morning, it appears Napthine will survive, however wounded. Overnight, Labor leader Daniel Andrews declared that he wouldn’t use Shaw’s vote to try and bring down the government.

With an election scheduled for the end of November, Labor appears to have calculated that it will be better served by taking the high moral ground, and letting the chaos of recent days continue.

Andrews has stated that Labor will pass the budget and, in effect, keep the Napthine government in power. But he has also called on Napthine to join him for a special meeting with the Victorian Governor, Alex Churnov. 

Whether Shaw can remain in parliament remains to be seen. It seems very likely that the government will vote with Labor next week to expel him.

Of course, that raises interesting questions too. With Shaw gone, the numbers in the lower house will be exactly 43-43, with the Speaker obliged to remain independent.

The Napthine government will be completely dependent on Labor to pass any bill or even to keep the parliament open.

As ever, the ABC’s peerless Anthony Green has the best analysis.

It may be that Labor forces Napthine to an early election. Or it may be that his government limps on until November. Either way, it seems unlikely that the Coalition could regain office: current poll figures have Labor well in front in what remains Australia’s most left-leaning state.

Whatever the eventual fate of Geoff Shaw, he has comprehensively demonstrated how, in the right scenario, a single member of parliament can hold an entire state to ransom.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.