In terms of world politics, whether or not the government of Victoria can get its legislative program through Parliament is hardly of momentous importance. But its difficulties this week illustrate some quite deep issues about how parliamentary government works.
A quick recap: the Liberal-National government in Victoria has 44 seats in the Legislative Assembly and its Labor opposition has 43. But since the speaker — Christine Fyffe, a Liberal, who took up the position on Tuesday — has only a casting vote and not a deliberative vote, the numbers on the floor are 43-all. The remaining seat is held by Geoff Shaw, originally elected as a Liberal but now a troublesome independent.
Shaw’s relations with the government have deteriorated to the point where it no longer has effective control of Parliament. On Tuesday he voted with Labor to vote down the government’s business agenda, which sets the timetable for legislation. He promises to consider bills on their merits, and by supporting Labor’s amendments he has already blocked one major piece of legislation, for the establishment of a parliamentary budget office.
In a typical Westminster system — in the United Kingdom, for example, or in the Australian federal Parliament – there would be a straightforward remedy for this situation. The government would declare that it regarded a particular bill or motion as an issue of confidence, and if it were defeated (or prevented from coming to a vote) it would go to the governor and ask for a dissolution of the Assembly for an early election.
Since Shaw’s chance of holding his seat (especially at an early election) is negligible, he would be most unlikely to vote against the government in those circumstances.
But as I explained last year, that course of action is not available in Victoria. The Legislative Assembly has a fixed four-year term, and the only way an early election can be held (apart from a case of conflict between the two houses, which isn’t an issue here) is if a motion of no confidence is passed by the Assembly.
In other words, the government doesn’t get to decide what is or is not a matter of confidence. The test is objective: there has to actually be “a motion of no confidence in the Premier and the other Ministers … passed by the Assembly”, and notice of it has to be given three days in advance.
“Most probably, the government would rather buy off Shaw than try to do an end run around him.”
As long as Shaw doesn’t support any such motion, he can continue to indulge himself by frustrating the government’s agenda and there is very little it can do about it. Only three possible remedies suggest themselves, all with major difficulties.
First, the government could simply resign. The governor would send for Labor leader Daniel Andrews, and ask him to form a government. If he accepted, he would then be in the same situation that Denis Napthine is in now — worse, in fact, because he would have a hostile speaker.
A second option would be for the government to just get Fyffe to resign the speakership, and refuse to nominate any of its members to replace her. The hope would be that either Labor would nominate a speaker, or perhaps that Shaw himself would volunteer for the job. In either case, the government would again have a majority on the floor of the Assembly.
Both those options have the same problem, in that they are hostage to what Labor does. If Labor refused to take office, or refused to nominate a Speaker (the Assembly can’t legally transact any business without a Speaker), there would be a full-blown constitutional crisis. Most probably the governor would have to step in, perhaps appointing some sort of caretaker administration until the politicians could work things out.
Which brings us to the third and most promising option: that the Coalition and Labor could come to an agreement to lock out Shaw’s influence. In one scenario, they could agree to both support a motion of no confidence so as to bring on an early election; alternatively, Labor might agree to provide a speaker in return for concessions from the government.
In today’s partisan atmosphere, however, that sort of deal seems unlikely. While government ministers have pointed out, quite correctly, that Shaw’s power depends on having Labor vote on the same side — Treasurer Michael O’Brien said that “Mr Shaw only ever has any influence when Daniel Andrews and the Labor Party decide to jump into bed with him” — such public point-scoring doesn’t seem designed to lead to a compromise agreement.
Most probably, the government would rather buy off Shaw than try to do an end run around him. But in his current mood, no one knows just how high Shaw’s price might be.