Victoria’s Coalition government is tottering this morning following yesterday’s announcement by Liberal-turned-independent MP Geoff Shaw that he would be prepared to vote with the Labor opposition in support of a no-confidence motion, potentially bringing forward an election which is scheduled for November 29. The situation is a legacy of the narrowness of the Coalition’s win at the November 2010 election, from which it emerged with 45 seats to 43 for Labor and, for the first time in any Australian federal or state parliament since 1993, no seats for minor parties or independents. That changed in March last year when Shaw resigned from the parliamentary Liberal Party to sit as an independent, which precipitated Ted Baillieu’s resignation as Premier the following day. The Liberals were thus left in equality with Labor on the floor, with the mercurial Shaw holding the decisive swing vote. Shaw’s support for a Labor-backed no-confidence motion would enable it to pass by 44 votes to 43, with Liberal Speaker Christine Fyffe left stranded with a casting vote she can only use in the event of a tie.

Dramatis personae

Geoff Shaw’s victory in Frankston made him one of 12 Liberals to win seats off Labor at the 2010 election, that being the bare minimum required to dislodge John Brumby’s Labor government from office. Shaw promptly emerged as the new government’s loosest cannon, on account of his socially conservative enthusiasms and apparent tendency to find himself involved in physical altercations. However, his biggest trouble emerged in May 2012 with allegations he had used his parliamentary car to pursue business activities. As a police investigation proceeded, Shaw announced his resignation from the party last March, citing dissatisfaction with Baillieu’s leadership both on his own part and among the electorate at large.

Charges were laid against Shaw later in the year and dropped shortly afterwards, but the matter continued to be pursued by an inquiry of the parliament’s privileges committee. With the inquiry finally concluding last week, a minority report by the committee’s Labor members recommended Shaw be found in contempt of parliament, potentially triggering his expulsion. However, the Liberal majority recommended the softer option of finding Shaw in breach of the code of conduct and ordering him to repay $6838. The government’s applecart was then upset by an ongoing feud between Shaw and Liberal MP Ken Smith, who had launched a blistering attack on Shaw when he resigned as Speaker in February. Smith responded to the committee report by supporting Labor’s stance and saying he would vote with them in favour of finding Shaw in contempt, to the fierce displeasure of party colleagues who were expending considerable capital to keep Shaw placated. Shaw has responded precisely as the government would have feared, accusing Smith of acting with Napthine’s connivance and declaring his determination to pull the rug from under the government.

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Napthine has accused Shaw of making “unreasonable demands” in a bid to “ransom” the government in exchange for his ongoing parliamentary support, most notably in respect to an assurance that he would suffer no sanction in response to the inquiry’s report. However, Napthine would appear not to be in a position to offer such a guarantee, should Ken Smith indeed remain set upon voting with Labor. Napthine expressed his determination to continue governing and challenged Labor to allow him to do so, arguing a no confidence motion would entail Labor accepting Shaw’s “tainted” vote. For its part, Labor appears set on playing for time, with Opposition Leader Daniel Andrews taking the rather puzzling position that he and Napthine should seek the advice of the Governor, Alex Chernov, in determining how to proceed.

The constitutional backdrop

Should Labor and Shaw vote to pass a no-confidence motion, there seems little doubt that an early election would have to ensue. Since 2006, Victoria has had a regime of fixed terms in which elections are set for the last week in November, but the legislation provides for escape clauses in the event of no-confidence motions and parliamentary deadlock. Crucial to the situation here is that the Legislative Assembly has an even number of seats, making the parliament unworkable in the event of a tie unless one side can persuade a member of the other to serve as Speaker.

Under the provisions which established fixed terms, notice of a no-confidence motion needs to be given three days before the event, with its passage to be followed by an eight-day cooling-off period in which the government has the opportunity to reassert control of the situation by passing a motion of confidence. Failing that, the prohibition on the Governor calling an election is lifted. There is also the potential for a no-confidence motion to be followed by the opposition taking over the reins of government, but that is not an outcome Labor could secure with the present parliamentary balance. A defeat for the government would thereby compel the Premier to advise the Governor to call an election, which the Governor would accede to after establishing Labor’s incapacity to form a government.

The Frankston situation

A wild card in the deck is the standing of parliamentary proceedings against Geoff Shaw, who appears to face a majority in favour of a contempt finding. A parliamentary library research paper asserts that the Victorian parliament’s contempt powers are “discretionary”, and run the gamut from reprimand to suspension to expulsion to imprisonment. Should the process result in Shaw vacating his seat, a by-election in his seat of Frankston would, depending on the result, either confirm the need for an early election or resolve the situation in the government’s favour. However, as Ken Smith pointed out by way of refuting the notion that his attitude has plunged the parliament into crisis, the government can evade the issue simply by declining to take the steps required to initiate a by-election. In leaving Frankston unrepresented until the election, that would put the Liberals in parity with Labor on the floor and allow their Speaker to exercise the casting vote in favour of the government as required. Labor is of course demanding that parliament consider the committee’s report as soon as possible, but a logical course for the government would seem to be to delay consideration until the election is close enough to render a by-election redundant.

The electoral environment

Lofty statements of high principle can be expected from both sides over the coming days, but few will amount to more than cover for the pursuit of political advantage. Looming large in Labor’s calculations will be the hostile response to the federal budget, which Liberals lament has negated the advantage accrued by the positive reception to the state budget a week previously. Labor’s efforts to engage the Governor in the process can perhaps be seen as an attempt to project willingness to resolve the matter in a co-operative spirit, to be followed by a regretful announcement that the situation is unworkable and an early election is the only thing for it. For its part, the government would be hoping that a few more months in office would give it time to steer the agenda back to state issues.

As illustrated by the poll aggregation chart featured below, the present indications are that Labor would enter an election campaign in the box seat, but not by such a margin that it could be entirely confident of holding off an effective Liberal campaign. Considerably complicating the situation is the first redistribution of electoral boundaries since 2005, which given the intervening population growth has required substantial changes. Whereas the Coalition was barely able to achieve a majority with 51.6% of the two-party vote in 2010, the same distribution of votes would, on Antony Green‘s reckoning, have netted them 48 seats to Labor’s 40 on the new boundaries. However, no fewer than eight of the Coalition’s seats are on margins of 1.6% or less, with a further four on margins of up to 5%. A uniform swing to Labor of just 0.4% would replicate the existing parliamentary deadlock with 44 seats each, with the threshold seat being none other than Geoff Shaw’s electorate of Frankston. The next seat up the pendulum on 0.9% is Bentleigh, which was also the seat the tipped the Coalition over the line at the 2010 election.

The redistribution has largely deprived the Coalition of the “sophomore surge” advantage that first-term governments generally enjoy, in which the key marginal seats are held by members who won their seats at the previous election and therefore enjoy the benefits of incumbency for the first time. Three seats which are notionally Liberal on the new boundaries will in fact be defended by Labor incumbents: Sharon Knight in Wendouree (hitherto Ballarat West), Danielle Green in Yan Yean and Lisa Neville in Bellarine. Frankston will of course be vacated by Shaw, at least as the Liberal candidate. However, Joe Helper will also be retiring as Labor’s member for the country electorate of Ripon, making it considerably tougher for them than the notional Liberal margin of 1.6% suggests.

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