Next week in Victoria suspended sentences come to an end — in more ways than one. By a strange quirk of timing, removal of this sentencing option and independent Frankston MP Geoff Shaw’s suspension from Victorian Parliament will come to a simultaneous finale.
The Napthine government doesn’t like suspended sentences, whereby a jail term is found warranted but suspended unless the offender misbehaves during a set period.
The arguments for suspended sentences include: encouraging rehabilitation; and allowing judges to best fit the penalty to the crime. Arguments against include: jail should mean jail; judges are soft on criminals; and Parliament — meaning the government — knows best what the appropriate sentence should be.
In June, the Victorian Legislative Assembly, acting as prosecutor, judge and jury, debated whether Shaw should be expelled for misusing parliamentary entitlements. The government said expulsion was warranted but backed away from instant expulsion, and instead recommended what it opposes for ordinary offenders — a suspended sentence, but one with a twist. Shaw was fined, suspended for 11 sitting days and told he would be expelled unless he apologised to Parliament at the end of the suspension period.
The trouble is, we (and presumably Shaw) don’t know what this apology will entail. What considerations would the government have in mind in deciding whether an apology passes muster?
Since he quit the parliamentary Liberal Party in March 2013, the balance-of-power independent has been a major headache for Premier Denis Napthine, who had enough trouble anyway developing his own agenda. Shaw’s ability to play havoc with the Coalition’s legislative program has contributed to the perception that the government is not in control.
With only three sittings weeks left before the November election the government needs everything to run smoothly. It has fared better during Shaw’s absence, relying on the Speaker’s casting vote, so his expulsion would continue to help the government seem more in command.
But requiring a form of apology that Shaw wouldn’t satisfy even if he wanted to would smack of darker political arts. It would give credence to a suspicion that expulsion was always the government’s aim but that it held back to avoid a dangerous byelection in the seat of Frankston.
If Shaw had been expelled in June and a byelection had been held, it would have given Labor leader Dan Andrews a very welcome shot of media attention. A loss for the government could have triggered the “Mitcham effect”, after the 1999 byelection that presaged the downfall of the Kennett government. A byelection can’t be triggered now as it’s too close to November’s election.
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The best option for the government is to seek Shaw’s apology in simple and straightforward terms and move on. This would at least maintain consistency and give every appearance of sincerity.
The Labor Party has a role here, too. The opposition supported expulsion in June in the hope of triggering the aforesaid byelection. But with a byelection off the table it’s now in Labor’s interest to keep Shaw in Parliament. And unlike the Coalition, Labor does support suspended sentences, after all.
When the Legislative Assembly sits next Tuesday, Shaw will resume his seat. Whether he stays or whether he goes, next week will still be the end of suspended sentences.