Less than six months from the next scheduled Victorian state election, the Victorian coalition government is gripped by political instability after ex-Liberal independent Geoff Shaw declared that he will vote for a no-confidence motion in the Napthine Liberal-National government.
Geoff Shaw is facing a vote in the Parliament to charge him with contempt of Parliament over misuse of taxpayer entitlements, which could see him possibly suspended or expelled from the Parliament. The Labor opposition has been planning to bring the vote, and has won the vote of former Speaker Ken Smith, who was forced to resign due to undermining by Shaw.
Leader of the opposition Daniel Andrews tonight referred to the issue as a ‘constitutional crisis’, and refused to say whether they would still move a no-confidence motion in the knowledge that Geoff Shaw may vote with them. He even suggested that the Premier and himself both visit the Governor to ask for advice.
This isn’t a constitutional crisis, but it’s a political crisis created by a situation where an MP holds the balance of power while being rejected by both sides of politics.
Under the Victorian constitution, parliamentary terms are fixed at four years, with one exception to allow for situations exactly like this one, where a government loses support of a majority in the Legislative Assembly.
If the Assembly passes a motion of no confidence (after giving notice for three parliamentary sitting days), then there is an eight-day ‘cooling-off’ period, during which the Parliament has the option of voting confidence in a new government (or possibly the existing government), at which point the Governor would swear in that new government. This could allow for the government to elect a new leader with support of the Assembly, or for the opposition to form a government.
If no motion of confidence can be passed within eight days, the Governor may then issue writs to call an early election. These rules are called the ‘baton-change’ rules, as they set out a clear process to resolve a government losing its majority either through a new government being formed or an election being called, while not allowing a Premier to call an election at a whim.
Andrews referred to the situation as ‘unprecedented’ and ‘unique’. While it is technically unprecedented under Victoria’s ‘baton-change’ rules, a government losing a majority is not at all unprecedented, and it is not uncommon that this situation is resolved by the calling of an election, either by the choice of the government or after being forced to do so by a vote in the Parliament.
No confidence motions are, and have always been, a mechanism to test if a government has a majority in the House. If no government has a majority in the House, then the only way to resolve that situation is an election. If Geoff Shaw is to be believed, then Napthine does not have support of the Parliament, and a no confidence motion would be an appropriate way to begin the process of determining if any other leader can command a majority in the House.
So rather than this situation being a constitutional crisis, it is a normal (if uncommon) part of our Westminster system, which expects governments to maintain majority support in the lower house of the Parliament.
The situation is only a crisis because of the status of Geoff Shaw, as an MP who the opposition is attempting to convict of contempt, and may well be threatened with expulsion from the Parliament.
While Labor may prefer to simply be rid of Geoff Shaw, voting to expel him from the Parliament will only delay the inevitable. Voters in Frankston would be required to go to the polls only months out from the election. Such a by-election would be conducted on the old boundaries, despite the Victorian Electoral Commission preparing for an election on new boundaries.
If Labor won such a by-election (which would be the most likely outcome), then the Assembly would be deadlocked at 44-44 and at that point there would be no option but to go to an election, after wasting time with an unnecessary by-election.
It would be much cleaner to go straight to an election now. An election will be held in less than six months, so voters aren’t being dragged to the polls that early, and it would likely produce a decisive election result, and see the end of Geoff Shaw’s political career.
However, neither side wishes to follow that path – Napthine has no interest in going to an early election, and Andrews wishes to avoid being seen as benefiting from Geoff Shaw’s vote. None of these political concerns make this a ‘constitutional crisis’.
If a no-confidence motion was tabled, it would require notice of three Parliamentary sitting days before it could be moved. According to the current calendar, which schedules three days of Parliament next week, and then another three days a fortnight later, such a motion couldn’t be voted on until June 24. However, it is possible that another day of Parliament could be scheduled next week, and the vote held by the end of the week (June 12).
An eight-day cooling-off period would then follow, until June 20 at the earliest. At that point, the Governor could issue the writs for an election. Such an election would be held 25-58 days after the close of nominations, which would make July 19 the earliest possible date for an election.
One other thing, both Dennis Napthine and numerous media commentators referred to Victoria’s fixed election laws as possibly being responsible for the current situation. That couldn’t be further from the truth. A similar issue was raised in New South Wales prior to the 2011 state election, when many wished that the election was brought forward.
Under the previous system of flexible terms, there was nothing to force a Premier to call an election when they didn’t want to, such as when they were likely to lose. Fixed terms only stop a Premier from calling an election at a time that is likely to benefit their government.
It is quite clear that Dennis Napthine, despite his troubles, has no interest in having an early election. Why would that change if he had the power to call one?
Napthine suggested he may have called an election six months ago if he had the power, but that seems unlikely. The ALP has led in every state poll since August 2013 – was Napthine planning to call an election he was likely to lose, or did he instead expect to overcome the polls? If that’s the case, it would have been a classic case of a Premier using favourable timing to produce a favourable result – exactly the kind of thing fixed-terms are designed to stop.