JOSH GORDON May 24, 2012
Our politicians continue to give us reasons to not believe in them.
YOU would have to try hard to be sacked from the Victorian Parliament. Being found guilty of treason would do the trick. So would a conviction carrying a minimum five-year jail term.
It seems a low standard compared with most other professions, theoretically allowing MPs to ''get away'' with all manner of misdemeanours before the Victorian constitution deems them unworthy to represent us.
The thinking is that convictions for minor offences, even those involving jail terms of less than five years, should not automatically render a person ineligible for Parliament. Judgments about an individual's worthiness should ultimately be made by constituents, wherever possible.
Even so, the Baillieu government is now facing some curly existential questions triggered by allegations Frankston MP Geoff Shaw inappropriately used his parliamentary car and fuel card to run his hardware business.
The allegations, made by several anonymous whistleblowers to the Sunday Herald Sun, have created a tantalising, if improbable, scenario for state Labor: Shaw is forced to resign from Parliament, the Coalition loses the ensuing byelection, there is a legislative deadlock, followed by an early election.
For the first time, questions are being raised about whether the Baillieu government will survive a full four-year term.
The Victorian Coalition holds just 45 seats in the Legislative Assembly, compared to Labor's 43 seats, giving it a one-seat majority after providing the Speaker. Shaw holds his seat of Frankston by a margin of just 2.1 per cent. Given the narrow margin, given the political momentum isn't favouring the government, and given a string of recent incidents that have raised questions about Shaw's character, a byelection in Frankston could go either way.
As election analyst Antony Green points out, a Labor victory would deadlock the Parliament, creating a ''constitutional imbroglio'' that wasn't specifically thought through when fixed four-year terms were introduced. The likely result would almost certainly be an early election.
The reported allegations against Shaw, who maintains he was unaware his parliamentary vehicle was being misused for commercial purposes, are yet to be tested. But if it comes to it, a possible charge against him could be ''obtaining financial advantage by deception''. Under Section 82 of the Crimes Act, that carries a maximum penalty of 10 years' imprisonment, which would be enough to see him expelled from Parliament.
Labor certainly isn't getting its hopes up. Any investigation would firstly need to establish Shaw was not only aware his vehicle was being misused, but that he ''deceptively'' benefited. That his Ford Territory was used for deliveries in Victoria, South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory is not being disputed.
One trip in November last year, for example, reportedly involved a 1400-kilometre, three-day trip to Adelaide. Aside from the latest claims, there have been a string of other controversies surrounding Shaw. In April last year, police were reportedly called to his house over a domestic dispute. He became involved in a scuffle with a motorist in Rosebud in August and provoked anger when he appeared to link condoning homosexuality to condoning paedophilia or murder.
More broadly, the Shaw saga presents yet more evidence to a scandal-weary public that some of our politicians, far from setting an example, are falling short of basic standards required of the general public.
Public cynicism about both sides of politics is probably at or close to an all-time high, fuelled by recent scandals including the saga involving federal Labor MP Craig Thomson and the arrest last year of Liberal senator Mary Jo Fisher for shoplifting and assault while she was a serving member of Parliament.
Part of the problem is that political leaders fail to respond in an appropriate manner when serious claims are made. Premier Ted Baillieu, for example, responded to the claims against Shaw, which were backed by documentary evidence, by ordering Liberal Speaker Ken Smith to investigate Shaw's expense claims.
Baillieu maintains the in-house investigation represents an appropriate response, adding he has no reason to doubt Mr Shaw's version that he had been unaware of the commercial use of his vehicle. He is now largely refusing to discuss the matter while there is an investigation under way.
This may be the case, but surely the serious allegations, involving the misuse of thousands of dollars of taxpayers' money, warrant a more forceful response. As the opposition's anti-corruption spokeswoman Jill Hennessy argues, an investigation led by the Speaker is not well qualified to handle witnesses, whistleblowers and evidence.
Regardless of the political ramifications, a more appropriate response would have been to refer the matter to the police, at least in the absence of the government's long-awaited broad-based anti-corruption commission.
It has been suggested that the most effective way to prevent politicians rorting the system is to put in place better controls and audit procedures. This might be one approach, but ultimately it is a sad reflection on the quality of some our politicians that we are even discussing such options.
Most politicians are hard working, well intentioned individuals. But failing to tackle serious allegations appropriately brings the entire Parliament into disrepute.
Josh Gordon is state political editor.
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