FARRAH TOMAZIN June 03, 2012
Illustration: Matt Davidson.
Baillieu was unwise to involve his Speaker in the Shaw inquiry.
BEFORE the Coalition won the state election, Ken Smith reportedly held the record for being kicked out of Parliament more than any other member of Ted Baillieu's team.
So, when Baillieu came to office and appointed the Liberal MP as Speaker of Victoria's lower house, it was always going to be interesting.
Smith once likened the gig to former footballer David Rhys-Jones being granted a spot on the AFL tribunal. By the time Rhys-Jones left the game, he'd been booked more than any player in its history. Clearly, the Liberals have a sense of humour.
The problem is, Smith's transition from poacher to gamekeeper has been undermined by Labor's repeated claims that he tends to favour the conservative side.
In the upper house, Liberal President Bruce Atkinson is regarded by all as an even-handed authority of the sleepy red chamber. In the lower house, Labor often accuses Smith of being partisan or inconsistent. He regularly boots out unruly opposition MPs, sometimes without warning; they regularly provoke him back. In turn, question time on Spring Street descends into such farce it makes Canberra look disciplined.
It's no wonder Labor leader Daniel Andrews was outraged when Baillieu put Smith in charge of the investigation into alleged rorting by Frankston MP Geoff Shaw.
Shaw has been accused of allowing a former associate to misuse his parliamentary car and fuel card for the MP's commercial hardware business. Smith's job, with the help of his Parliamentary Services Department, is to find out whether the allegations (raised by several whistleblowers to the Sunday Herald Sun) are true.
While Labor wanted a police investigation, Baillieu insists his course of action is the most appropriate. ''Parliamentary Services, through the Speaker, has responsibility for the administration and rule setting around entitlements,'' he says.
That may be true, but this inquiry is not about whether Shaw's car was used by a third party, because that's not in dispute. It's about whether Shaw, whose colourful history makes him one of the biggest liabilities on Baillieu's backbench, authorised someone to misuse his car.
Arguably, the Speaker and his department don't have the forensic expertise to conduct such a probe, or the authority to compel witnesses and documents. And here's the kicker: the Speaker's role is independent, but Smith is still a Liberal MP, investigating another Liberal MP whose innocence could determine whether the government maintains its tenuous grip on power. As Andrews put it last week: ''His job as Speaker rests on Mr Shaw's innocence. You couldn't get a more inappropriate arrangement.''
In the Legislative Assembly, the Coalition holds 45 seats to Labor's 43 - a one-seat majority once the Speaker's vote is counted out.
If Shaw is somehow forced to resign, a byelection would follow. In the government's worst-case scenario, it would lose Frankston, Baillieu would face a legislative deadlock, be drawn into an early election, and the Coalition could be turfed from office.
While this is highly unlikely (at this stage), Monash University governance expert Ken Coghill believes involving Smith is problematic, not least because it further compromises the independence of his role.
''The Speaker should not be subject to direction by government at all,'' says Coghill, a former Labor speaker under the Cain/Kirner governments. ''It has made him look like a Liberal Party stooge, which has really undermined the authority of his position.''
Smith, disagrees, telling The Sunday Age: ''I think that's a very unfair comment to make. I'm the independent Speaker of the Parliament, and whether I'm Liberal or whether I'm Labor, I've got a job to do. I've always tried to be as unbiased as I can.''
Labor, however, points to the last sitting week of Parliament to assert their claim that police, not the Speaker, should be investigating Shaw. Andrews had tried to use question time to ask Baillieu if he'd ''been advised of any other inappropriate behaviour by the member for Frankston not yet publicly reported, and if so, what is the nature of that inappropriate behaviour''.
Smith ruled the question out of order. ''I do not believe the question relates to government administration,'' he said.
Later, Andrews asked Smith to publicly outline details of his investigation. The Speaker refused. ''If you have questions for me, or if you have issues to raise with me, see me in my chambers,'' he replied.
The next day, Andrews asked Baillieu if he'd sought an assurance from Shaw that he had ''acted appropriately at all times''. Smith again rejected the question, saying it wasn't a matter of government administration. Asked why: ''Because it is not. It is as simple as that.''
Smith insists he made the right call: parliamentary entitlements are matters of ''parliamentary business'', he argues, not government business.
Maybe so, but MPs are elected by the community. And with every alleged rort, the community's trust in the system is eroded. Let's hope the investigation Baillieu ordered is as comprehensive as he says it will be.
Farrah Tomazin is The Sunday Age's state politics reporter. Twitter: @farrahtomazin