The political equation that convinced Labor to oppose a government motion to expel Geoff Shaw – despite demanding expulsion in June "because Victoria deserves better" – is probably as simple as this: Geoff Shaw = chaos. As long as there is chaos in the parliament, it damages the government more than the opposition.
Labor is clearly prepared to cop a short-term hit for, in effect, ensuring Shaw's survival, despite demanding his head just three months ago. The opposition may be vulnerable to claims of hypocrisy, it may be accused of a backflip and it may be accused of running a protection racket for Geoff Shaw.
Premier Denis Napthine. Photo: Andrew Meares
But politics is an assessment of risk versus reward, cost versus benefit. Over the longer term (three months represents the longer-term at this sharp point in the political cycle), Shaw's survival is bad news for the Coalition.
First, he commands a not unsubstantial support base in his seat. How he directs preferences could play a crucial role. Second, if Shaw was annoyed before, the MP's fury is now white hot. Labor's decision to reject the motion to expel Shaw has given him a green light to lash out. Any legislation not supported by Labor in the seven sitting days remaining is now in doubt.
Despite all of this, Labor has probably made the right call, albeit for all the wrong reasons. Geoff Shaw is a difficult character, but the idea that he should be expelled because of something he said to a newspaper outside of the Parliament is problematic, even alarming.
Denis Napthine's argument is simple: a process was set place in June requiring Shaw to genuinely apologise and repay almost $7000.
The controversial MP repaid the money and, on Tuesday, it appeared he had met the other key requirement, having told Parliament he sincerely and genuinely apologised.
But it was not to be. According to Napthine, the problem was not what Shaw said in the parliament, but what he said outside.
As recently as Wednesday, Shaw was quoted by a newspaper saying the process was a "political farce".
Napthine was arguing that despite appearing to meet technical requirements of the June motion, Shaw's comments outside Parliament were "absolutely contrary" to the motion because logically Shaw could not be genuinely sorry if he believed the process was a farce.
The argument is semantically shaky: it is perfectly possible to believe a process is a farce, but still be sorry.
To state the obvious, MPs are elected by the people. The usual threshold for expulsion is a high one: an MP is automatically kicked out if convicted of an indictable offence carrying a minimum five-year jail term.
After an ombudsman's investigation, a police investigation and a Department of Public Prosecutions investigation, the best Parliament's privileges committee could come up with is that there was no evidence Shaw's misuse of his vehicle had been "willful".
Like many politicians, including an alarming number of Napthine's colleagues in Canberra, Shaw was in trouble over entitlements. Abuse of entitlements probably should be a sackable offence for politicians, like it is for other employees.
But the sad reality is that Australian MPs seem to be free to rort their expenses so long as they repay the money when they get found out.
Napthine's argument is not that Shaw should be kicked out for abusing his expenses, per se, but for failing to express genuine contrition as required by the June motion.
A process was followed. It may be imperfect, but this should be what Parliament relies on, not a value judgment about whether Shaw was genuinely contrite.
Napthine's claim that politics had nothing to do with the process is bunkum. Politics had everything to do with it, for both the government and for Labor, although the political ramifications are far from clear.
The bottom line is that Shaw's ongoing presence in Parliament is probably of more benefit to the Labor Party, which has been able to hide behind the chaos that seems to dog Shaw and seemed to frequently hamper the government's ability to gain political traction. There are now only seven days of Parliament remaining. The government, lagging in polls, cannot afford to lose even a single day to yet more chaos. Yet, almost unbelievably, the sideshow continues.