Australian Commentary (17)

Expulsion of Elected MP a Bridge too Far

GREG CRAVEN From: The AustralianJune 11, 2014

mr shaw

Illustration: Eric Lobbecke

SO far as I know, I have never met “maverick” Victorian MP Geoff Shaw. As far as I can tell, I don’t particularly want to.

According to media reports, he is quixotic, unpredictable and difficult. These seem to be his good points. But when it comes to expelling him from parliament, enough is enough. Personality flaws are one thing: democracy another.

The ostensible reason for pursuing Shaw is his alleged misuse of a government petrol card. Problematic, but hardly a force 10 on the Eddie Obeid scale of tectonic malfeasance.

The problem for Shaw is that as a member of parliament, his suggested faulty fuel records have a special quality. For you or me, it would be ­sloppy accounting. For him, it may be “contempt of parliament.”

Sounds impressive, and just the thing to get him deservedly booted from the chamber of slumbers. And, indeed, the penalties for parliamentary contempt do include expulsion.

The difficulty is that contempt of parliament is a concept as slippery as a bucket of real estate agents. Anything can be contempt of parliament, just so long as a majority of members for the time being are prepared to call it.

This is because parliament itself decides what contempt is. This is not a crime like murder or robbery, defined by the law. This is a charge proved by the numbers.

Which is why it is so dangerous. Any Victorian parliament at any time can decide one of its members is in contempt and expel them. Just as parliament can ignore any atrocious act, as long as it suits politically.

We also should be quite clear that this is not just an issue for politicians. Ordinary citizens can be found to be in contempt of parliament. A gaggle of enraged pollies actually could lock you up for an overenthusiastic letter to the editor or a rash remark from the parliamentary peanut gallery.

All the more reason for handling contempt charges carefully, like nitroglycerine or Mark ­Latham. Start letting them fly around freely, and there is no ­telling where you might end up.

So the enthusiasm with which some are cheering on the cause for Shaw’s expulsion is both confusing and troubling. Normally, politicians at least understand that once the contempt ferret is down the rabbit hole, there is no telling where it may go.

Today, I have the numbers, and you are in contempt. ­Tomorrow, they are with you, and I am out of the house. Precedent is poison in these politically charged contexts.

There seem to be three reasons why otherwise cautious parliamentarians are prepared to use “the c word” in the same sentence as Shaw. First, the potential political ­implications are enormous. The expulsion of Shaw leaves the Napthine government critically exposed, and an election ulti­mately may have to be called.

Second, there is just a whiff that some of Shaw’s personal views are “unacceptable.” He is, apparently, an anti-abortion evangelical Christian. Contempt is a nasty business, but surely this is a deserving case.

Finally, Shaw is just plain unappealing. By all accounts, he is erratic, self-important and politically friendless. It is much easier to use a sledgehammer power against an unlikable irritant than an appealing ally.

In fact, all these considerations make the expulsion of Shaw more, not less, dangerous. The idea that the power of contempt could be harnessed to political ­advantage — by either side — is repulsive. The notion that it could be justified by the personal beliefs of a member even more so.

And the adage that liberty is most clearly seen when applied to the unlikable and the politic­ally incorrect is as true in the context of parliamentary contempt as it is in the case of human rights ­generally.

It is no secret that Australian politics has been getting nastier for some years. Between the savaging of Julia Gillard and the demonisation of Tony Abbott there is a hysteria and vindictiveness that is deeply foreboding.

But when we get to the point of throwing uncongenial politicians out of parliament altogether we are dangerously close to the days of Cromwell, purging the House of Commons for supposed corruption and moral turpitude.

If Victoria’s parliament believes one of its members to be in contempt, they should be punished: reprimanded, fined, even suspended. But expelling an elected member is contempt of democracy ­itself.

Greg Craven is vice-chancellor of the Australian Catholic University

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