Government performance

I grieve for Victorians. I grieve that Victorians are subject to the dysfunctional circus that is this government. Almost three years ago Victorians went to the polls. They elected a government which pledged that accountability and transparency would be its principles, and they elected a Premier who promised ‘no spin and no secrecy’. Two and a half years later, that Premier was gone and those principles were gone. Now whatever is left of this government is going; it is fragmenting and struggling under the weight of systematic disgrace and the sort of pressure that would eventually bring any administration to its knees, even a first-term government like this rabble before us.

This is a government that has already been through two premiers, two treasurers, two police ministers and two anticorruption ministers, all in two and a half years. This period has seemed like a lifetime for Victorians who cherish the democratic promise of their Parliament and their government. I grieve for Victorians because they no longer have a government that can honour this promise. They scarcely have a government at all.

This is one of the dodgiest administrations in Victoria’s history, and it is one of the most secretive. It is willing to do whatever it takes to hold onto power. We are better than that in this state; we are different. We are not used to headlines that read ’24 charges’, ‘Secret tapes –reveal cover-up–‘ and ’76 hours of hell that toppled a leader’. We can get a bit rowdy in this place sometimes, but we are still not used to headlines like ‘Parliament descends into chaos’. In the Age today we see the headline ‘Government backs Shaw after bloody Spring St brawl’. Chaos: the condition of complete disorder.

Let us go back to last sitting week. On the Tuesday Victoria Police announced it was charging the member for Frankston with 24 serious criminal offences. The opposition asked questions all week, exposing the government’s reliance on the member for Frankston. By the Thursday the pressure on the Premier had mounted so much that he said the following about the member for Frankston:

… the chances of him being endorsed for any seat are negligible, nil, low, zero.

The member for Frankston reacted to that comment of the Premier; he retaliated. He wanted to teach the government a lesson, so he left the Parliament at 1.30 p.m., not because he was sick but with a smirk on his face. He was seen at 1.30 p.m. jogging out the back door of Parliament House with a smirk on his face and jumping into a black Golf, leaving the government without a majority. The probing questions asked by the Leader of the Opposition on that Thursday were shut down, and the Leader of the Opposition was subsequently excluded for 3 sitting days out of a calendar of 51 days. Despite a century of precedent, the failed majority of the government was garnered by one vote and the Leader of the Opposition was excluded. That happened for all to see. We saw that without the vote of the member for Frankston this government does not command a majority in the Legislative Assembly.

These are the lengths to which this government will go to stay in power. These are the hands that it will play in this game, but it is not a game. Rather, it is the right to govern a great state, and when you are awarded such a privilege you assume it with honour, not with dishonour and not with two dozen charges. Maybe this government started with good intentions. If it did, then I suspect that those intentions were depleted by 22 April 2011. On that day the member for Frankston drove to Sale with a boot full of stock. Or maybe those intentions were depleted a month earlier on 7 March when Detective Leading Senior Constable Weston commenced employment in the office of the Minister for Police and Emergency Services.

The government was not to know at that time that these two seemingly innocuous events would slowly conspire against it. These two events would be carefully nurtured by rogues in the darker corners of the Liberal Party room and in the private office of the Deputy Premier.

Indeed they were cultivated, and two years later, in the first week of March, they collided. This chaotic government is still trembling from the impact of two interlacing stories of scandal with an elegant chronology and a brutal end. It began with the following words:

Report of an investigation into the conduct of a member of Victoria Police undertaking secondary employment as a ministerial adviser and his relationship with a deputy commissioner of Victoria Police.

This report is an interesting read. It tells the story of a man, Tristan Weston, who:

… found himself in a position of power and influence no new member of Parliament could have dreamed of.

In 88 pages the report lays out how ‘management of Victoria Police was undermined and public confidence in it diminished’ and actions that ‘almost certainly contributed to the course of events that led to the chief commissioner’s resignation’ and which ‘may have involved the commission of the offence of misconduct in public office’.

That campaign was run out of the office of the Deputy Premier, who was then the Minister for Police and Emergency Services. The police minister deemed himself unmoved by these words, as did the then Premier. Exactly one year later another report was released, this time by the Ombudsman. It details his investigations into the member for Frankston’s conduct and states that the member for Frankston used his parliamentary vehicle for a commercial trip to Sale. The member used his parliamentary fuel card to purchase fuel for his private vehicle. He gave his parliamentary vehicle to hardware store staff members for commercial use.

Those staff members travelled as far west as South Australia and as far north as Wagga Wagga. They were told in weekly meetings where to travel. They were told to use the parliamentary fuel card. They were even told to reverse from the pump to hide the numberplates.

As the Leader of the Opposition said in this place in October last year:

Make no mistake — the member for Frankston’s conduct was carefully calculated … His intention was to knowingly use taxpayer funds to prop up a private business … to rort the very system he was entrusted to uphold.

Government members were the first to defend him. They declared him a ‘committed local member’ and declared ‘full confidence’ in their team. Opposition members were the first to raise this matter with Victoria Police, and we were ridiculed for doing so. We all heard that an impotent committee — a trial by fellow coalition members — was the appropriate body to deal with these allegations.

In September this year Victoria Police filed 24 charges, among them misconduct in public office — the same offence from which a politician, in the government’s new independent commission against corruption, has immunity. I cannot comment any further about the charges. They are before a court, but I do note that the government’s IBAC is perfectly and precisely powerless to investigate the very offence with which the member for Frankston has now been charged.

Speaking of coincidences, let us revisit the first week of March this year.

This was of course the week it all came crashing down, severing irreparably the threads which held two scandals within the net of human control. The recording started harmlessly enough, but at the 4-hour mark the secret police tapes revealed the decay at the heart of this government: conversations between the disgraced Mr Weston and the Liberal Party’s chief apparatchik, the man who ran the Premier’s office. There was talk of hush money, secret deals and five-figure sums, talk of jobs with Gina Rinehart. Until that point it was the greatest moment of volatility during the lifespan of this government. Then this happened:

This morning, I advised the Premier of Victoria of my resignation from the parliamentary Liberal Party …
I believe my actions reflect the general loss of confidence Victorians are feeling in the leadership of the government.

That was a statement released by the member for Frankston at 6.23 p.m. on 6 March. Just 41 minutes later the member for Hawthorn resigned as the Premier of Victoria. In the grip of one scandal it was the other one that finished him.

Essentially this is a story of two men, both of them misguided and mischievous, and a story of a government rotten to the core. Early in the life of this government these men and others set off a course of events that would eventually disfigure it and take it to the brink of collapse. The question here is not so much how they did it but how they got in the door, and in the case of the member for Frankston, why they are still inside.

Every single member of the government made a choice.

Every single member chose the member for Frankston over the then Premier, the member for Hawthorn, and the member for Frankston anointed the current Premier. The Premier is in that job not because of the will of the people of Victoria; he is in that job because of the vote of the disgraced member for Frankston. The member for Frankston owns this Premier; he owns him. In the government’s case, what does it say about a government that it cultivates and defends someone like the member for Frankston even while he is facing charges that he defrauded the people of Victoria and even after the sickening events and footage that we all witnessed yesterday? Was there concern for an elderly gentleman, a grandfather left bleeding and shaking on the front steps of this Parliament? There was no concern for him from this government. No, the concern and defence is only for the member for Frankston, who has a black belt and is a former bouncer — a man who has got form in these matters.

Let us have a look at how locked in this government is.

I quote from the front page of today’s Herald Sun, which says:

Footage appears to show Mr Shaw pushing the man to the ground.
An ambulance was later called to Parliament after police became concerned that the man might have a heart attack.

Mr Shaw made his way inside Parliament House. But he stormed out of the Legislative Assembly about 15 minutes later …

He was followed out by Liberal MP Christine Fyffe, calling out ‘Geoff, Geoff, come back inside’.

We know how much this government relies on the member for Frankston: ‘Geoff, Geoff, come back inside’, the report says.

There is a quote in another article by a coalition MP, who said:

Every week we’re in here there’s something else involving him …

The article then states:

The problem is that they need his vote.
Which is why there is almost nothing Mr Shaw could do — aside from being convicted on any of the 24 charges he presently faces — that would stop the government working to keep him in the tent.

Today’s Age says:

The government decision to effectively defend Shaw might seem like rank hypocrisy, but perhaps this was regarded as the lesser of two evils. The alternative is to cut Shaw loose completely, which could potentially cost the coalition power.

An article in the Australian Financial Review says:

The government only survives with Mr Shaw’s support.

Today’s Australian says:

Rebel Victorian Liberal Independent Geoff Shaw is facing a fresh police investigation after allegedly assaulting an elderly man on the steps of Parliament, leaving the victim with a bloodied face and facing tests for suspected heart problems.

Everyone knows — that is, every member of this government from the Premier down — that this government only survives on the vote of the member for Frankston. That is why as soon as he stormed out and left this government without a majority, we heard: ‘Geoff, Geoff, come back inside’.

Preserving this member on the margins of any government would be madness enough, but it has gone and made him the keystone. The member for Frankston is the Atlas who holds up the government’s world. He is not just inside the door: he is the doorman, the bouncer; and when he withdraws his presence, as he so obviously has done recently, it shows.

If that amount of pressure can trigger turmoil in an institution as unyielding as this Parliament, then I cannot imagine what it is doing to the government or to the Premier, and neither can the people of Victoria. They are outraged, and they have got every right to be outraged. They are outraged that the leaders of this government can be so easily commandeered by a man facing serious criminal charges. They are outraged that their democracy can be so carelessly compromised, and they are outraged that this government has turned out to be nothing like the one they voted for in November 2010. It does not act like it or even look like it, and the government is not what it promised.

It is not what it advertised. It is a defective good. Somewhere along the assembly line it got contaminated, and this government can only blame itself because it built a culture it can no longer contain. The government has endorsed a rogue for so long that it has lost control. This government only survives on the vote of the member for Frankston.