Victoria’s 57th parliament stays rather ridiculous right to the end

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Guardian: Victoria’s 57th parliament stays rather ridiculous right to the end. Gay Alcorn. Thursday 16 October 2014

Last question time focused, raucously, on ‘organised pornography ring run in premier’s private office’

The first question in the last question time for the 57th parliament of Victoria was about the “organised pornography distribution ring run out of the premier’s private office”.

It seemed a fitting end for such a parliament, not so much limping to the end as rolling about in unexpected chaos. Labor used four out of five of its last questions before the election on the alleged porn racket in the office of the premier, Denis Napthine.

These were the claims of Don Coulson – a former senior aide to the former premier, Ted Baillieu – sacked by Napthine days after he took over in March last year.

Coulson is suing the government for unfair dismissal, claiming more than $60,000. The government is counter-suing, arguing in court documents that Coulson should return $30,000 in severance pay because porn was found in his office after he was sacked.

On Thursday, Coulson told anyone who would listen that just about everybody was doing it, and his office was merely the “drop-off and collection centre” for Coalition MPs, advisers and at least one minister to pick up and return USBs containing pornography. Memory sticks were used to avoid viewing and downloading the material on government computers – because that would be wrong.

Coulson was refreshingly candid about all this, and not at all ashamed. “I don’t think it’s inappropriate. If you become an elected official you don’t become celibate or inhuman,” he told ABC radio.” It was hard-core, he said, but not illegal.

Everyone else, of course, was shocked, appalled and disgusted. The government, thrown off course one more time, said that Coulson’s claims were “extraordinary and bizarre” allegations from a “disgruntled, disaffected, sacked employee”.

Only now was he alleging that anyone but him had viewed his memory sticks. Legal officers at the time had advised that the pornography was “inappropriate” but not illegal, so there was no need to call the police.

If there is any broader point to be made about this – something about the state of politics in 2014 – I’m not sure what it is. All that can be concluded is that this parliament has been somewhat ridiculous at times.

The Coalition wasn’t expected to win the election in 2010 and its one-seat majority meant it was hellishly tricky from the start. When Frankston MP Geoff Shaw was accused of misusing parliamentary car entitlements, he was kept on side despite his increasingly erratic behaviour until the government could stand it no longer and it was too late to matter politically. It tried unsuccessfully to have him expelled last month. The saga of Shaw, now an independent, crippled the government for months, and distracted it for longer.

As for Labor, who would have predicted it would find a reporter’s dictaphone, listen to private conversations on it, and then destroy it? Labor says it hasn’t a clue how its contents were leaked to someone in the Liberal party, who leaked an embarrassing recording of Baillieu bagging some of his colleagues. It was all “a dirty mess”, said leader Daniel Andrews. We head to the election with the office of public prosecutions investigating whether charges should be laid.

And so the last question time dragged on, with government members growing hoarse shouting out their achievements. A triple-A credit rating! Record spending in health! Record spending in education! 1,800 more police! 1,600 additional tram services! Train punctuality at 90%! The East West Link contract signed! It was loud and raucous and the poised speaker, Christine Fyffe, said she didn’t want to expel anyone on the last day of the parliament, but “members of the public must wonder where on Earth they are”.

Labor’s deputy leader, James Merlino, relished his chance to ask: “Has the premier asked each and every one of his ministers and each and every one of his Coalition MPs whether they participated in this pornography circulation ring, and if he hasn’t, why not?”

And Labor’s Jacinta Allan: “Will the premier now call this for what it is, absolutely disgusting?”

“I have not seen the material,” Napthine replied. “I didn’t actually ask to be shown all the material. I didn’t think that was very appropriate in the circumstances. I have not seen the material and I do not wish to see the material.”

Thursday was also valedictory day, when retiring MPs made their farewell speeches. There’s always emotion in this, a sense of idealism about politics, and sometimes tears.

Baillieu has been in parliament since 1999 and led the Coalition to victory at the last election. He stepped down last year, at least in part because he lost the support of Shaw. Baillieu made a long speech with his customary dignity, generosity and detachment from it all. “I leave as I arrived,” he said, a proud Victorian, grateful for the support of family and colleagues, and “convinced politics must be a quest for responsibility, not just a game about the pursuit of authority, power, position or privilege.”

And he had some advice for the politicians he was leaving behind. “The antidote to politics will always be a 2km swim in the middle of the bay wearing nothing but Speedos in the middle of winter.”

It seemed rather good advice given the circumstances. Before the campaign begins in earnest, perhaps everyone is in need of a cold dip in the bay.

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