Why Labor can’t afford to lose Craig Thomson … or any MP

Embattled Labor MP Craig Thomson may lose his seat, but this doesn’t necessarily mean Labor will lose government. AAP

The Gillard Government relies on a wafer thin majority in the House of Representatives in order to pass legislation.

The Coalition opposition has already said it will not provide “pairs” for government MPs and ministers during votes on the controversial carbon tax legislation.

With the margins for error so narrow, what would happen if the Government were to lose one of its MPs - or an independent or third party MP pledged to support it - in a by-election?

Pressure is mounting on the Labor member for Dobell, Craig Thomson over allegations he misused funds during his time as head of the Health Services Union. The HSU has announced it will hand over documents connected to the allegations to police. The Conversation spoke with Monash University political expert, Zareh Ghazarian to see what parliamentary possibilities could yet arise.

Does the loss of an MP automatically mean the Government would lose power?

Not necessarily. It’s up to the political parties to make their case.

Clearly, if Craig Thomson is removed from parliament then there would be a by-election, but there is no constitutional requirement to have a by-election. Depending on who wins that election, we come back to the same kind of scenario.

If it’s a Labor MP then they would support Gillard and the government wouldn’t fall. If it’s anybody else then they might decide to support Abbott.

Either way it is convention in the Westminster system that the Prime Minister has first go at forming government. And it’s up to the Prime Minister to prove to the Governor-General that they will be able to have a majority in the House of Representatives. And if they are able to demonstrate that, then there’s no problem at all.

If they can’t demonstrate that, however, then the Prime Minister advises that the Governor-General seek the advice of the opposition leader and see if they can form government. Depending on how the numbers fit then there might be a change of government.

At this stage it’s a bit early to speculate on whether Craig Thomson will stay in parliament. What we’ve seen from Labor is a tooth and nail fight to avoid this issue completely, to shift the focus.

But you can’t really stop people from focussing on politicians and sex scandal allegations. I think the nature of the allegations will fuel interest and the media around this issue. If it was something more banal perhaps we wouldn’t have so much excitement around it.

If an ALP seat was lost, how could the current Labor government hold on to power?

They could hold on by getting Independent MP, Bob Katter on board. They still have the opportunity of poaching the West Australian National MP, Tony Crook.

So they have got a couple of people that they could try and negotiate and presumably they could try and give them particular benefits in their own electorate.

MPs are always interested in more infrastructure and spending in their own electorates. So the government might try and attract support that way.

They did this in the last round of negotiations with the independents after the last election – there was potential for ministerial roles, of a speakership.

Those sorts of carrots can be waved in front of these MPS to get their support. I think that would be the most straight forward way of Labor trying to retain power.

But really the last year of Australian politics has thrown up quite a few things that we haven’t seen before. Anything could happen.

It could be the case that an independent might win that seat. It’s certainly not definite that opposition or Labor would get that seat.

We know from electoral history that whenever there is a by-election there can be very strange, unpredictable outcomes. If there is a local member of the community with a strong public profile, they might be able to win against a major party candidate.

So it depends on firstly, if there will be a by-election, which looks unlikely. Secondly, if there was a by-election, who would win it? There’s no guarantee that a major party candidate would win it and you probably would have a cast of thousands running.

The Coalition would presumably try and use a by-election to their advantage, if they won, could they gain power?

The Coalition would be in the same situation that they were in last year, so the question would be why would the independents, who are happy to support the government last year, now switch to the Coalition?

I’m not sure the independents would be able to justify that decision to suddenly change their minds one year into this government’s term. The government has made these concessions to these independents, the National Broadband Network is a major one, which the opposition opposes.

Labor, as far as the independents are concerned, has upheld their side of the bargain that they agreed to last year. So Labor really is in the box seat, even though things are going wrong, it’s not popular in the opinion polls, it’s got this current controversy now but in terms of servicing the interests of the independents they’re doing that.

Would this move be constitutional?

Thanks to Australia’s Constitution, these are sorts of things are almost left out, so they rely on the customs and traditions that have guided Australian politics.

This comes from British politics, and the Westminster model. And the most important point about Westminster politics is the use of conventions, the ways in which politics has been run.

So by convention it would be up to the Coalition to try and get the numbers of support in the House of Representatives. And by convention they must demonstrate that they have more support than the Labor government.

So the clearest way of doing that would be to call a motion of no-confidence against the government and if they had the numbers, they would clearly win that vote.

If there was a by-election and it upset the numbers in the House, would a new election be the likely outcome?

Again I’m not sure it would be likely because we’ve seen in the last year that these leaders are pretty good at toughing out uncertain political times.

They will continue to work at getting the support of these independents or who ever is in parliament. There’s no guarantee that fresh elections will sort out the situation.

The opinion polls show that the government is very unpopular and the Coalition would probably win, but an election is really a difficult path to take. The most basic way to go about it would be to see after a by-election, if we have one, how the numbers stack up.

If the Coalition is able to get the support of the new MP or independents, they would then be able to form government without going to an election.

Also I don’t think there’s a public appetite for a fresh round of elections, I think people are a bit over it and they just want their leaders, and government to govern, to get on with it.