Bronwyn Bishop, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, has found herself in a spot of bother.
The Member for Mackellar has enjoyed a long and relatively distinguished career as a Liberal apparatchik.
In keeping with the practice of modern politics, Bishop has always been a factional warrior and a fiercely loyal conservative. For instance, she saw no problem attending the anti-climate change rally in 2011 that featured the notorious “Bob Brown’s Bitch” banner. A former president of the New South Wales Liberal Party, Bishop has also been a senator and a junior minister in the Howard government. At one stage in the Liberals’ wilderness years of the early 1990s, she was even considered a leadership prospect, though such speculation quickly fizzled.
Now Bishop’s speakership is in trouble, the result of a Parliamentary entitlements scandal so baroque that even the Murdoch media has had to take notice.
Bishop’s latest parliamentary expenses return contains some quite remarkable expenditures.
In just six months, from June to December 2014, she racked up nearly $400,000 in taxpayer-funded entitlements. A cool $130,000 was spent on two overseas trips, including a quite amazing $88,084.29 on a trip to Europe, with staff, as Bishop campaigned for the presidency of the Inter-Parliamentary Union.
Interestingly, Bishop lost that vote to Bangladesh’s Saber Chowdhury, reportedly because of international disquiet with her moves last year to ban Islamic dress in the Parliamentary visitors’ galleries.
But the really eye-popping revelation of Bishop’s expense reports, and the factoid driving this week’s growing scandal, was her $5,227 charter of a helicopter to fly from Melbourne to Geelong for a Liberal Party fundraiser.
So far, Bishop has failed to justify such a profligate expense.
The closest we’ve come is a statement given to News Corporation on Wednesday. “The Speaker had a number of meetings during her visit to Victoria and always seeks to fit in as many meetings and events into her schedule as is possible,” a spokesman told News. “It [is]because of her concern for the country, she works as hard as she can and wishes she could do even more.”
Those truly concerned for the country know that driving from Melbourne to Geelong is a relatively straightforward procedure. Bishop has access to a federally-funded, chauffeur-driven ComCar, which would have got her to the function as quickly as the helicopter.
On the other hand, as any global CEO or Bond villain knows, nothing provides a tone of authority like arriving to your next meeting in your own helicopter (even a chartered one).
The Hon. Bronwyn Bishop MP, ade a spectacular arrival at Clifton Springs Golf Club on Wednesday November 5th. pic.twitter.com/t5Nqv53HKx
— Neil Remeeus (@NeilRemeeus) November 6, 2014
You don’t need a finely-honed sense for retail politics to see that public expenditure of this kind is totally unacceptable. The helicopter was unnecessary: Bishop could have taken a car.
More to the point, Bishop should not have been there in the first place. On any analysis, the fundraiser was not official Parliamentary business.
The role of the Speaker is enshrined in Westminster convention. It is meant to be independent. Quite obviously, the Speaker should not be using her taxpayer entitlements to raise money for her own political party.
There’s a terrible irony here, of course. Bishop came to the Speaker’s chair of the 44th Parliament with high hopes to restore the stature of this critical position.
The 43rd Parliament was marred by deep divisions brought on by the uncertainty of the minority government led by Julia Gillard. After Labor pulled a tricky maneuver to install Liberal-National MP Peter Slipper in the speakership, the Coalition made Sipper’s destruction a primary aim.
Despite proving a surprisingly balanced and effective speaker, Slipper’s treachery against his Coalition colleagues would never be forgotten. He was embroiled in an unseemly sexual harassment claim brought by a former staffer, James Ashby – a civil case eventually thrown out by the Federal Court as an “abuse of process.”
Hounded at every turn by a hostile media – the Daily Telegraph famously cartooned him as a giant rat on its front page – Slipper eventually quit as Speaker. He was later cleared on appeal of three relatively minor charges, of misusing cab vouchers worth less than $1,000.
Perhaps because of this history, the Bishop scandal has developed quickly. It broke on Tuesday night, and gathered pace yesterday. This morning, Joe Hockey and Scott Morrison both distanced themselves from the Speaker.
By lunchtime today, Bishop had announced she would pay back the $5,200 for the helicopter charter.
“I have today written to the special minister of state indicating I will reimburse the Department of Finance the costs associated with the use of my charter allowance on 5 November 2014,” she said.
“Whilst my understanding is that this travel was conducted within the rules, to avoid any doubt I will reimburse the costs.”
But that will not be the end of the matter. The merciless pursuit of Slipper by the Coalition in opposition was by no means halted by his attempts to pay back the cab fares in question. And, indeed, paying the money back really shouldn’t bear on the abuse of the entitlement.
As Labor’s Graham Perrett asked: “Why would she pay the money back if she has done nothing wrong?”
Labor will pursue Bishop because she has been such a dismal speaker. Bishop’s blatantly partisan conduct in the chair has been notorious. Instead of standing aside from party politics, she continues to attend Liberal party room meetings.
Since taking the role, she has suspended Labor members hundreds of times, sometimes for the flimsiest of reasons – even laughing. In contrast, only a handful of Coalition MPs have been removed. In 2014, she angered Labor MPs by appearing to take instructions from the government’s leader in the House, Christopher Pyne. She also regularly shuts down Labor questions to government ministers, and sometimes even dismisses points of order without hearing them.
Bishop’s immediate future now hangs on the support of Prime Minister Tony Abbott. If Abbott backs her – and they are of course old factional allies in the New South Wales Liberal Party – then she may be able to muddle through.
The issue will not go away quickly, and Labor has every incentive to try and destabilise the government by attacking Bishop, just as Tony Abbott did so successfully when he was opposition leader.
Let us hope Abbott does withdraw his support. Bishop has been a terrible speaker, the worst since Leo McLeay. She should go.
Australian democracy deserves better. But, in keeping with so many other aspects of this punitive and tribal government, we are unlikely to get it.
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