UPDATE: A few hours after the original version of this story went to press, Tony Abbott called a press conference and announced the resignation of Bronwyn Bishop as the Speaker of the House of Representatives.
The press conference was staged in Canberra at 4:30 this afternoon.
NM will have more details later this evening – including whether or not Abbott took questions. But for now, enjoy our original feature about what lead up to Bishop's self immolation, which starts below.
IRONY is a beautiful thing, but it doesn’t get any more beautifully ironic than the Prime Minister’s dodging of media over the past week.
For days, as the media machine cranked into overdrive to host – and in some cases shamelessly exploit – an unprecedented national debate about racism in Australia (aka the Goodes booing scandal), one man chose to stay silent.
Our nation’s elected leader, Tony Abbott.
Over to the Herald’s Chief Political Correspondent, Mark Kenny, who explained it quite succinctly on Thursday evening: “Tony Abbott has spent a third full day away from the media spotlight as the travel allowance scandal engulfing his hand-picked Speaker finally brought an apology from Bronwyn Bishop and with it a request that the Department of Finance examine all her travel claims.”
“Despite several other issues of public interest running in the national space, the Prime Minister has kept an uncharacteristically low profile all week, even departing a trade function in Sydney on Thursday via a side door without speaking to reporters about Mrs Bishop's case.
“While the question of his continued confidence in Mrs Bishop as the chief guardian of standards would inevitably have arisen, Mr Abbott also would have faced questions about the racism furore around former Australian of the Year Adam Goodes, and developments regarding the aviation disasters of MH17 and MH370.”
As it turned out, on Friday morning, Abbott finally did stick his head up… sort of. It’s worth dwelling briefly on where, and why.
Abbott chose to emerge on Radio 2SM in Sydney, a station with an audience so small it’s not included in the official radio survey ratings (2SM pulled out in 2002 after one of its night-time programs recorded the lowest ever rating on a commercial station in history – 0.1 per cent).
It was a media appearance that, within political circles, you might describe as ‘a friendly’, a particularly important strategy for someone like Abbott, given that anytime he appears in public he’s liable to say anything. Think ‘nothing but bush’, ‘as the housewives of Australia do the ironing’, ‘Lifestyle choices’, ‘she’s got a bit of sex appeal’, ‘I’m the one with the not bad looking daughters’, etc etc.
But in Grant Goldman, 2SM’s breakfast presenter, Abbott didn’t just find a friendly, he found a BFF.
Here just was one of Goldman’s softball questions: “Look, just what the people do and what the people are saying at the moment is that Tony Abbott is doing a fair job. Would you say that given the fact that it looked a bit shaky for you about 12 months ago things are on the up and up for the Coalition?”
Mr Goldman clearly hadn’t read the latest Newspoll, which earlier in the week showed that a substantial proportion of what “the people” were feeling didn’t equate to Abbott doing a “fair job”. But he quite possibly did read Kenny’s piece, because after a free kick on the NRL, the first discussion was about Adam Goodes. The second was on MH370. The third was on Bronwyn Bishop.
You can read the transcript of the interview here if you’re inclined, needless to say, Abbott emerged unscathed. We’re all left to wonder how he might have fared against a Ferguson, a Uhlmann, a Kelly, a Speers, a Sales, or an Alberici.
While Abbott’s ducking of media is not unprecedented, I can only recall one other occasion in the past when he went missing specifically during an important national debate about the treatment of Aboriginal people. It was in 2009, at a time when Abbott was the Opposition spokesman on Indigenous affairs, and, ironically, it also happened to relate to the expenditure of public funds.
A furious debate was underway about the Rudd government’s handling of the Northern Territory intervention, a disastrous policy it had voted for in opposition, inherited in government, then extended for a decade. Questions were mounting around one of the key planks of the racist NT intervention – it’s $700 million housing program, and outrage was centred specifically on the emergence of a leaked ministerial memo from Labor Senator Ursula Stephens to Indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin.
Stephens had written to Macklin to warn her that if she proceeded with the Strategic Indigenous House and Infrastructure Program (SIHIP) program, as conceived by the Howard government, it was likely to result in huge quantities of cash being squandered, bugger all houses actually being built, and the sort of corruption that in the past had lead to a Royal Commission into the building industry.
Obviously, that’s precisely what occurred – two years into her management of the program, Macklin had somehow managed to spend more than $120 million of taxpayers’ money without building a single house (if, like many Australians, you’re fond of blaming Aboriginal people for their poverty, you might like to research the government-run SIHIP program more intently).
You might also think that failure on that scale would be a gift for a headline-hunting Opposition Spokesman on Indigenous affairs?
Strangely, Abbott was nowhere to be found. The story raged in the media for weeks without him.
Here’s the ABC explaining why: “The Opposition's spokesman on Indigenous affairs, Tony Abbott, is staying silent about problems with the Government's $672 million Aboriginal housing program because he has agreed to a special embargo until his new book is released next Tuesday.
“A spokesman for Mr Abbott said he was unable to comment on the [Strategic Indigenous Housing Infrastructure Program] because of an embargo relating to his new book, which is being released next week.”
Obviously, that must have been in an era before Joe Hockey declared ‘end of the age of entitlement’. But even so, it was a clear case of Abbott refusing to do his job – for which taxpayers were forking out several hundreds of thousands of dollars a year – simply because he had a private book deal.
It was so outrageous, that even Howard cabinet colleague Mal Brough came out swinging.
“The former Indigenous affairs minister, Mal Brough, has criticised fellow Liberal Tony Abbott for refusing to comment on a controversial Aboriginal housing scheme because of a book deal,” the ABC reported at the time.
“If that's the truth, I think that's extremely disappointing and derelict in his public duty," he said.
“Surely Indigenous housing and the plight of these people and the fact that this Labor Rudd Government has not acted in a timely and appropriate fashion deserves the Opposition to forcefully [be]out there on the front foot.”
Indeed it does, although Brough, you might recall, had been in parliament a decade before he ‘discovered’ the problems in NT Aboriginal communities. And Brough was actually the architect of the NT intervention, and the disastrous SIHIP program.
But that’s another story for another day, because this story is about Tony Abbott, and his determination to avoid being asked questions about Bronwyn Bishop’s abuse of her travel claims, thus also boycotting an important national debate about racism… while serving as the self-described Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs.
Astute readers might recall that Abbott has faced a few ‘travel entitlement’ scandals of his own… including one around the launch of a book… in 2009.
When Melbourne University Publishing launched ‘Battlelines’ – described by some as Abbott’s first serious pitch for the Liberal leadership – the Member for Warringah slugged taxpayers for $9,400 in travel entitlements during the ensuing publicity tour.
At the time, No Fibs noted: “The repayment occurred after Mr Abbott publicly denied the allegation through a spokesman, who stated: ‘All travel undertaken by Mr Abbott has been within the entitlement. This is a blatant attempt by Labor to smear and mislead.’”
And for good measure, here’s Abbott again in his interview with Goldman: “Grant, everyone should do the right thing, absolutely everyone should do the right thing. Everyone should operate within the rules and I think if there is one lesson that every single politician must have had reinforced by all of this, it is that you cannot get away with exploiting the rules.”
As the weekend draws to a close, the scandal surrounding Bishop rages on. News emerged yesterday that Bishop also allegedly charged taxpayers $6,000 for a private jet to attend a Liberal Party function in Nowra. And Fairfax media yesterday that Bishop had cancelled a planned trip to New York.
Amid the growing storm, Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce entered the fray, but unlike his Prime Minister, he chose a serious media outlet to run the gauntlet.
Facing Sky News, Joyce remarked: “If you start throwing rocks there won't be a person left in the parliament… If we're going to go on a shooting expedition we'll be getting rid of good politicians on both sides of the house very quickly.”
That obviously might disappoint Grant Goldman but I doubt the ‘the people’ would have much of a problem with it.
And here’s Abbott on Goldman’s program, one more time for good measure: “… the public, rightly, expect a lot of their leaders and every day we have got to be focusing not on what happened yesterday but on what is going to happen today and tomorrow.”
On that front, with the Bishop scandal showing no signs of abating, I think we can all, for once, agree.
* UPDATE: A Few hours after this story went to press, Bronwyn Bishop resigned as Speaker of the House of Representatives, following a press conference called by the Prime Minister.
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