02 August 2015
by Phillip Coorey

Why Bronwyn Bishop is a disaster of Tony Abbott's own making

The nation Appointing a party warrior as Speaker was a stunt from student politics to wind up the Left, just like knighthoods. And look how well that went.

There are few politicians more straight up than Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane but that didn't stop his local paper giving him both barrels last week.

"How MP Spent $11,000 on One Flight" thundered the front page of Toowoomba's The Chronicle. It was accompanied by a picture of the minister with the caption "Big Spender" and another page inside detailing every cent – travel, administrative and otherwise – spent in the course of his duties.

Macfarlane's crime was chartering a plane to fly from Canberra to Toowoomba and back on September 8 last year.

He explained, and it was dutifully and fairly reported, that he needed to be in Canberra that morning for a policy announcement with Tony Abbott but had to be back in Toowoomba later in the day for the opening of a refurbished arts centre to which the federal government had contributed $2 million. Then he had to get back to Canberra for ministerial meetings at night and cabinet the next morning.

Typically, this would not be news but, as the article began: "Ian Macfarlane has defended an $11,000 flight in the wake of increased scrutiny of MP spendings caused by the Bronwyn Bishop choppergate scandal".

Such tales are common among MPs who, thanks to the Speaker's gallivanting about on the taxpayers' teat and claiming it as official business, have found themselves the subject of ridicule and suspicion every time they turn up somewhere to do their jobs.

"We can't move, we can't do anything. Our friends are joking about it, people who like us are laughing about it, people who hate us are smashing us," said one this week.

The extraordinary voter anger that Bishop has provoked is inversely proportional to the sums of money involved and it is not confined to those from the Coalition. Focus group polling seen by this column shows that Bishop's behaviour has reflected poorly on all politicians.

"They're all doing it, she just got caught"'

is one common sentiment.

"They're all as guilty as each other" and "she's only sorry because she got caught" are others.

And, as always, there is the personal pejorative. The term "old witch" featured prominently.

Abbott, who has been forced into hiding all week to avoid being asked about the Speaker, has decided to tough it out, even if it means he and the government ceded control of the national political conversation.

He will not prevail on her to leave and she won't quit. The government figures it has to survive an awkward return to Parliament the week after next, use its numbers to defeat a no-confidence motion against Bishop, then hope the issue blows away.

Bishop's apology this week and promise to pay back monies claimed for attending weddings had all the hallmarks of an apology issued by someone being dangled over a cliff by their ankles.

Still unresolved is whether she made a false declarations with her claims that the wedding trips also involved official business pertaining to a parliamentary committee she chaired. This is now the nub of the issue. Did the person who is supposed to uphold standards and decide on matters of privilege make deliberately wrongful claims?

Bishop has become a millstone for the Prime Minster, more so because the situation is one entirely of his creation.

Deep in the bowels of this column's file marked Things That Will Come Back and Bite You on the Bum, is a speech then manager of opposition business, Christopher Pyne, gave in January 2013.

Pyne was railing at Julia Gillard's desecration of the Speakership by forcing aside Harry Jenkins for the tarnished Peter Slipper.

​"It is not the responsibility of Parliament itself that carries the blame for its standing in the eyes of the people, it is the Prime Minster and the government that must shoulder the blame,"

said Pyne.

"It is the Prime Minister that sets the tone. The Prime Minister leads by example. If the Parliament smells rotten, the Prime Minister bears responsibility for it, no one else. It is within her power to change it."

Pyne assured that under the Coalition, the Speaker would be beyond reproach.

"What has happened with the Speakership over the last two years is a farce. It has strengthened my resolve that the Speaker should be independent, they should abstain from their respective party rooms and when the Speaker is taken from one party, the deputy should be taken from the other," he said.

"A Coalition government will ensure that the office of Speaker is treated with respect, not as a shiny bauble to be used as a bartering tool."

Upon the Coalition's election victory, these promises were among the first broken. Keen to lever Bishop out of the ministry, Abbott lured her with the shiny bauble of the Speakership.

As for requiring her not to attend party room meetings, it is doubtful either Abbott or Pyne had the courage to try that on.

Bishop proved a disaster in the chair because of her egregious bias. Speakers are supposed to pretend to be neutral like a Rugby player feeding a line-out. Be a little biased but don't hurl it 45 degrees towards the full back.

There has not been the slightest pretence of neutrality since Bishop has been in the chair. Labor yells and screams about it but deep down, it does not mind because the bias rankles with voters and has become a negative for the government.

Her behaviour makes a mockery of Abbott's comment to this paper in October 2013 when he said he expected his hand-picked Speaker to show no mercy to either side of politics in order to restore dignity to the Parliament.

Abbott said Bishop's "natural instinct" would be to maintain a disciplined House.

Bishop is not the first biased Speaker but she is up there with the worst. While this is not a hanging offence, it explains why there is not the slightest scintilla of sympathy for her in these troubled times.

In reality, appointing such a warrior to the Speaker's chair was just another university politics prank designed to get a rise from the Left.

Right up there with reinstating knighthoods. And look how well that went.