The Political Weekly: The week may have commenced with the opposition feeling chuffed about having brought down Bronwyn Bishop, but by week’s end Labor was becoming increasingly anxious about the media witch-hunt it had unleashed. For The New Daily.
And so it took three weeks – arguably two-and-a-half weeks longer than it should have – for the Prime Minister to deal with the excesses of his close friend and personal choice for Speaker, Bronwyn Bishop.
After a succession of Bishop’s extravagant and barely-legitimate travel claims were exposed in the media, the Government taking a hit in the opinion polls, and finally being likened to her chauffer in a weekend tabloid, Tony Abbott prevailed yesterday on the Speaker to resign. Which she promptly did.
Yet the PM was at pains to explain the tricksy entitlement system was in fact to blame for Bishop’s profligacy, claiming “the problem is not any particular individual” but “the entitlement system more generally”. Accordingly, the PM announced a review to produce a new entitlements system that is “simple, effective and clear”.
The review is undoubtedly a sop for outraged voters, but it will also provide cover between now and the election for any other MPs whose use of entitlements in dodgy-looking ways may arise in the days and weeks to come. Any such instances will be said to have been pre-emptively dealt with by the review, heading off the need for any disciplinary action or the vengeful sparking of a mutually destructive arms race.
The latter point is particularly important because no side of politics is blemish-free when it comes to the creative use of entitlements.
Perhaps the most common rort is to schedule an official commitment with a party or private event, so that the taxpayer foots any associated travel and accommodation bill.
This was likely the case when 16 Government frontbenchers happened to be in Melbourne for official business around the same time as a major Liberal fundraising event. And when former PM Julia Gillard used a RAAF jet to travel to Byron Bay to inspect roadworks the morning after she attended the wedding of two staffers.
There’s also the totally legitimate but politically questionable practice of MPs using their away from home allowance to pay the mortgage of a second residence in Canberra. The major parties even push the boundaries of MP entitlements at election time, leaving the official launch of the campaign until as close to polling day as possible, because at this point the taxpayer stops footing their travel and accommodation costs.
Not that any of this is news – or at least it should not be. The Australian National Audit Office’s most recent examination of parliamentary entitlements, published in June this year, found that even though there had been numerous reviews of the system, it was “difficult to understand and manage” because of its complexity and because there are no clear definitions of terms such as “parliamentary business”, “electorate business” and “official business”.
This vagueness helped former speaker Peter Slipper successfully appeal against his conviction for misusing travel entitlements.
The audit office also notes the last “root and branch” review of parliamentarians entitlements was held in 2010, and that by April this year only 17 of the review’s 39 recommendations had been implemented.
As a result, the audit office says, “fundamental weaknesses in the framework remain … because the independent recommendations for substantive legislative and administrative reform … have not been actioned”, with travel entitlements being “one of the areas most affected by those factors”.
Abbott would have known this when he fronted the media yesterday to regretfully announce Madam Speaker’s resignation.
Despite misjudging how “choppergate” would play out in the media, particularly once the revelation was followed by the litany of Bishop’s other extravagances, Abbott acknowledged that “we have a situation where spending is arguably inside the rules but plainly outside of community expectations”.
The PM knows this better than most, given he’s been under fire for claiming travel allowance to compete in sporting events.
The former Speaker may have been the worst culprit to date, but the culture of privilege among parliamentarians appears to be entrenched and in urgent need of addressing. According to the audit office, 72 separate allegations of potential entitlement misuse had been lodged with the Department of Finance between August 2009 and June last year. Only the Australian Federal Police has the power to investigate such allegations.
In seeing off one of the most partisan Speakers the Parliament has seen in a long time, Labor has taken a scalp and managed to further diminish the Prime Minister in the process. Yet if the party was genuinely concerned about the rorting of MPs’ travel entitlements, Labor had the opportunity to implement the recommendations of the last “root and branch” review held under their watch in 2010.
Labor’s reluctance to do so belies its indignation over the former Speaker’s excesses.
With the genie that is community outrage now released, the Opposition will have to genuinely participate in reform of the entitlements system, and show leadership by tackling the culture of privilege within its own ranks. In fact, Labor probably has more to lose if the latest review shows as little progress as the last one.
Voters will now expect Abbott to take a “fairer” entitlements system to the next election. If the expectation is not met, it may even be a vote-changer. And if Labor is unable to impose on the Government to produce an entitlements system that is also transparent and accountable, the Opposition will be seen to be as dodgy and untrustworthy as the other mob.
It’s easy to get caught up in the chase when a political villain stumbles and their opponents close in for the kill. In the case of the Speaker, Bronwyn Bishop, it’s important, however, to stay focused on her actual misdeeds to ensure political accountability doesn’t degenerate into an opportunistic blood sport.
Bishop’s offence is not so much that she is tribal or biased – for most speakers are. Her crime is that she is just not up to the job.
Australian politics doesn’t enjoy the benefit of an independent speaker, such as in the UK, although our speaker is expected to show “impartiality in the Chamber above all else“. The British speaker resigns from his or her party and is generally unopposed at election time. For only once they are out of the reach of their former party can a speaker be truly independent.
The tradition is not followed in Australia’s smaller Parliament because governments can’t afford to give up their speaker’s vote. However, this exposes the speaker to the whim of the government. When speakers have taken their impartial role too seriously, such as in the case of former Liberal speaker Bob Halverson, they’ve sometimes been forced to step down from the role.
Nevertheless, in recent times, the Rudd-Gillard government speakers Harry Jenkins and Anna Burke decided to distance themselves from their party in order to protect the dignity of the speaker’s office. Compared with the determination of Jenkins and Burke to make the speaker’s role as impartial as possible, the incumbent’s flagrant tribalism is particularly shocking to political observers.
Yet having always been a political warrior, Bishop is more like the Labor speakers of old than Jenkins or Burke.
Labor would be in less of a position to criticise Bishop’s lack of impartiality if she had directly followed on from the Hawke-Keating government speaker Leo McLeay. Like Bishop, McLeay held party fund-raising events in the speaker’s suite, and also had a number of no confidence motions brought against him.
It is often forgotten, or perhaps not even known, that every speaker has a tendency to throw out more MPs from the other side. A paper prepared by the parliamentary library shows that from 1994, when the new 94(a) rule was introduced giving speakers the power to “sin bin” an MP for an hour, until August 2013, 91.3 per cent of MPs ejected under the new rule were non-government. Bishop’s score so far is 98.25 per cent.
The imbalance in the ejectees is partly a function of the expectation placed on the speaker to protect the government of the day. It’s also a reflection of the opposition’s behaviour during Question Time, when ministers have to contend with a wall of noise as the other side tries to intimidate, distract or wrong-foot the government with cat-calls, insinuations and abuse.
A weak speaker, who can’t manage the chamber well enough to minimise the cacophony, is likely to resort to throwing out the troublemakers. The fact that Bishop has ejected more MPs in her time than any other speaker is one of several indicators that she is unable to effectively perform the role.
Another indicator is that Bishop regularly struggles to call MPs by their correct titles, as even a casual observer of Question Time would notice. The Manager of Opposition Business, Tony Burke, is often called the Member for Burke and some MPs have been called by the names of electorates they’d held in previous parliaments. Even ministers assist the Speaker with their correct titles when she calls them to the despatch box.
Tony Burke has begun to exploit Bishop’s failing acuity, and has at times managed to fluster the Speaker – who once had an encyclopaedic recall of “the Practice” – on parliamentary procedural matters. In response Bishop has taken to lashing out at the Opposition, ejecting one Labor MP for laughing and another for saying “Madam Speaker”.
The third indicator that Bishop is unfit for office is her lack of judgement. It is not so much that she, like Labor’s McLeay, thought it acceptable to use her entitlement as Speaker to participate in a party fundraiser. It is more that Bishop did not see the trip in the luxury helicopter as politically unwise until it hit the tabloids.
The Prime Minister has been open about his choice of Bishop for the speakership, even performing the traditional backbencher role of escorting her to the chair when she was appointed to the role. So it is smart politics for Labor to try to pin responsibility for Bishop on Abbott.
But Labor will only get so far complaining about Bishop’s partisan behaviour. Before Jenkins and Burke, Labor speakers were similarly tribal. Even the most impartial speakers we’ve had – Jenkins, Burke and Slipper – between them threw out non-government MPs 89.5 per cent of the time.
And considering it was a personal decision by Jenkins and Burke to place themselves at arms length from Labor, there’s no guarantee the next Labor speaker will be any less partisan than Bishop.
The Opposition is also treading on thin ice if it pursues the notion that being a guest speaker at a party fundraising event is not “official business” for a speaker. Inconveniently for Labor, there is no legal definition of the term. The criticism does raise the question, however, of whether it is official business when a minister or shadow minister attends a similar event as guest speaker, and travels to the event in a taxpayer-funded car. This is a fairly common practice.
There undoubtedly is a problem with speaker bias, but that is as much a product of our parliamentary system as it is due to the tribalism of any individual. Making the role truly independent, along the lines adopted in the UK, would ensure we would no longer have to depend on the good graces of civic-minded parliamentarians like Jenkins and Burke for the speaker to be impartial.
There is also undoubtedly a problem of some holders of high office thinking it is acceptable to charge the taxpayer for a luxury helicopter flight to a party fundraiser, use taxpayer-funded vouchers to clock up $900 worth of taxi fares while visiting wineries, or hit taxpayers with a questionable insurance claim. The privileged culture that mostly turns a blind eye to such behaviour must be exposed and changed so that the entitlements system can be made more transparent and MPs more accountable for how they spend public money.
However, neither problem will be addressed with the removal of Bishop from her role as Speaker. The problem of Bishop’s unfitness for office is an entirely different matter, and it is for this she must be removed from the role or resign.
As Abbott said in 2012 when referring to the need for Slipper to stand aside, it is “very important that the prime minister act to ensure the integrity of the Parliament”. Indeed. And on this basis, PM Abbott knows exactly what he needs to do.