Bishop must resign over incompetence, not bias

Bishop must resign over incompetence, not bias

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.

Open letter to the #AshbyInquiryNow campaign

Dear proponents of the #AshbyInquiryNow campaign

I know your hearts are in the right place, honestly I do. I share your concern about 2013 ending with Tony Abbott installed as Australia’s 28th Prime Minister. I’m uneasy about Abbott’s ascendancy and what it could mean for equality, equal opportunity and protection of the disadvantaged in Australia.

I also share your concern about the state of Australia’s conventional media, which more often than not descends to lowest common denominator populism to attract eyeballs and earholes rather than serve the public good through objective reporting and unbiased analysis.

It’s because I share many of your concerns that I say you’re seriously mistaken if you think the #AshbyInquiryNow campaign will prevent Tony Abbott from becoming Prime Minister.

That IS the purpose of your campaign, isn’t it? It’s not really about Ashby and Brough colluding to entrap  Slipper in a nasty pre-selection stoush for the seat of Fisher. We already know they did (and don’t need an inquiry to tell us) because it was exposed by the Rares judgement. Nor is your call for an inquiry really about the role that journalist Steve Lewis played, because Justice Rares found that Lewis was simply doing his job.

The #AshbyInquiryNow campaign is really about pinning the whole sordid mess on Tony Abbott – isn’t it? – in the hope that …. well, what do you hope to achieve?

  1. Maybe the inquiry would find Abbott favoured someone running against a sitting Liberal candidate? That’s not a sackable offence and has plenty of precedents.
  2. Perhaps it would show that Abbott had knowledge of Brough/Ashby’s plans to undermine Slipper in the preselection contest for Fisher? If irrefutable proof was produced this would certainly blunt Abbott’s capacity to accuse Gillard of complicity through prior knowledge in the AWU saga. It would be unlikely however to sway undecided voters not already turned off by Abbott’s other unsavoury characteristics such as wall-punching and anachronistic views of women.
  3. It’s likely you’re hoping an inquiry would find Abbott actively participated in the Brough/Ashby scheme. But why would he? Why would Abbott get personally involved in one of the 150 preselection battles that will have occurred before the 2013 election? Remember, Slipper was not Speaker when Ashby set his plan in motion and there was no inkling the current Speaker Harry Jenkins would retire from the position.
  4. Some campaigners also seem keen to prove Abbott was involved in treason/sedition. Firstly, see 3 above. Also, Ashby’s plan was to bring Slipper down for Brough, not to bring the Speaker and the government down for Abbott. The government was never at risk, having gained a spare vote when Harry Jenkins stepped down from the chair. So there was no act of treason or sedition.

Now perhaps I have misunderstood your campaign, and you’re calling instead for an inquiry into the parlous state of Australia’s conventional media. Well we already had one of those and you’re unlikely to get another media inquiry soon or a different outcome.

In short, you can call for an #AshbyInquiryNow until you’re blue in the face but there’s nothing to be achieved by it. The Government would have already established one if they saw it as a way to get  at Abbott.

Instead, the Government may be pondering whether charges can be laid against Brough/Ashby for the “abuse of process of the court” identified by Justice Rares. This may be the most effective way to get justice for Peter Slipper.

There is much that is just plain wrong in the Slipper/Ashby saga: the Coalition turned a blind eye for many years to Slipper’s suspected abuse of entitlements; the Government chose him as Speaker despite similar knowledge; Ashby deceived and manipulated, giving little mind to the potential personal cost on others; and Brough has not yet been called to account for his involvement in Ashby’s scheme. That’s not to mention the shameful way in which News Ltd media dropped the story once it diverged from their political narrative.

Nevertheless, the #AshbyInquiryNow campaign does nothing to address those wrongs. It is nothing more than an empty campaign, a hysterical witch hunt, driven by a single-mindedly desperate wish for Abbott’s downfall. As a result, #AshbyInquiryNow is seen as nothing more than tweet-spam; the left’s equivalent of #JuLIAR. While chants, hashtags, ranty blogposts and automated tweets may reinforce the views of your campaigners, it’s simply annoying for others and puts off any potential new supporters.

Social media prides itself on being what the traditional media is not – focussed on substance not political dramas, conducting analysis not witch-hunts, and being objective not pig-headedly partisan. Unfortunately, the #AshbyInquiryNow campaign meets none of these criteria and I’ll be filtering it from my tweetstream from now on.

But if you find a way to challenge Tony Abbott with substance, analysis and objectivity, be sure to let me know. I’ll be one of the first to join the campaign.

Regards, Drag0nista

Surprise, surprise, The Australian censors criticism of faux Jenkins expose

Yesterday and today, The Australian carried a story attributed to “staff reporters” claiming that Speaker Harry Jenkins button-holed the PM in the Parliamentary coffee shop Aussies. A photo taken on a mobile phone was proffered as proof. I witnessed this exchange and it was nothing of the sort. The taking of the photo was an invasion of privacy and Parliament House protocol. The fact that the journalist in question was not prepared to put her name to the story could be taken as acknowledgement of these facts.

I lodged the following comment at the end of the article as is now customary, but it has not been printed. In fact, the option to comment on the article has been removed altogether. Here it is for you to read and consider:

I’m pretty appalled at this story. Mostly because I witnessed the so-called “button-holing” by Jenkins, which was nothing more than a jovial aside. I also saw the Australian’s journalist take a picture of the exchange on their mobile phone, which is contrary to Parliament House privacy rules. It was pure speculation, if not outright fabrication, to suggest that Jenkins was reduced to discussing this matter with the PM in public, in a coffee shop. I’m a supporter of the Australian, but this was a shocking attempt at gotcha journalism.