Bishop has resigned, but the entitlements war isn’t over

Bishop has resigned, but the entitlements war isn’t over

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.

Voters forgive leadership change, but not disunity

Only days since returning from a short summer break, Prime Minister Tony Abbott is struggling with the issue he left unresolved before Christmas – the Government’s litany of policy disasters, its rejected budget, and his own failure to deal with his increasingly alarmed ministers and backbenchers.

Admittedly, the PM made some half-hearted attempts to ‘reset’ matters at the end of last year. He reshuffled the ministry without offloading most of the dead wood, held a press conference in which he failed to nominate any policy for resetting, and then went on to ‘give ground’ on policies such as the Medicare rebate and the paid parental leave scheme without actually giving any real ground.

Not surprisingly, this fooled no one, leaving ABC 730’s Leigh Sales to be the first to ask the PM whether he would consider stepping aside in order to give the Coalition the best chance of holding on to power. Abbott’s response was to evoke the deposing of Rudd as justification for his retention, arguing “the one fundamental lesson of the last catastrophic government was that you don’t lightly change leaders”.

This rationale has become almost an invocation, most recently uttered by the PM today in response to questions about the viability of his leadership:

“If there is one lesson to be learned from the fate of the former government in Canberra – maybe even the former government in Victoria – is you do not change leaders. You rally behind someone and you stick to the plan, and we’ve got a good plan.”

To make matters worse, the PM was then treated to a serve by a talkback caller describing himself as a Liberal voter, who said Abbott was “on the nose with Liberal voters” and “the world’s worst salesman”, and that “people don’t know where you are going and business is saying there are roadblocks because there is no direction and no leadership”.

Once one gets past the irony of Prime Minister Tony Abbott citing the coup against Kevin Rudd as the main reason not to dispense with him, it’s worth examining whether it’s actually true that voters don’t like parties who change leaders midstream.

In fact, several Australian governments have changed leaders and gone on to win the following election.

After stalking and then knocking off Australia’s once most popular PM Bob Hawke, Paul Keating went on to beat Opposition Leader John Hewson at the 1993 federal election.

At the state level, a leadership transition was made from Queensland Premier Peter Beattie to Anna Bligh, who despite losing seats at the next state election still retained government. And after losing the confidence of his party room, South Australia’s Premier Mike Rann stood aside for Jay Weatherill, who scraped through the following election to form a minority government.

Sure, each of the governments took a hit in the polls, but they still managed to retain office.

And let’s not forget that despite PM Abbott using Rudd’s political demise as a cautionary tale, Julia Gillard actually managed to form government after the subsequent election, albeit a minority one, despite Rudd’s best efforts to sabotage Labor’s election campaign.

That’s not to say Labor voters weren’t unhappy with the way Rudd was treated. Firstly, they were shocked at the seeming swiftness of the rebellion, and then mystified when it became clear neither Gillard nor those who backed her would give a valid explanation for the coup.

That emotion later intensified to anger when Gillard failed to deliver on the fresh start she had promised voters, demonstrating the same political tin-ear and poor judgement that had plagued Rudd. Gillard’s perceived broken oath on the carbon tax combined with her various political mishaps and pratfalls had more influence on her poor electoral standing than the way she became prime minister.

Despite PM Abbott’s protestations to the contrary, there is no golden rule in Australia politics damning a governing party that changes leaders mid-stream to eternal political opprobrium.

Most of those that did manage to retain office after a leadership change occurred late in the life of long-running governments looking to extend their incumbency. And while some of the changes were orderly handovers, a couple were so well telegraphed they became inevitable.

There are messages in these facts for the current prime minister: governments that have an orderly transition of leadership can survive to fight and win another election. And the removal of a prime minister will generate less voter anger if it’s clear why the change is being made.

If there is a lesson for anyone in the Rudd-Gillard saga, it is actually for Abbott. Voters are more concerned about political disunity, incompetency and unmet expectations than they are about changes in the Government’s leadership.