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.