THERE IS NO POINT sugar-coating what on any objective criteria is an insult to decency and a flagrant abuse of the privileges of public office: news the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Bronwyn Bishop, spent $5,227 of taxpayer money on a 60km helicopter trip instead of a car for a fraction of the price is indefensible. For Bishop — a repeat big spender on premium travel — the matter is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. She must resign.
Forget the “definitions” that sometimes legitimise largesse when it comes to the “entitlements” of our elected representatives: this was Liberal Party business, and nothing else.
The news yesterday that Speaker Bronwyn Bishop had been exposed for chartering a helicopter flight last year to fly from the Melbourne CBD to Geelong — at a cost of some $5,227 for the return trip — no doubt seems reasonable to some.
But with a perfectly good freeway a couple of miles away and the fine town of Geelong just an hour by road, there is no reason Bishop couldn’t have booked a chauffeured private hire car (or a ComCar) for a few hundred dollars instead.
And not least, when taxpayers are footing the bill.
I am prepared to defend reasonable expenditure by MPs on all sides of politics, and over the lifespan of this column have either done so actively or (more usually) by simply declining to oxygenate sensationalist coverage of supposed rorts by ignoring them altogether.
Elected representatives have the reasonable expectation that expenses incurred in the course of carrying out their duties will be covered, and those expenses may, by the nature of their roles, be inflated when compared to those incurred by a private individual — the practice, for example, of flying in business class, which avoids the prospect of mid-air confrontations between politicians and angry voters, and reduces the requirement for expensive, extensive security details whose costs significantly outstrip the price of the airline ticket.
Often, there is a fine line between what is reasonable and what is ridiculous — particularly where public opinion is concerned — and the aggregate demands on MPs of official business and party business (especially when the MP in question is a minister, party leader or Speaker) often legitimise consolidated travel arrangements at public expense whose bona fides, whilst clear, are not always immediately visible to the typical voter.
None of these defences exist in the case of “Choppergate,” and Ms Bishop must consequently consider her position.
As a veteran of almost 30 years in federal politics, Bishop would know better than most of her Canberra colleagues what is acceptable, and what is not.
Moreover, when it comes to drawing the distinction between what is made legitimate and lawful by virtue of parliamentary guidelines on the one hand, and what could not and cannot be justified in the court of public opinion even if the minutiae of expense claims were disclosed in full on the other, Ms Bishop’s experience uniquely places her to be able to draw such a distinction.
The helicopter trip in question — whilst ridiculous — was, by the universal agreement of players on all sides in Canberra, a purely political conveyance, undertaken to attend a Liberal Party function at the start of last year’s state election campaign, and to date nobody — including Ms Bishop — has provided evidence of coincident business or other ameliorating factors to justify it.
In this case, repayment of the monies simply doesn’t cut it: and a terse, two-sentence statement that accompanied news she would do so — essentially reiterating the trip was, in her view, covered by parliamentary guidelines, but that she would make the payment from her own pocket “to avoid ambiguity” — gives every indication the reimbursement is to be made grudgingly, and under heavy duress indeed.
Even so, this might have been the end of the matter, were it not for the fact Bishop appears to be something of a recidivist when it comes to playing fast and loose with taxpayer monies on “official” travel.
The Fairfax press is carrying a story this morning that details some $309,000 spent by Ms Bishop on overseas travel in her first year as speaker, outstripping predecessors Anna Burke, Harry Jenkins and even the profligate Peter Slipper: the details make for infuriating reading.
It outlines some $90,000 spent by Ms Bishop on a two-week jaunt to Europe (to unsuccessfully lobby for a job with the Inter-Parliamentary Union) that featured expenditure items for herself and two staffers including $42,400 in airfares and $25,400 on accommodation and food. The unjustifiable largesse is astonishing.
And even the Murdoch press is weighing in against Bishop, with the Courier Mail opining the public has every right to be angry with the Speaker, whilst The Australian gave details that Bishop chose the most expensive helicopter transport option on offer — and even suggesting the matter smacked of preferment for the company chartered to provide the flight.
The “pub test” — as Treasurer Joe Hockey yesterday put it — essentially comes down to a distinction between what is legal on the one hand, and what can reasonably be considered appropriate on the other, and whilst nobody suggests Bishop has broken any laws, even if parliamentary guidelines cover her for the outrageous expense she incurred by billing taxpayers for a flight between Melbourne and Geelong, there is no basis in common sense or proper regard for public funds to justify it.
Unlike those in the ALP who bleat of favouritism, I do think Ms Bishop has made a reasonable fist of her role as Speaker.
Like more prominent figures who — like me — should have known better, I too jumped on the momentary madness of the “Bronwyn for PM” bandwagon in early 1994, which saw so many otherwise astute Liberals take leave of their senses as the doomed leadership of John Hewson began to implode.
And whilst perhaps no ministerial standout, Bishop has made a solid contribution over her three decades in public office, and does in fact have a record she can be proud of.
That includes advancement of the status and prospects for women in politics — even if the pinko feminazis at Emily’s List dismiss her (along with every other woman in the Coalition) as somehow less than female because she is not a socialist.
But then again, the fact Bishop has endured and succeeded without quotas and an Emily’s List-style cheer squad merely underlines what she has been able to accomplish.
For all that, however, this latest scandal (and her brusque justification of it) deserves to signal the end of her career.
Playing fast and loose with taxpayer monies is a pastime that has gone on for too long in political life, and if for no better reason than to set an example, Ms Bishop should be removed if she refuses to quit.
I accept that others have been “at it” and that other MPs may be guilty of worse than what Ms Bishop has been revealed to have done, but after the first few public humiliations — and terminated sinecures — have played out, the signal to the rest of the parliamentary pack might and should have been heeded.
And as a final but nonetheless critical point, as Speaker of the House of Representatives, Ms Bishop is the highest ranking parliamentary official in Canberra: among other things, her office is charged with upholding the standards of Parliament as an institution itself. It is for this reason I agitated so loudly for the removal of the grub Peter Slipper from the post when he held it.
It is imperative, therefore, and especially in light of these revelations, that the office and its bearer not only maintain rigorous standards of probity, but to be seen to be doing so.
To make good on her misuse of public monies, therefore, Ms Bishop should resign.