WITH THE FURORE over travel entitlement claims made on the taxpayer by Speaker Bronwyn Bishop refusing to die down or go away — and with the issue causing serious damage in the electorate — the Abbott government has no choice but to involuntarily remove Bishop from her post if she won’t go quietly, and to overhaul entitlements for MPs once and for all. Time, with an election on the horizon, is now conspiring against the federal Coalition.
Now that the (justified) outrage over Bronwyn Bishop’s $5,227 helicopter flight — at public expense — to travel what would otherwise have been a one-hour road trip for a fraction of the price is well into its third week, there are two points I want to make at the outset this morning.
One, that “simply standing firm” — a tactic from the political handbook that has served the Abbott government exceedingly poorly at times since it came to office, deployed as it has been in defiance of public opinion over the wrong issues to try to ride out — will, if it is observed for much longer over the Bronwyn Bishop saga, completely destroy any remaining vestiges of the political capital the government may have rebuilt in the six months since the abortive leadership coup against Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
Two — and as cynically pragmatic and politically expedient as this may sound — with just one year remaining before it must call an election for the House of Representatives and at least half the Senate, this government is fast running out of time to staunch the bleeding from a seemingly endless parade of self-inflicted wounds that may very well prove fatal if allowed to fester and suppurate all the way to the ballot box.
And to be clear, the uproar over Bishop is not some common-or-garden transgression that voters will dismiss wearily as “just another” case of greedy politicians caught with their hands in the till.
I believe this particular case signals the time when people have finally had an absolute gutful of MPs making ridiculous and outrageous imposts upon the public purse and will stomach no more, and whilst some in the government may be indignant that it’s the Coalition wearing the fallout when ample evidence exists to suggest its counterparts at the ALP are every bit as culpable when it comes to the abuse of travel entitlements, the flipside of this is that the opportunity exists for the Coalition to be the party that cleans up the system once and for all.
Sydney’s Daily Telegraph is today carrying a story that details other claims made by Mrs Bishop that are certain to fuel public fury against her; I’m going to let readers peruse the details of that, for I think there’s little point in re-listing and itemising them all here.
But this isn’t going to go away; a fair case can be made that the ALP is running hard on the Bishop issue for no better reason than to embarrass the government and seek a high-profile scalp, and that case extends as far as to make the observation that sitting in a brittle glass house indeed, Labor is in no position to throw stones.
Yet for now, it is the Coalition that is in government, and in the time-honoured way these things play out, it is the Coalition that bears the responsibility for cleaning up the mess.
More than two weeks ago, this column called for Bronwyn Bishop to be sacked if she refused to resign; the fact the issue remains front-page news almost three weeks after it broke is telling enough, but if anything, the damage it is doing to the Abbott government — and to public confidence in politics and politicians generally — is accelerating the longer it drags on.
To be clear, I stand by — and reiterate — the call for Bishop to quit voluntarily or be fired as Speaker.
There are suggestions, such as this case made for Bishop’s dismissal by The Australian‘s Peter van Onselen, that Bishop would retaliate in a fashion calculated to inflict colossal damage to Abbott’s (and the government’s) standing if sacked from her post: I acknowledge in these situations there is always the risk of a jilted ego determining to exact revenge in the most destructive manner possible, but in this instance the risks are outweighed by the political damage Bishop is already wreaking on the Abbott government.
But beyond that consideration, the fact Abbott is standing by Bishop appears to be yet another instance of the loyalty for which he is renowned — and which, in ordinary circumstances, would be admirable — being thoroughly misguided, and in any case taken so far as to be ridiculous.
Just like his loyalty to Chief of Staff Peta Credlin, who engineered a Gestapo-like regime for operating a government that has repeatedly proven wholly inept, staffed with hand-picked individuals who have proven incapable of prosecuting government “strategy” or effectively communicating its message, and who has been shielded from any consequences for its deficiencies through Prime Ministerial loyalty.
Just like his loyalty to Treasurer Joe Hockey, whose disastrous 2014 budget obliterated the Coalition’s standing in the electorate, and which (as I have repeatedly observed) actually targeted floating voters in marginal Coalition-held seats, as well as squibbing the task of paring back profligate government spending and waste which it had been explicitly elected to tackle.
In Hockey’s case and over that dreadful budget, the “simply stand firm” strategy, in the face of total Senate intransigence, was another factor.
And it may well be the case that Bishop is Abbott’s mentor, and that the pair go back decades, and that for years they have had each other’s backs, and so on.
But whichever way you cut it, Bishop’s behaviour as Speaker and the licence it now appears she has taken over unwarranted travel entitlements clearly shows that it is a relationship she has abused, with scant regard for the pressure her actions have placed on Abbott. There is no basis for continued loyalty here. Abbott has to make the hard call if Bishop refuses to spare him the bother.
And lest anyone doubt just how misplaced Abbott’s loyalty toward Bishop really is, veteran journalist Laurie Oakes neatly sums up the case against her today and points out — accurately — that almost all of Bishop’s parliamentary colleagues exude no goodwill toward her at all, let alone the inclination to defend her in light of the melloring she has brought upon the government by her actions.
Yet with all that said — and in particular, with an eye to the Coalition’s opponents, who will make merry with the Bishop issue all the way to an election if she is not removed forthwith — there is a big opportunity here for Abbott and his government, if they have the mettle to grasp the initiative and run with it.
To say that rorting expenses and entitlements — not an accusation, mind, but rather a reflection of the way this kind of thing is viewed in the community — feeds heavily into the low regard in which politics and its practitioners are held publicly is an understatement.
Every government is forced to deal with this kind of thing, and expenses scandals involving light-fingered MPs and the taxpayer dollar seem a perennial fixture of Australian politics and a permanent stain on those involved in it.
And to be sure, there are others with iffy expense claims just waiting to jump out of the woodwork: some involving government MPs, some involving those from the ALP. Manager of opposition business Tony Burke has been outed publicly as a priority target for the Coalition, and a primary target for retribution if Bishop is forced to vacate the Speaker’s chair.
I see two ways the Abbott government could reform the whole system of travel expenses, entitlements, and ambit claims upon the taxpayer that generate so much public opprobrium; and if it can’t or won’t fix the federal budget and the colossal debt pile and structural deficits shamelessly bequeathed by Labor Treasurer Wayne Swan, it can at least fix this.
It goes without saying that Bishop must be replaced. Full stop. Defence minister Kevin Andrews would be a replacement that ticked most of the requisite political boxes for Abbott.
But beyond that, one option would be to increase the remuneration of MPs by 50% and abolish all entitlements relating to travel, accommodation, vehicle hire or charter, and similar expenses altogether: the claims, rather than being directly funded or reimbursed from public monies, could become items to be submitted as work-related deductions on MPs’ tax returns each year — just like millions of ordinary taxpayers do — and the Australian Taxation Office given the necessary oversight to set guidelines around what is appropriate and what is not, and to take action against those MPs making frivolous, ambit, or downright illegitimate claims.
Just like it does against ordinary taxpayers who submit claims at tax time that cannot be substantiated.
The other option would be to create a new statutory entity — the Parliamentary Travel and Expenses Commission — which would operate at arms’ length from government (removing control over entitlements from the Speaker’s office and the Prime Minister’s Office) and making it next to impossible for claims like Bishop’s $5,227 helicopter ride to ever be paid for by taxpayers.
Obviously, such an entity would be subject to a charter, and charged with assessing claims according to rigorous guidelines; the establishment of a Parliamentary Travel and Expenses Commission could follow a short amnesty for miscreant MPs to voluntarily (and privately) make full reimbursements of dodgy expenses that have been paid, and would afford the opportunity to wind back excesses such as “study” trips abroad that see MPs file “reports” plagiarised from Google and Wikipedia, or $500 a night bills for luxury hotel stays in places quality accommodation could be sourced for half the price, or claims for “away from home” accommodation allowances when MPs are staying in properties they (or their spouses) own, and so forth.
The Commission could either pre-approve and pay for travel and other expenses in advance, provided they meet whatever strict criteria is established to govern them; alternatively (and to cover the real instances of short-notice and/or urgent requirements MPs are invariably confronted by from time to time) it could reimburse on presentation of receipts, and after any eligibility test has been applied to ensure compliance with the aforesaid strict guidelines.
Properly constituted and armed with real teeth to pursue recidivist offenders like Bronwyn Bishop, such a Commission might even go some tiny way toward restoring public confidence that their money isn’t being frittered away on the unwarranted fancies of those elected to govern.
That Bronwyn Bishop must go, if there is to be any constructive resolution to the mess that has enveloped her, is beyond doubt.
But an opportunity to provide redress and resolution — and to help ensure this sort of thing can never happen again — is there for the Abbott government to take.
It remains to be seen whether it will take it. Buoyed by public outrage and fortified by its trademark populist political opportunism, it is not an opportunity the ALP will fail to milk if the government declines to act on it — and this issue, which works in Labor’s favour, stands to be seen in retrospect as one of the plethora of self-inflicted wounds that costs the Coalition office after a single term in power.