FINALLY — after 18 fraught days that have caused the Abbott government no end of grief — embattled Speaker of the House of Representatives Bronwyn Bishop has resigned, following an expenses scandal any idiot could have foreseen. Not for the first time, Bishop has shown extremely poor judgement. Her resignation — after a grudging apology that had to be extracted almost by force — will not undo the political damage her behaviour has caused.
If we fast forward by a year or so, the greatest problem with the fiasco over Bronwyn Bishop’s $5,227 helicopter flight down the Geelong road may well be that it is seen in retrospect as an emblem of the Abbott government’s fall from office, in the same way Leo McLeay’s compensation claim on the taxpayer for a bicycle accident and Ros Kelly’s whiteboard for allocating over a billion dollars of government grants remain, even today, as symbols of the decline and eventual defeat of the ALP under Paul Keating.
But the fact she has resigned — at least a fortnight too late — is to be welcomed on all sides of politics, even if it is a textbook case of “better late than never.”
I should clarify that my calls over the past few weeks for Bishop to be “sacked” — a move that would require a vote in the House of Representatives — were not made in ignorance; rather, in the interests of some brevity, I chose to use colloquial terms for dismissal that would not lose readers in talk of the minutiae of parliamentary process.
But lining up to fire Bishop is exactly what Prime Minister Tony Abbott should have been doing for more than a fortnight. The fact he did not, and indeed continually restated support and sympathy for Bishop, will linger as a black mark against both himself and his government.
Abbott’s argument that Bishop’s conduct fell within allowable guidelines but outside public standards is valid, and indeed probably true, but ranged against the unstinting support he has offered Bishop since the storm broke almost three weeks ago, it sounds like the hollow (and futile) defence it was always going to prove to be.
Bishop’s self-sacrifice (made, if media reports are to be believed, only in the face of a threatened mass revolt by Cabinet ministers and backbench Coalition MPs alike) will afford the government some breathing space, and a successor — possibly Abbott ally and controversial minister, Kevin Andrews — will be appointed to the post soon enough.
But the government will wear the stain and the opprobrium for having dug in to defend Bishop when the claim in question was indefensible; only an idiot could have taken that particular charter flight at that reported cost and remained oblivious to the near-certainty it would sooner or later detonate in the government’s collective face.
The rumoured additional $6,000 claim that we alluded to yesterday — an aeroplane charter to evade a two-hour drive from Sydney — is only marginally less reprehensible than the helicopter flight that set this scandal in motion, and was probably the straw that broke the camel’s back in persuading Bishop that her position was completely untenable.
Bronwyn Bishop is no stranger to controversy: her tenure as shadow Health minister in the 1990s ended by a declaration of unequivocal support for tobacco advertising, and her tenure as Aged care minister in the Howard government terminated by a scandal over kerosene being used as a scabies treatment in nursing homes. On each occasion, her resilience and determination to bounce back ensured she recovered.
In this case, it seems Bishop’s long political career is drawing to a close, for now aged 72 — and having found herself at the epicentre of perhaps one scandal too many — there seems little prospect of any frontbench return, and one would hope Bishop would have the grace to reconsider contesting her ultra-safe seat on Sydney’s lower North Shore at the approaching federal election.
Yet whilst Bishop will be allowed to slip quietly into retirement, the political damage she has caused will not so easily be undone; once again, the Abbott government has been found wanting where sound judgement and astute practices of governance are concerned, and the cumulative effects of these missteps could cause it real trouble when next it faces voters.
As I outlined yesterday, a prudent response — and one which should help the government reclaim the initiative, and retrieve its standing — would be to institute an immediate and rigorous overhaul of the arrangements that govern and administer travel allowances and other entitlements for MPs, with the creation of a Parliamentary Travel and Expenses Commission to remove arbitrary control of these items from the Speaker’s Office and the Prime Minister’s Office, placing them instead at arms’ length from the government of the day and under the remit of an independent Commission.
I’m convinced this is the only way lasting, meaningful reform of MP entitlements can be enacted, and it now remains to be seen — given Abbott has promised “not tinkering but real reform” — what shape this reform takes.
For the ALP and other cynical opportunists like Clive Palmer, Bishop and her helicopter have provided a significant free hit in terms of deflecting public scrutiny from their own (considerable) woes that they have milked for all it is worth, and will continue to do so.
In Labor’s case at least, its “leader,” Bill Shorten, has switched from demanding Bishop’s resignation to now stating her resignation isn’t enough because she quit on account of a sense she was obliged to rather than “to do the right thing.” It should be noted that Shorten’s hunger for accountability begins and ends at the ranks of Australia’s conservative parties, and if he wants to be taken seriously he will allow the Registered Organisations legislation to pass the Senate — and allow the rotten unions that spawned his career to be subjected to the same standards of accountability as the business community is.
Until or unless that happens, nothing Shorten has to say about accountability or probity is worth a pinch of shit, and should certainly not be taken seriously.
But Bishop has left her Prime Minister compromised by the ill-advised loyalty he has once again shown a close ally beyond the point they became a liability; she has allowed the government to appear to be greedy, punch-drunk on hubris, and on the take; she has directly lowered the (already poor) level of esteem in which politics and politicians are held; and she has made re-election for the Liberal Party a much tougher ask.
There are those who believe what Bishop has done is no different to any other travel entitlements scandal in the past that has eventually blown over; as I have maintained throughout, Bishop’s case is nothing of the sort, coming as it does at a time people are completely fed up with politicians, in the face of the most vicious opposition Australia has perhaps ever seen, and involving the most unjustifiable and flagrant abuse of funds — $5,227 for a helicopter ride that a one-hour car trip could have covered at a sliver at the cost — most people have ever heard of.
Above all, Bishop has caused damage to Parliament and thumbed her nose at standards of decency that must not be incidental to political life, but underpin it.
Still, Bishop has fallen on her sword; it is now up to Abbott and his colleagues to pick up the pieces and to rebuild public trust where it enjoys very little indeed of this commodity, whilst others seek to profit politically from Bishop’s stupidity and the continuing government’s foibles.
Bishop is gone, better late than never. Good riddance.