After more than two weeks of the item about the Speaker’s expenses appearing in most TV news broadcasts and daily newspapers, I started to think that there might just be a media pursuit of the Speaker, Bronwyn Bishop. Before I get into that matter, I ought to say that in my view the Speaker should have resigned, or at least offered her resignation to the Prime Minister. Why? Because she occupies one of those ‘Caesar’s wife’ positions. When you are above the political fray, as Speakers need to strive to be (most of the time), you have to be above the ordinary opportunities for using the system for your own purposes.
She didn’t. Maybe it was a thoughtless decision of the moment, instantly regretted. If it were, then the honourable course would be to resign or offer resignation. Unfortunately for Ms Bishop she has little support within the chamber that she chairs. She apparently has the record for the most dismissals of MPs for misbehaviour, and nothing would please the ALP more, at least this week, if she were removed from the Speaker’s chair.
Not that has Labor any great moral ascendancy in this domain. Its last Speaker from within its own ranks, Harry Jenkins, who was there for three years, sent outside 252 MPs during the 252 sitting days when he was in the chair. Oh, and 90 per cent of them were from the ranks of the Opposition.
Our Parliament has never had, at least in my memory, a universally acclaimed, impartial, unbiassed Speaker. One reason is straightforward: unlike the House of Commons, which has more than 600 MPs, our House or Representatives is relatively small, and there is not, at any time, a set of Australian MPs who have experience, are known for their real consideration for the rights of all MPs, have an established independence within their party, and are good at chairing meetings. In consequence, the Speaker nearly always comes from the ranks of the governing party (with Peter Slipper the most recent exception).
Then, Australian Speakers can have been Ministers in the past, like Ms Bishop, or they can go on to be Ministers after being Speaker, like Labor’s Gordon Scholes. The plain fact of the matter is that the Speakers in Australian parliaments tend to favour their own side, and it would be hard not to appear to do so, given that the fuss on the floor is most likely to come from the Opoosition, not the Government.
Back to the expenses. Whether or not the helicopter-chartering came within the rules is not a matter on which I can usefully arbitrate, but in my view it doesn’t matter. There are many things one can do that are strictly speaking within the rules, but if one occupies a senior position, then one shouldn’t do them. Why? Because it sets a bad example. The Abbott Government in 2013 set up some new rules about expenses, and the 25 per cent fine or tax on the cost of helicopter ride that Ms Bishop now has to pay flows from one of them.
What about her going to a fellow MPs’ wedding? Is that a cost that is properly paid for by the taxpayer? You could argue it both ways, can’t you. But again, if you are the Speaker, you should err on the side of having your hands away from the public till. Why so much fuss about the Speaker here? Because conventionally the Speaker is the most senior member of the House of Representatives, the one who greets the monarch on arrival at the parliamentary chamber. The Speaker has higher status, within the Parliament, than the Prime Minister. And should behave accordingly, in my opinion.
With that said, back to the media. I may be wrong, but I feel that there has been a ‘drip feed’ process with this issue. Each day there is a new ‘discovery’ or a new comment. There may be new revelations about expenses, and so on. But so far as I can see, it is the same stuff, recycled. I can imagine that within the Labor Opposition there has been a little campaign going on to destabilise the Speaker. That wouldn’t surprise me. There certainly appeared to be one over the downfall of Peter Slipper. Then again, it may have a happy coincidence that the Bishop material emerged at the same time as Mr Shorten was having his own unhappy days in the media. He has been out of the gaze for two weeks now, thanks to the Speaker.
But why are the media, including the ABC, taking such a part in it? It can’t be the absence of serious news — there’s still plenty of that. I feel it is an example of the press gallery united in the hunt for a victim. It seems to be the case that Tony Abbott remains a target for the gallery, and Ms Bishop seems to be a new one. Why? Perhaps she doesn’t fill the desired role model of a successful woman in public life. I don’t know, and am only guessing.
In my view there is no need for the fourth estate to act as though it is a mixture of judiciary and executive. Indeed it is wrong for it to do so. One of the real problems for us all today is that neither newspapers nor television is able to do decent investigative journalism over any length of time. That is why we get so much political and corporate media release passing itself off as news. But it also might explain in part why the Speaker-hunt has been going on so long.
It is easy, it provides an unpopular victim for us all to excoriate, and the hunters can feel proud of what they are doing. They have succeeded in her removal from office, too. I wouldn’t think that was the worst outcome, since I thought and think she should have done so voluntarily. But I do not like press gallery hunts, whenever they occur, and this is one is no more justified than those in the past.