Pursuing the Speaker

By August 3, 2015ABC, History, Media, Politics

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.

Join the discussion 12 Comments

  • Alan Gould says:

    I recall Les Murray once making the observation that at any given time the Australian media will be hunting down some woman with the idea of scapegoating her. He cited a succession of victims, not all of which I recall, but Lindy Chamberlain and Pauline Hanson were two of them. The inference at the time was that this was a kind of ritual manqué.
    Of course the idea can be shot full of holes when one examines that ‘any given time’ too closely. Nonetheless, I think it is an interesting thought, placing recurrent press pursuits with an anthropological underpinning and making your use of the word ‘hunters’ apposite, Don.

  • Doug Hurst says:

    The news media boost ongoing issues like the Goodes Affair and Chopper-gate for a number of reasons, but two more than others. Firstly, it makes life easy for them. They just keep talking about the latest developments in the ongoing saga they largely invented. Endless headlines and lead items on news broadcasts can be produced with little thought or effort. Next, it provides a platform for them to demonstrate their moral and intellectual superiority over those in charge – government, AFL, etc – and the great unwashed like us.

    Knowing this, and knowing Bronwyn was about to get both media barrels, I feel Abbott should have acted quickly to contain the media circus. But he didn’t, and maybe little damage is done. Compared with the big issues, like the fixing the deficit and the massive waste associated with the existing RET, let alone BS’s 50% RET, Bronny is very small cheese indeed.

    I have to declare my bias – I have never seen her as an asset for the Libs and am happy to see her go. Much too full of herself for my liking.

    • JimboR says:

      A bit off topic, but it’s not just the RET you need to worry about. Abbott’s Direct Action is currently paying $13.95 per tonne of CO2 abated. Had we stuck with the Carbon Tax it would by now have transitioned to an ETS linked to Europe’s pricing (which has tanked). Sometimes it’s a case of be careful what you vote for… it just might come true.


    • Peter WARWICK says:

      I think you are right Doug. It’s really a case of lazy journalism. Take a hot subject, add some sensational heading:

      “Can Tony Abbot survive this ?” – “Speaker a threat to democracy !”

      that will keep the punters reading for another day.

      Then repeat the next day – “Abbot looking shaky”, “Shorten says worst
      speaker in the history of Parliament”, “Libs snouts in the big trough again”.

      That should get a few more punters reading our newspapers.

      And of course there is human nature involved – the thrill of the chase.

      I did not have a huge amount of time for Bishop – always thought she was a bit up herself.

      While the amount involved was small in the grand plan of things, it did
      indicate a lack of judgment on her part, and she did the right thing by
      resigning, albeit after considerable media coverage and pressure. She should have fessed up when the matter was revealed.

      I firmly believe the Governor General should appoint the Speaker given the political parties are incapable of selecting a fairly neutral person. Perhaps the Speaker should come from the cross benches.

      • Don Aitkin says:

        It’s only recently that we’ve had cross benches, and there have rarely been more than one or two on them.

  • dlb says:

    Why do they hunt? I believe ideology plays a part. The progressive media and their supporters from the left are always looking for someone they can hound out of office from the old establishment. Any sign of weakness and they are in for the kill, Peter Hollingworth comes readily to mind. Bishop tripped up and thought she could stare down the media. The progressives thought they had Abbott earlier in the year but underestimated the support for him in his party. Pell is another trophy they
    would love to have.

    Not that this blood-sport is confined to the left leaning media, the radio shock jocks took delight in pursuing Gillard, and the Murdoch tabloids have had fun humiliating Labor tall poppies such as Rudd and Shorten on their front page. Though I think this leftie bagging is less about ideology and more about ratings and newspaper sales.

  • JMO says:

    I remember Bronwyn Bishop was utterly ruthless in Senates Estimates. She hounded public servants (who could not answer back) for perceived alleged minutia of waste. Her typical closing remark when roasting a public servant was “ït is not good enough!” On the other side of the Bishop coin, there was a continued evidence of largesse in her expense claims, partly to a perceived delusion of grandeur, partly as a liberal sense of entitlement. On the one hand she placed herself on high moral austere stool, on the other she plunged deep into the trough – like everyone else (they are all at it).

    Well (finally) she got caught out and the ABC was quick to show videos from 1992 showing her grilling two high ranking tax officers.

    In Corneille’s “Le Cid” in la scene de la provocation (the scene of the provocation) Act 2 Sc2 where Rodrigue (le Cid) says to Don Gomez (le Compte) “le plus grand l’offeceur le plus gand l’óffence” (the greater the offender the greater the offence). Well as Speaker of the House of Representatives, who has a greater status than the PM in Parliament, she is definitely very high and therefore her offence by chartering a helicopter rather than a chauffeured limousine (or even taxi) according to the rules is, correspondly, very high. She had to resign.

    I must say I do not feel sorry for her.

  • Peter Donnan says:

    You conclude, Don that you do ‘not like press gallery hunts, whenever they occur, and this is one is no more justified than those in the past’.

    The behaviour of the media that you associate with hunting Bronwyn occurs in other areas too, most particularly in leadership ballots, when a stricken leader has been speared and there is the scent of fresh blood. I also thought that the media reporting around the executions in Indonesia had a frenzy about it: if it was a matter of principle, why not target US states?

    Many would argue that Bronwyn’s media pursuit was well justified: she had incurred the palpable hostility of the Opposition; her Q&A request for Gillian Twiggs to resign indicated that resignation is a valid option; she made quite a name in Senate Estimates grilling others about profligate spending but eschewed the same degree of personal scrutiny; unlike Peter Slipper, she was able to pay back money; she was not transparent about a series of meetings with unnamed people around committee agendas where there were no corresponding minutes; and In Malcolm Turnbull’s parlance, she did not frequently use public transport or spend public funds as if it were her own money.

    The opportunity now arises for reform of the whole system. Even a public, independent Speaker outside of party politics would be a breath-taking touch but that’s not on the agenda. Transparency of expense claims rather than ‘entitlement’, perhaps submitted almost live on a website using a Malcolm Turnbull app would be perhaps one too far! But the public submissions and review of the present system will be of interest to many Australians.

  • MJ says:

    Well.. Here’s a different thought.
    Is it really likely that the speaker books her own transport? Isn’t it more likely that her scheduling staffers decide which events she attends (in the main) and organises the calendar..then the travel staffers book transport and accommodation, and she’s told where to be at what time? Wouldn’t it be likely that these staffers then submit their plans to accounts, and some staffer there decides whether the expense submitted is in line with the rules, and fits into the Speaker’s office budget?

    Surely THAT’s where the buck stops. Surely…

    Sure seems like a witch hunt to me. And I think we (the public) should be ashamed that we join in, and that we don’t speak out about how ridiculous it all is. If she was indeed poor at her job, then let the criticism and demands for resignation be about that. Let’s not mount a ridiculous campaign, then smugly sit back and say “well, thank goodness she’s gone, (no matter how we managed to get rid of her) because we didn’t like her much”

    And yes… shades of Carmen Lawrence’s dismissal in this.

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