Bronwyn Bishop resigns over travel scandal; Abbott blames the system.


Did she go or was she pushed? Why did it take so long? The resignation of celebrity politician, Bronwyn ‘Barnstormer’ Bishop on Sunday afternoon raises more questions than you can poke a joy stick at but one thing is certain, as she hands in her robes and locks up her speaker’s luxury apartment, before parliament resumes next week, she gave her ticket to ride a legendary workout. A place of sorts for her in the history books is guaranteed.

“I have not taken this decision lightly, however it is because of my love and respect for the institution of Parliament and the Australian people that I have resigned as Speaker.”

In the end, however, Bronnie had to be grounded; dragged out of her speaker’s high chair she so eagerly approached feigning resistance as ever for the gallery. Her flights of fancy ended badly. Her spectacular junkets drew attention to herself in ways that neither her notorious bias as a speaker nor her patchy travel documents could bear. And people were talking about little else but Bronwyn’s travel scandal. She even made news by staying put.

Bishop made headlines late last week when she had to cancel a planned dash to NYC, a turn of events typical of a bizarre week in politics in which a series of wretched ‘errors of judgement,’ it seems, had contrived to throw the speaker off her true course into luxury limousines, charter flights and other wantonly extravagant transports of delight.

Forced to take a back seat, other worthy public agenda items include marriage equality, an issue which threatens to wedge Abbott while revealing his party is out of touch; a debate on racist Australia after Adam Goodes’ racial vilification; the vexed question of how best to boost the number of women in politics and the failure of the TPP to get every member to cede its sovereignty and to sacrifice its local industries in homage to Free Trade and US; while under ISDS, multinational corporations get the right to sue governments over not acting in a corporation’s ‘best interests,’ as in the current legal case of Phillip Morris Asia vs the Australian government where the cigarette-maker claims that plain packaging violates its intellectual property rights.

The TPP push will now subside into a death in life like the WTO Doha Round which has disappeared like the Cheshire cat leaving only its smile behind. Expect much self-congratulation and spin, nevertheless. Break out the cigars; we’re almost pregnant. Besides failing and failing to get in the news are very different matters. Just ask Sophie Mirabella.

Such was the crush on Bronnie that Sophie Mirabella was almost pushed out of the news, an unthinkable turn of events. Such are the times, such is politics today and such is Sophie Mirabella’s chutzpah that she has done nothing newsworthy, noteworthy or remotely interesting other than promise to be a proper candidate, telling the good people of Indi she will show up around the electorate now that she has been preselected. This is deemed news.

Mirabella whose strengths so far appear to most observers unfathomable, could continue as an Australian Submarine Corporation director right up until the election. Tony Abbott made a director of the Australian Submarine Corporation last December after Mirabella lost her seat to Independent Cathy McGowan. Her $73,000 fee comes in handy, while, should it win the election, the government would be blessed with an MP who has some handy inside knowledge, provided submarine building is not all done and dusted by then.

Jack Waterford of The Canberra Times sees in Mirabella a gift for uniting people in their sadly, all too often personalised dislike of her, a gift she shares with her pal, Bronwyn Bishop. Both women of course enjoy Tony Abbott’s undying support, a loyalty which prompted Bronwyn to confess to the error of her ways on a comfy radio station. She convinced no-one and did her sponsor’s cause nothing but harm by offering too little, too late.  She continued to pretend that paying back the money absolved her initial fraud.

Of course, Bishop would pay back the money she claimed to travel to Sophie Mirabella’s nuptials and a few other similar pressing political duties, not because it was wrong but because it doesn’t look good. You can’t dance at two weddings with one behind.

All eyes, however, remained fixed all week on Bronnie’s front, her chutzpah, her outrageous sense of entitlement; the ways she could turn an otherwise mundane travel rort into a spectacular tour de force. A wild-eyed, wayward prima donna, she threatened to upstage everything; bring the house down.

It all made for a week when the speaker’s decision not to travel, or one made for her by the PMO, was as newsworthy as the steady discovery of further excesses proving Bishop has always tucked into her travel entitlements with gusto. She always has. She hired a helicopter at public expense shortly after first entering parliament in 1987, according to her biographer. It was an emergency. She needed to get from a fete to a dog show.

Bishop’s record suggests an exalted sense of entitlement if not pathological delusions of grandeur; an imperious disdain for the hoi-polloi and the petty rules lesser mortals are bound by.  No wonder that for so long her pal Abbott saw her as a poster girl for the Liberal party. And yet she’s a practical gal, even if her feet are seldom on the ground. Chauffeured BMWs are quicker than Comcars; in a chauffeured Beemer, one is allowed to use bus lanes.

Bishop’s scandal is an irresistible spectacle, especially for a government pledged to eliminate waste, a government whose every plan is predicated on the ‘ending of the age of entitlement.’ At least that was Joe Hockey’s promise. Now Bronwyn’s travel diary tells a different story, a tantalising expose of wanton wanderlust and unrepentant fraudulence. And her comeuppance. There’s a mini-series in it, surely if not a whole soap opera.

The nation has enjoyed the ride, too. Everyone is captivated by the colour and movement of a rorting, cavorting and high-flying party animal who suddenly plummets back down to earth. Hubris and Nemesis are back at work, along with more than a little schadenfreude. Bishop is long on enemies yet not without friends. Her exit was artfully staged with their help.

Lest the nation think there was something wrong or that she lacked remorse, the veteran thespian and former TV actor, crept, as Abbott had decreed, when the two mates met Wednesday, on to Alan Jones’ 2GB radio show to cop the copter; apologising for whirly-birding it to Clifton Springs. ‘There is no excuse for what I did with the helicopter.’ It was, indeed, over the top but only the latest act in a whole political career over the top.

Time was not on Bishop’s side. That it took her until Thursday to make her stage-managed apology did not help her credibility but at least she had complied with her boss’s instructions. Alan made soothing noises and damaging accusations about Julia Gillard’s use of charter flights which might have been relevant had they been accurate and had Bishop been PM.

Bishop’s public act of penance if not exactly contrition earned the approval of her otherwise silent bestie PM, ‘Chastened,’ very ‘chastened’ was the non-committal word Tony Abbott chose to describe Mrs Bishop’s new state, as he crept out of hiding on Friday to publicly confirm his support of her as long he could string it out. She was worth a handful of right wing votes in the next leadership spill. And pure gold in the shit-fight that is question time.

Scotching whispers she may resign, Mrs Bishop charged ahead as she had pledged, ‘working hard’ on visits to a school and to Gatsby-parties, gracing in a chastened, low-key fashion the recent reunion of her pal Jamie Packer with Jodhi Meares, while continuing to upstage all else in federal politics for a third week as fresh revelations showed that last year she had chartered a $6000 flight to travel the 160km from Sydney to Nowra using her chief of staff, Damien Jones bestie Andrew Gibbs’ aviation company. The same link led to her now notorious chopper ride to Geelong as certainly as it seems to have led her from ‘error of judgement’ to ill-judged corruption.

Government was not so much sidelined as derailed as Joe Hockey found to his cost when he attempted to engage the press after his midweek news conference on the economy. Reporters had questions only about Bronwyn. Some sensed fraud not just poor judgement, others were even less generous, a development which ‘takes the saga to a whole new level’ said Labor. Hockey looked happy to be relieved of the burden of his usual hollow rhetoric and nonsense about a credible path to surplus, grinned and walked briskly out of harm’s way.

Without evidence of official committee work, it seems Bishop made false claims about the real purpose of her travel to her pals’ weddings. More than once or twice. The government at first was paralysed with inertia. Or fear. At last, when all other options were exhausted, the PM showed his decisiveness in securing Bishop’s resignation after a sneak preview in opinion polls showed the coalition hopelessly down the gurgler. ‘Bronnie, darl, you either resign or the Liberal party plunges into electoral oblivion, taking you and me with it.’

Bronnie is not just a big spender who needed cutting down to size; she is Abbott’s nemesis, publicly puncturing his leadership pretension, foregrounding the born to rule party on the wing, its addiction to luxury, its worship of privilege and its culture of evasion and denial. He had to ‘let her go’ cut the dead albatross from around his party’s neck.

The Coalition’s abject failure to deal with Mrs Bishop’s refusal to even step aside, let alone heed her duty to resign; her pathological obduracy in the face of mounting evidence of irregular travel claims; her excessive travel; her histrionic apology, extracted too late, constitutes an inescapable indictment of the PM whose knowing captain’s call put her in the speaker’s chair in the first place.

It is almost as damaging to a Coalition party so out to lunch it could let it all happen. It will dog Abbott and his party. Who would make such a creature speaker? Who could show such cruelty and such contempt for parliament?

Tony Abbott’s cynical over-promotion of Mrs Bishop is another gesture of contempt for due process from the same political joker who made himself Minister for Women.

Blinded by Bishop’s potential usefulness Abbott, the ruthless pragmatist, was prepared to overlook her lack of any other quality or skill that might commend her selection.

A true friend would never have set Bronwyn Bishop up for a fall; just for his political advantage and enjoyment. Abbott has directed and produced a parliamentary theatre of cruelty which sees his challenged Madam Speaker stitch up an enraged and frustrated opposition. Such drama not only demeans himself his party and politics, it demeans all of us.

Bishop appeared confused at times, mistaking names and other details. Her rulings could defy logic. At other times she appeared Pyne’s puppet, heeding overt signals to stem applause for Bill Shorten. Abbott’s creature she may be, but Bishop was bested by the expectations and responsibilities of the Westminster tradition. It is not so much the speaker’s travel bills which have proved expensive; her cost to our democracy is incalculable.

Successful Speakers enjoy their peers’ respect. They demonstrate a capacity to make quick, informed, impartial judgements based on their extensive knowledge of procedure. The appointment of Bronwyn Bishop was an alarming departure from this tradition.

Regardless of how clever it seemed at the time, Abbott’s choice of speaker has ultimately proved another catastrophic error of judgement from a Prime Minister whose fondness for a captain’s call is not matched by any capacity to make the right call.

Even at the end, it seems shadow figures did the PM’s dirty work for him. Nowhere in his Sunday night media statement did he take responsibility for his speaker’s resignation. A lack of leadership was also damagingly apparent in the maverick attempts of his colleagues to do his job for him through the week.

‘Go Bronnie, go,’ front bench Liberals whispered; Bishop and Hockey even telegraphed her marching orders via the press.  Turnbull took a train to Geelong in a cheeky stunt to signal that for Bishop it was the end of the line for her. Her colleagues, with the exception of Christopher Pine and one other wanton toady and the affable but utterly marginalised National Party duffer Barnaby Joyce, want to clip her ticket; her free ride to stop now.

Government has ground to a halt, they claim; worse, they are upstaged by the scandal; she is ‘sucking up oxygen.’  Other matters, they claim archly, merit attention. Or not.

Kevin Andrews’ election campaign funding scandal is eclipsed by the saga of the free-loading unrepentant rorter in the speaker’s chair. Greg Hunt uses the alarming newspeak ‘credible’ for his yet to be released 2020 climate change targets. No-one follows up.

Even Murdoch hacks attack the coalition’s failure of nerve and sinew.  The government is paralysed; locked in a crisis of its own confection. Its indecision feeds an all-consuming scandal until it has become a monster eager to devour them all.

The fish rots from the head down. The Bishop travel-scandal was nurtured into a full-blown crisis by a prime minister who was MIA. Tony Abbott went underground most of last week, emerging only when her decision had been made.

Did another captain’s pick fiasco, prove too much for Abbott? Possibly. What is certain is that a prime minister who goes into witness protection or who is simply MIA in the heat of battle is as much of a liability as PM who runs away from a dud captain’s call. It can only go downhill from here. Abbott’s call for a review of the entitlement system an ominously evasive tactic.

In the end, the PM said, it is all the system’s fault for being inside the rules but outside community expectations. “What has become apparent, particularly over the last few days, is that the problem is not any particular individual; the problem is the entitlement system more generally,” he said. This is why Bishop said she was doing committee work when she was going to a wedding. A greatly relieved nation could dismiss all thought of fraud, corruption or rorty wastrels and sleep soundly in their beds.