CANBERRA OBSERVED News Weekly
Media in a tailspin over Bishop and choppergate
, August 1, 2015
The political story about Bronwyn Bishop’s ill-judged helicopter flight has filled the usual news vacuum of the long Parliamentary winter recess, much to the annoyance of Tony Abbott, who had hoped to use the period to drive home Bill Shorten’s shortcomings as an alternative prime minister.
The Speaker, Bronwyn Bishop
Instead, the media has focused on the $5,227.27 price tag for the chartering of a helicopter in which she made a flight last November from Melbourne to Geelong and back. The cost of this mere 160-odd-kilometre round trip – for the purpose of attending a Liberal Party fundraiser no less – she put on the public tab.
Every conceivable angle to the story has been explored, including delving back into Mrs Bishop’s near three-decade long career in federal politics, to find any previous entitlement extravagance and use of first-class travel; of which there appear to have been quite a few.
Mrs Bishop has paid back the money together with a 20 per cent penalty, admitting to an “error of judgement” in using the charter for a party fundraiser. But this will not prevent the Labor Party and the media pursuing the matter right up until the resumption of Parliament on August 10.
For Labor it is an opportunity too good to be true.
As Speaker of the House of Representatives, Mrs Bishop has ejected 400 MPs from the chamber, 393 of whom have been Labor MPs.
She is a political warrior and has not attempted to be an impartial Speaker, though she conducts herself with style and aplomb, and by her sheer doggedness has established a clear authority in the chamber.
Mrs Bishop is also an extraordinarily resilient politician. She is the longest serving woman in the Australian Parliament. Controversy has never been far from her, but has never thrown her, including scandals about elderly people being washed and scalded in kerosene baths under her watch when she was minister for aged care.
Regrettably for Mrs Bishop, the helicopter meme will from now until her retirement (which at 72 cannot be too many years away) be as closely associated with her persona as has been her famously impeccable bouffant hairstyle.
The story is bad for the Government for several reasons, but the following four should suffice.
One, voters don’t like politicians rorting their Parliamentary entitlements in any form, least of all for a showy entrance, particularly a government that has called for the end to the “age of entitlement”.
Two, the Abbott Government’s central objective has been to ask the electorate to accept its efforts to bring the budget back towards surplus after Labor’s spendthrift ways.
Three, Tony Abbott made a big deal (including involving the Australian Federal Police) out of former speaker Peter Slipper’s misbehaviour in the last Parliament.
And four, as Speaker, Mrs Bishop is meant to stand above the Members of the House of Representatives in terms of standards. The risk is that the public will take it that Mrs Bishop sets the rules inside the House but breaks them outside.
All this makes it hard for Tony Abbott to adopt his standard position in such situations, which is to stand by and support frontbenchers and others who find themselves in a spot of bother.
But he has no other choice. At least Mrs Bishop’s trip is not a sackable offence based on past practice.
The mistake is not an uncommon one (Bill Shorten himself has since been exposed as having claimed a trip for a fundraiser and also paid back the money). Mrs Bishop has admitted the mistake and made restitution.
Sacking Mrs Bishop would be overkill and a sign of panic. The story has fascinated the media largely because it is Mrs Bishop, and Mr Abbott would be seen to be reacting to a media frenzy based largely on the mode of transport Mrs Bishop used.
In short, it is bad but will not inflict long-term damage.
Mr Abbott can only warn Mrs Bishop (and all other Coalition MPs) that such behaviour is unacceptable and that they must be concerned first and foremost with the taxpayers who pay their generous entitlements, including their business-class travel and limousines.
But past experience shows that once one entitlement scandal breaks, others are lurking around the corner, and it is odds-on that another MP, Labor included, has engaged in a similar ploy to have a private trip put on the taxpayer tab.
The Prime Minister has put Mrs Bishop “on probation”, which means there cannot be another infraction. But in the meantime he will have to wear the deep annoyance of voters who will register their disappointment in the polls for the coming weeks until the story eventually runs out of steam.
Moreover, going by her track record, Mrs Bishop is unlikely to go of her own accord.