The final question time of the last sitting week of the Howard government was so raucous it looked from the press gallery like the last day of school before summer holidays. Discipline was forgotten. Strategy was replaced by boisterousness. Frisky MPs, aware of their presence at the end of an era, ran picayune riot.
There was, however, one exception. Grasping a copy of the standing orders, Bronwyn Bishop spent the hour desperately interjecting with points of order. From the government backbench she demanded restraint, respect for the house in which they were gathered. As she stood for the final time, Annabel Crabb joked that she was struggling to be heard over her jacket.
The point of this is that Bishop’s problem in the speaker’s chair she now occupies is not one of competence. Her knowledge of the parliamentary standing orders is famous and encyclopaedic. She shares with Christopher Pyne an almost gruesome interest in them. But the revelations this week about her travel expenses throw into relief her fitness to continue in the role.
On Thursday, Bishop agreed to pay back $5,227.27 spent on chartering a helicopter to a Liberal Party fundraiser in Geelong last year. “Whilst my understanding is that this travel was conducted within the rules, to avoid any doubt, I will reimburse the full costs,” she said in a statement.
Bishop’s decision to return the money follows further disclosures about her use of entitlements. In the last six months of last year, Bishop accrued $398,563 in expenses. A significant portion of this was spent on travel connected to her failed run for presidency of the Inter-Parliamentary Union in Geneva. Indeed, her spending eclipsed that of both the opposition leader and the treasurer.
None of this is unlawful, but nor is it appropriate. Joe Hockey said it “instinctively” failed what was referred to as the “sniff test”. Scott Morrison made clear an important distinction between what is possible and what is right: “All members of parliament need to act within the entitlements and, I think, make their own judgements about what’s appropriate.”
What these expenses highlight is the profligacy of her speakership. Nowhere has Bishop shown restraint.
Hers is an office of dubious records. She has ejected more MPs in a single session that any other speaker, bringing the record to 18. Last month, she made her 400th ejection from the house. Of those, 393 were Labor MPs. “This parliament only has 150 members,” she said, “but you have a lot of recalcitrant offenders.”
If these numbers did not indict her independence, her appearance alongside Gillian Triggs on Q&A did. The tenor of the parliament does, too.
The chair she so frequently appealed to from the backbench has been degraded by her presence in it. As questions about her expenses will continue to be raised, a larger and more important one should be asked of her record. The office she was so eminently qualified to hold, she seems politically incapable of honouring. In the interest of the institution of the parliament, she should resign.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 18, 2015 as "Helicopter speakering". Subscribe here.