Opinion

Bishop, entitlements and parliament’s Slipper-y people

Federal parliament in Canberra has often been compared to a great big boarding school. The nation’s elected representatives spend more time away from it than they do sitting in class. Last year their attendance totalled just 76 days. The alumni return this coming week with all their reputations battered by the Bronwyn Bishop saga.

And that’s just the way Tony Abbott wanted it. His long-time friend and ally had gone down in flames – after an excruciatingly slow burn, ignited by revelations she had spent $5000 on a helicopter ride from Melbourne to Geelong. But his announcement of her reluctant demise came almost as an afterthought: “The problem is not any particular individual – the problem is the entitlements system more generally.” He only had praise for Bishop. It was as if there were no failure to uphold the dignity and respect of the high office he had engineered for her. “All I am going to say,” Abbott intoned, “is that today Bronwyn Bishop has done the right thing by the parliament, by the government and by the people of Australia.” No perpetrator here: just someone worthy of our gratitude. The spectacle was pathetic.

It took Abbott another 24 hours before the realisation dawned on him he was sending voters the message that he, like Bishop, didn’t get it. The prime minister recalibrated his response: “While she obviously had done the wrong thing in a number of significant respects, she abundantly did the right thing yesterday.”

How different this response from the indignant jihad he mounted on one of Bishop’s predecessors, Liberal turncoat Peter Slipper. As opposition leader Abbott demanded that federal police be called in to investigate claims Slipper had wrongly claimed $900 to tour Canberra wineries. He railed against then prime minister Julia Gillard for her support of someone who was bringing such disgrace on the parliament.

An anonymous informant, almost certainly a senior Liberal MP, circumvented the finance department and lodged a complaint with the police. Slipper offered to repay the money but, unlike Bishop, was refused the opportunity. He was charged and dragged through the courts. An appeal judge eventually threw out his conviction because the definition of parliamentary business was so nebulous. Why federal police have not acted this time is a disturbing mystery.

Liberals bristle at any comparison between Bishop and Slipper. But as the media, particularly the Murdoch tabloids, began revealing the extent of her egregious abuse of entitlements over the years, the similarities were striking.

Both sides of politics have been reluctant to do anything significant to clean up the mess. There is a sense of entitlement all round. Federal politicians do require extensive travel as part of their job. The temptation to push the envelope is hard to resist, especially when it doesn’t take very long for such a culture to be established. If everyone’s doing it, it must be okay. A code of silence that puts the Mafia to shame has ensured there aren’t too many outbreaks where one side seeks to score points at the expense of the other. Abbott himself has been caught out several times and forced to pay back thousands of dollars in incorrectly claimed travel.

But the truce crumbled along with the culture behind it thanks to community outrage. While ministers and government backbenchers were appalled by Bishop’s behaviour and Abbott’s slowness to act, some thought it was payback time for Labor. Assistant Treasurer Josh Frydenberg seized on revelations that Labor’s Tony Burke had spent $12,000 on a trip that took his family to Uluru during school holidays. Burke had forcefully led the attack on Bishop.

Frydenberg accused the manager of opposition business of hypocrisy: “I mean, get real Tony Burke. If you’ve taken your family to Uluru, then defend it … but don’t be the chief attack dog on Bronwyn Bishop and other members of the Coalition and not hold yourself to the same standard of account.” Burke replied the difference was Bishop had broken the rules. He had not. Even the newspaper acknowledged that.

Abbott didn’t buy into the attack. Sounding like a statesman, he said what’s more important is that the rules are changed to make sure they come within community expectations. It’s hard not to be sceptical that any real change will happen.

A review five years ago was largely ignored by the previous and current governments. Former consumer watchdog Allan Fels was a member of the panel. He says the finance department lacks real authority to overrule claims. The protocol introduced by former finance minister Nick Minchin, which allows politicians to pay back disputed funds, has an implied threat that if they don’t, the police may be called. The unethical or the brazen have evidently not been deterred. Fels says an independent body with teeth, not unlike the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority set up in Britain after the 2009 scandals, would be a big change. Clearer rules and tighter definitions are definitely needed. Important, Fels says, is a key recommendation of the 2010 inquiry – more transparency. The websites of all MPs should provide a link to their expenditures as recorded by the finance department. That was not adopted. He now believes more is needed. Politicians themselves should provide online their travel and its justifications within a month of incurring it.

Independent senator Nick Xenophon is preparing a private member’s bill to introduce in the first week back. He wants an independent watchdog but says three-month public reporting is probably more realistic. He also believes a British system of members paying and then claiming back for travel is not realistic given the vastness of the Australian continent.

The Bishop saga is definitely a plague on all their houses. But it has seen the tentative momentum that was building for the government before the winter break stall dramatically. That momentum shift didn’t show up significantly in the polls of the past three months, according to analysis by Andrew Catsaras. Labor has slightly improved on its entrenched lead, now at 53 to 47 per cent.

Whoever replaces the disgraced Bronwyn Bishop – a decision that rests with the Liberal Party – will have a huge job to do restoring the dignity and credibility of the parliament. Veteran Victorian moderate Russell Broadbent seems to be emerging as a strong contender, though he is facing a determined challenge from his Victorian colleague Tony Smith. Smith and another hopeful, South Australian Andrew Southcott, are preferred by some ministers because they fear Broadbent, who has crossed the floor on asylum-seeker issues, may prove to be too independent.

In Adelaide earlier in the week, Abbott promised the new speaker would not be a “captain’s pick”. Just as well, former Howard government minster Peter Reith wrote in his column: Bishop, like all Abbott’s picks, has been a “disaster”.

The prime minister spent three days in the South Australian capital trying to rekindle the love for his government, an affection lost after ham-fisted dealings with General Motors. The impending closure of the Holden plant and loss of thousands of manufacturing jobs has soured voters’ sentiment. And their mood has not been improved by every indication that the election-eve promise to build 12 submarines in Adelaide was a shadow minister misspeaking. David Johnston was unceremoniously dumped as defence minister after he compounded the hurt by telling the senate that the local shipbuilders couldn’t be trusted to assemble a canoe. Never mind, the Liberals are now promising to build
an unspecified number of frigates, probably nine, for
$20 billion. Another $19 billion has been promised for an undisclosed number of offshore patrol vessels. Oh, and yes: there will be a big slice of the $50 billion earmarked for submarines, but no real indication on what that means or where they will be built.

One of the South Australian Liberals most under threat from his fellow citizens’ hostility is Education Minister Christopher Pyne. He insists the announcements are “decisions” not “promises”. That doesn’t impress Nick Xenophon. Put simply, he finds it hard to believe what the Liberals are now spruiking: “How is this promise to build the future frigates in SA any different from the Coalition’s 2013 promise to build 12 submarines in South Australia?” Compounding his scepticism is the fact that the “promise” or “decision” is two terms away. In the meantime, on Abbott’s own admission, jobs will be lost and skills along with them.

Xenophon is planning to run candidates in the state’s 11 lower house seats at the next election. According to a Reachtel poll in Pyne’s seat of Sturt, the Nick Xenophon Team candidate would top the poll and take the seat on Labor and Greens preferences. Pyne dismisses the poll because it was paid for by the “criminal CFMEU”. But Newspoll and Morgan both have the Liberals losing considerable support in South Australia since the election.

After parliament elects a new speaker, it will spend the rest of the day paying tribute to West Australian Liberal Don Randall, who died suddenly during the break. A byelection for his seat of Canning should be a government shoo-in on paper. But even in the west, a Coalition stronghold, support has dropped. Ironically, Abbott’s largesse in South Australia has his colleagues in Perth miffed. They are already complaining of being taken for granted. It doesn’t take much to turn a byelection into a “send a message to Canberra” nightmare.

It will take more than a new speaker to right Abbott’s ship of state.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 8, 2015 as "The age of entitlementarians". Subscribe here.

Paul Bongiorno
is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a regular commentator on ABC Radio National Breakfast.