“But in this chair, I will act impartially. That is the responsibility that goes back to 1377.” – Bronwyn Bishop
Bronwyn Bishop (nee Setright) was born in 1942, the daughter of opera singer Kathleen Congreve. She decided at a very young age that she wanted to become a politician, joining the Liberal Party at age 17 and the Killara Young Liberals in 1961.
She began a law degree but dropped out when she got engaged. Bishop first worked as an articled clerk and played an acting role as a barrister in the 1960s Australian television program Divorce Court.
She later gained her professional qualification from the Solicitors’ Admission Board and was admitted to practise law in 1967 as a solicitor, becoming a company director before entering politics in 1973 where she served in various roles as a Liberal Party office-holder until 1987.
In 1987, Bishop was the first woman to be popularly elected as a Senator for New South Wales. In 1989, Andrew Peacock made her Shadow Minister for Public Administration, Federal Affairs and Local Government. She proved an aggressive debater against the Australian Labor Party, particularly with Foreign Minister Gareth Evans.
In 1992, her 25 year marriage dissolved.
In a move widely seen as furthering her leadership ambitions, Bishop resigned from the Senate on 24 February 1994 to contest the by-election for the safe Liberal seat of Mackellar. She won the seat but Independent Bob Ellis gave her a scare, and Alexander Downer won leadership of the Liberal Party, with Bishop becoming Shadow Health Minister.
On her first day in the job, she announced her support for tobacco advertising. Her remarks were attacked by the then AMA president and soon-to-be Liberal MP for the neighbouring seat of Bradfield, Brendan Nelson, who said that: “Mrs Bishop has a lot to learn about health…there are now more than 50,000 pieces of medical research and literature supporting the view that smoking is injurious to humans.” Bishop was subsequently dropped from the portfolio.
In the Howard government, Bishop became the first Liberal woman from New South Wales to become a minister when she was appointed Minister for Defence Industry, Science and Personnel and later Minister for Aged Care.
The revelation that some residents at Melbourne’s Riverside private nursing home had suffered blistering after being bathed in a weak kerosene solution as a cure for scabies led to a national outcry over the standards of care maintained by Bishop’s department. She was dropped from the ministry after the 2001 election.
An affirmed monarchist, Bishop, supported the ‘No’ campaign leading up to the failed 1999 Republican referendum. In response to a physical brawl during a debate on Ray Martin’s Midday show, she issued a media release which said:
“It may well have been High Noon on the Midday Show when Ron Casey took a swipe at Normie Rowe but this conduct indicates just how divisive the debate on the Monarchy has become. Not content to see the country on its knees as a result of the recession the Labor Party must be pleased that it is dividing the community on an issue which has absolutely no political relevance.”
In 2004 she campaigned to succeed Neil Andrew as Speaker of the House, but was not successful.
In 2005, Bishop called for Muslim headscarves to be banned from public schools saying that “she is opposed to the wearing of the Muslim headscarf, where it does not form part of the school uniform. This is because that in most cases the headscarf is being worn as a sign of defiance and difference between non-Muslim and Muslim students” and then went on to say that she “does not believe that a ban on the Jewish skull cap is necessary, because people of the Jewish faith have not used the skull cap as a way of campaigning against the Australian culture, laws and way of life.”
After the Cronulla riots, Bishop introduced a bill which sought to make it “a criminal offence to wilfully destroy or otherwise mutilate the Flag in circumstances where a reasonable person would infer that the destruction or mutilation is intended publicly to express contempt or disrespect for the Flag or the Australian Nation.” I am not sure whether she ever expressed any concern for the innocent victims who were bashed by a bunch of drunken Aussie yobbos. The bill lapsed and did not go to the vote.
Shortly before the Howard Government lost office, Bishop headed the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family and Human Services, and released the report “The winnable war on drugs: The impact of illicit drug use on families”. The report was highly critical of harm minimisation and suggested mandatory adoption of children under 5 years of age whose parents were known to use drugs. The report was widely criticised by a range of organisations such as Family Drug Support, the Australian Democrats and the Australian Drug Foundation for lacking evidence, being ideologically driven, and having the potential to do massive harm to Australia.
When Malcolm Turnbull was elected leader of the Liberal Party, he dropped Bishop from the Shadow Ministry, prompting her to say from the back benches “Malcolm seems to have been strong at the beginning but now he has gone soft.” When Abbott staged his leadership coup, Bishop was rewarded with elevation back to the Shadow Ministry for Seniors.
Since becoming Speaker of the House of Representatives in 2013, Ms Bishop has relished the power, using her position to stifle debate and showing unprecedented and unbecoming partisanship towards the government. Points of Order from the Opposition are ignored or dismissed. Their speaking time is cut short while members of the government are allowed to go on, and on, and on. Interjection or dissention from the Opposition sees them quickly ejected whereas it seems the Treasurer can completely ignore the chair’s direction with impunity.
May I remind the Speaker, for persistent defiance of the Chair, a Member may be ‘named’ by the Chair and a motion for the Member’s suspension (usually for 24 hours) may be moved.
Could I also remind the Speaker that an important part of your task is to protect the rights of individuals and minorities in the House and make sure that everyone is treated fairly within the framework set by the rules.
Allowing the leader of the Opposition to be called “Electricity Bill”, or the Shadow Minister for Education and Early Childhood to be referred to as “the princess from Adelaide”, is unacceptable. Gagging debate on infrastructure legislation and then making snide remarks at Mr Burke, implying Anthony Albanese appeared to have replaced him as Manager of Opposition Business, is not what you are there for.
“The former leader of the house, who is now apparently the acting manager of government – opposition business – has given the chair advice,” Ms Bishop said.
“The question is that the motion be agreed to. If the Manager of Opposition Business is raising a point of order to resume his status then it is acknowledged.”
Mr Burke responded with a dissent motion in Ms Bishop’s rulings.
“The comments that you made with respect to me would be interjections that were reasonable when you were merely in this House as a Member for Mackellar, rules that were reasonable for any minister to get up and try to make a half-funny, childish interjection,” he said.
“But you need to recognise, Madam Speaker, that you are meant to be impartial.
“You need to recognise, Madam Speaker, that the office you hold is greater and more important than your own political rhetoric.”
Perhaps you need to revisit the parliamentary guidelines on the role of the Speaker. You may find these few pertinent.
“In representing the House the Speaker represents and is responsible to the House and all of its Members, whether in government or opposition. He or she is not responsible to the Executive Government and seeks to preserve the House’s independence from it.
The Speaker supervises rather than participates in proceedings.
As a rule, Speakers have been sufficiently detached from government activity to ensure what can be justly claimed to be a high degree of impartiality in the Chair.
Members are entitled to expect that, even though the Speaker belongs to and is nominated to the position by a political party, his or her functions will be carried out impartially.”
Behind the Governor General, Prime Minister, state Governors and Premiers, Speaker of the House is the most prestigious position in our political hierarchy and it comes with significant reward. The Speaker receives an additional salary and expense of office allowance (slightly more than those of the majority of Ministers) in addition to his or her salary and allowances as a Member of Parliament.
In the British House of Commons the Speaker abandons all party loyalties. When governments change, the current Speaker is re-elected to office, and at general elections a Speaker is usually unopposed by the major parties. This is not the situation in Australia but Bronwyn Bishop is presenting a firm case for making it an essential change.