The Bronwyn Bishop saga continues and deepens. At the same time another pitiful effort is uncovered, writes Ross Hamilton.
The subject of whether or not Bronwyn Bishop had abused her expenditure in any sort of criminal matter was referred to the Australian Federal Police. Just as the matter of former Speaker Peter Slipper’s potential abuse of taxi charge vouchers was investigated by the AFP. However whereas the AFP continued to investigate the Slipper matter rather than send it to the Department of Finance for investigation under the Minchin Protocols, in the Bishop matter, which concerns thousands of dollars rather than hundreds, the matter has indeed been tossed back to DoF. And anyone who thinks this matter shall be getting a genuine hearing under the notoriously infamous Liberal-Party-friendly DoF Secretary, Jane Halton. Her role in the Babies Overboard drama is well recorded. Add to the recipe a nasty piece of work as Minister of Finance, Mathias Cormann, who, judging by his track record, shall merely somehow turn this into another reason to shrilly scream about ‘Labor’s Debt and Deficit Disaster’. By the way – there is a photograph doing the rounds of the Internet claiming Halton to be a Liberal staffer. Sorry – incorrect. Better than that, she is a conveniently placed Department Secretary.
Her Royal Highness Queen-bee Bishop has now admitted to another two recent taxpayer-funded trips to fundraisers for the Liberal Party and its associates. And she is equally adamant that these trips are part of her official role as she attended in her position as Speaker of the House of Representatives.
Enter Peter Costello, stage right. And Costello is not someone I normally find myself in agreement with. But Costello has pointed out the fatal flaw in HRH’s argument. By her logic as a Member of Parliament, you can turn up anywhere, mention politics and bingo – the taxpayer coughs up the bill. An MP wants a boozy afternoon down the pub? Easy – head down to the bar and mention politics – the Dept of Finance has to cough up for your tab. Ditto luxury cruises. Ditto pretty much anything else you can think of. And naturally that is complete nonsense and decidedly not what electoral expenses are about. Her Majesty’s defense is looking increasingly dodgy.
So who is it that decides what are generally legitimate expenses for the pollies? Answer: the Parliamentary Entitlements Review Committee (PERC). The PERC comes up with and modifies the necessary rules. And a prominent member is Professor Allan Fels. The Prof entered the fray today. He admits that the Committee reviewed the Entitlements in 2010 and confirmed that travel for party business or party functions is outside eligibility as electoral expenses. So you would think that the Entitlements Handbook says so. And you would be wrong. The Prof expains: “I don’t think it’s set out that clearly [in the rules], but it is well understood.” Ahhh so there you go. So long as it is known to be unacceptable then nobody will do it, will they? Just as everyone knows that robbing banks is unacceptable so nobody has ever done it. Right?
Prof Fels and PERC had a golden opportunity to clarify this position and rule appropriately five years ago and thus put some real pressure on the pollies, not to mention a chance of trying to get some independent audit happening, but did not do so for what can only be described as stupid and childish reasoning.
Now we come to the even more unexpected development. In my opinion, Andrew Bolt is an absolute disgrace and vile presence within the Australian journalistic ranks hence my usual description of him as The Blot. I have never watched his television program and it is a rare event for me to ever read any of his columns. But late this afternoon I found myself down town with a bit of free time. The newsagent did not have the newspaper I wanted so I settled for Victoria’s Herald Sun. And found myself reading Bolt’s column. And what a serve both Bishop and Abbott get. If anything, he’s harder on her than I am. So in a way that gives me something else to be cranky with HRH about – putting me on the same side as The Blot in anything.
HRH Bishop continues to insist that her travel expenditure was legitimately within the guidelines. In fact the reality is that it is not explicitly banned. And for that we can blame Professor Fels and co. However we still go back the qualifiers that are in the Handbook – the necessity for claims to be ‘defensible’ and ‘reasonable’. And chartering helicopters for an 80km jaunt to raise a few more shekels for the Liberal Party of Australia easily fails both tests.
Tony Abbott has made his position clear. He is not taking any action against his handpicked Speaker. The most he has done is say that Bishop is now on probation. Now we all now that Tone sometimes struggles with words and even once famously admitted that you cannot trust everything he says. However is he really so hard of understanding that he really does think Bronwyn Bishop has apologised. Because she has not. Not even close. In fact, just the reverse as Her Majesty has made it very clear that she is NOT going to apologise.
Frankly, Abbott, you have two choices:
- sack Bronwyn Bishop from the Speaker’s position and retain what little remaining credibility your government may have; OR
- leave Bronwyn Bishop in her position thereby giving your stamp of approval to proliferate waste, abuse of expenditure and to a Speaker who has broken seemingly every single convention regarding the position of Speaker of the House of Representatives, bringing the position about as low as is possible.
Is Tony Abbott really so stupid as to leave Bronwyn Bishop in her position as Speaker? Sadly, yes.
Yet again I come back to what is the real core problem – the complete lack of any meaningful arbiter over individual expenditure items. In the Peter Reith telephone card scandal about twenty years ago, we saw that the Department of Finance simply pays up on bills sent to the by the pollies, no questions asked. Nothing has changed. The only body that could have tightened things up, the Parliamentary Entitlements Review Committee, simply did not bother to by the childish notion that everyone knows that party business is not an electoral expense so won’t charge such to expenses. Bronny sure sank that idea. And I have no doubt whatsoever that plenty more have done so as well. The single biggest problem is that the only actual arbiter of what politicians can go claiming as expenses are the politicians themselves, hence the title of this piece (Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? – Who will guard the guards themselves?) on my own site. Indeed, who is going to guard the pollies against them rorting expenditure? Nobody. Instead the Minchin Protocols exist in order to help bury any wrongdoing. Until such time as we have a proper set of guidelines and, more importantly, a meaningful audit function, our Federal politicians are going to continue to get away with ripping us off. And this Bishop affair is simply putting an approval stamp on politicians using pathetic word games to get away unscathed.
This article was first published on Ross’s Rant as Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? and has been slightly edited from the original. Ross can also be found hanging out at WordsbyRoss. If you want to use this piece elsewhere, that’s OK provided you acknowledge who wrote it and where it came from – and have the courtesy to at least ask Ross before reposting it.