Choppergate: Why It Matters

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Bronwyn Bishop resigned as Speaker of the Australian House of Representatives on August 2nd, stating that she had made the decision out of “love and respect for the institution of Parliament and the Australian people.” Her role, to preside over gatherings of the lower house such as Question Time, will be filled when the House of Reps come together today. Recent entitlement controversies calling her integrity into question have paralleled past concerns raised by Labor about her performance as Speaker notably, frontbencher Anthony Albanese protested in late June as she made history by ejecting her 400th MP from the House. But irrespective of her penchant for luxury travel (which well get to in a moment), was Bishop a particularly biased Speaker?

Yes, but not by much. Bishop stabbed the big red button on 393 Labor MPs in her time as Speaker, or 98.2% of the total number she ejected, as opposed to seven Coalition MPs, or 1.8%. Her predecessor, Labor-affiliated Speaker Anna Burke seemed to have had a rather less twitchy trigger finger, ejected 112 Coalition MPs, or 94%, as opposed to six Labor MPs, or 5%. Fellow Labor man Harry Jenkins booted 226 Coalition MPs, or 90%, and only 23 Labor MPs, or 9.2%, in his time. Blue-tie David Hawker, who came some four years before Jenkins, ejected 183 Labor MPs in contrast with five Coalition MPs, a 97.3/2.7% split respectively. Based on these figures it does appear that Bronwyn Bishop relished her powers in a relatively villainous fashion, but in terms of statistics shes not too far off the pace. Political ties run deep, and even with Tony Abbott foregoing a ‘captain’s pick’ to decide the next Speaker its idealistic to expect this trend not to continue.

Regardless of her excitable presence in the lower house, Bishop has, to her credit, served a long and undoubtedly arduous career in public office. Unfortunately for her, the trip at the core of the Choppergate scandal cost taxpayers over $5,200 and has ruffled so many feathers that Labor have urged the Australian Federal Police to investigate it as criminal fraud. Understandably, the harsh light of the spotlight doomed Bishops past expenditure to unravel further, and it came to light that she spent nearly $131,000 on official travel in the latter half of 2014. Around $88,000 of this sum was spent during a 15-day visit to Europe while she was running for the presidency of the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union.

A few days later, the plot thickened it turned out that Bishop spent over $1,000 a day to travel in private limousines during this period. Her spokesperson, Damien Jones, attempted an explanation by asserting that Bishop prefers limousines as they are entitled to drive in bus lanes. Bishop included this expenditure in her latest six-monthly entitlements report, but a couple of expenses on home soil were omitted and have seen the teeth of the media sink deeper. Roughly three weeks ago, Bishop announced that she had chartered aircraft to the towns of Nowra and Young, both situated in New South Wales, and had failed to include these expenses in the report. While its wise, I think, to remain mindful of the heavy schedules of politicians of Bishops stature and the various costs associated with international travel, it does seem nigh impossible to claim that this kind of spending doesnt verge on the superfluous. Nowra and Young are both within reasonable driving distance of Bishops hometown of Sydney, the event she was attending in Nowra was a Liberal Party fundraiser which should invalidate any travel entitlement as it doesnt count as explicit parliamentary duty and the charter to Nowra reportedly cost over $6,000.

The fact that Tony Abbott has called for an overhaul of the parliamentary entitlements system in the wake of Choppergate indicates that the rules are far too rubbery as they currently stand. Aside from her belated repayment of the infamous helicopter charter (plus penalties), Bronwyn Bishops request that the Department of Finance examine her official expenditure may indeed signal that she actually thought she was acting within bounds. This justifies quite a sizeable face palm for everybody who has ever been stung by our ruddy-faced, hat-cork-jangling taxman.

In light of all this noise, Christopher Pyne warned against an impending Salem witch trial over MPs expenses, and he may have been on to something. Tony Burke, who has been incredibly vocal in his criticism of Bishop, is now copping flak for using taxpayers money to fly his children to Uluru in business class in 2012, a move that reportedly carried a $12,000 price tag. He hasnt as yet commented on whether he plans to repay the expense. He has, however, agreed to repay $94 for taking a government car to a Robbie Williams concert. What a man. Further digging by various media outlets has unearthed claims amounting to $225,000 in overseas travel costs attributed to Burke and his office between 2008 and 2009.

Bafflingly, considering the vehement disdain he expressed in Bronwyn Bishops case, Bill Shorten has told reporters he believes that Burke “acted within the rules”, and Christopher Pyne has stated that he doesnt see any great benefit of having a running commentary on MPs entitlements Thats right, the raging public discourse about entitlement abuse and increased pressure on elected officials for greater transparency in the future is a bad thing. Just leave it up to Chris. Hes a fixer. He fixes things. As for Bronwyn, she has announced that she plans to re-contest her long-held seat of Mackellar in 2016. In the words of that Austrian guy with the big muscles, shell be back.