July 21, 2015

Horse 1942 - The Bishop Moves (♗xc6 dxc6)

Ever since that scandal at a certain hotel, the -gate suffix has been lazily attached to every political scandal wherever possible. The current kerfuffle involving the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Bronwyn Bishop, has been dutifully called "Choppergate" but really there are three issues packed into one.

1. Ms Bishop
I'm going to break one of the cardinal rules of political opinion here by playing the player and not the ball or in Ms Bishop's case, shift about on this diagonally.
The two most obvious qualities of Ms Bishop are her forcefulness and her abrasiveness. These are excellent qualities for someone to have if they want to rise through the ranks of politics to positions of power but not necessarily the best sort of qualities to have once you are there. As the Member for Mackellar, Ms Bishop entered the parliament during a period of steady Labor government; firstly as a Senator for NSW and then she was parachuted into such a safe Liberal seat that the Labor Party didn't even bother to field a candidate at the 1994 by-election of Mackellar.
When in opposition, she has the perfect sort of personality required to attack the government of the day and to hold ministers accountable for their actions on the floor of the parliament. In government though, when the main objective is to decide and enact policy, that's not quite so useful. It's perhaps telling that during the Howard Government, Ms Bishop was installed as Minister for Defence Industry, Science and Personnel, which is not exactly the most central of positions and then swiftly removed again.

2. Expenses Claimed
The headline act of this part of the story is a $5000 helicopter ride to a Liberal Party fundraiser that Ms Bishop claimed as an expense on the public purse. This also brought into light a trip which she made to Europe which cost $88,000; also on the public purse. In her defence, she paid back the $5000 because she wasn't sure if this was allowable or not.
As someone who used to work for the Commonwealth public service, this raises seven kinds of craziness in my mind. For the record, I don't think that she should have been made to pay back a red cent but that this should bring into sharp focus that the current method by which politicians claim expenses is idiotic. I was frequently sent about the country in my job and even put up at the odd hotel here and there; the amount of available expenses that I could claim was nil. The reason for this is that before I was sent anywhere, the issues of plane flights, hotel stays, hire cars and taxi transfers, were sorted out by a central office within the government department. There were no expenses for me to claim because I didn't personally incur any. I find it utterly staggering and bewildering that a similar sort of system does not currently exist in Parliament House. The truth is that human nature being as it is, which is nominally selfish, means that if you give anyone an open ticket to the buffet of public expenses, they will fill their plates up. Such a system is from the outset, open to grift and abuse. I find it impossible to believe that there currently is not a Parliamentary Budget Office through which Members of Parliament make their travel plans. An independent office such as that would remove the ability and power of Members to have even made such a trip like this, it would be subject to the rigours of government audit and because there are 226 Members in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, then such an office would surely be able to negotiate cheaper travel and accommodation arrangements through sheer economies of scale and bargaining power.

3. The Role Of the Speaker.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott in the wake of all of this has placed Ms Bishop on "probation" for the moment. From a strict constitutional standpoint, this is nonsense. Not only is the position of the Prime Minister not even mentioned in the constitution but the notion of a "probation" and whatever the heck that entails, is also not mentioned in the constitution.
If "probation" is indeed a thing in this case, then this is a party disciplinary issue and illustrates perfectly, what is so hideously wrong with the current system.

The only relevant section of the constitution which deals with this is section 35:

The House of Representatives shall, before proceeding to the despatch of any other business, choose a member to be the Speaker of the House, and as often as the office of Speaker becomes vacant the House shall again choose a member to be the Speaker.
The Speaker shall cease to hold his office if he ceases to be a member. He may be removed from office by a vote of the House, or he may resign his office or his seat by writing addressed to the Governor‑General.
- Section 35, Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act (1900)

In the UK Parliament, the Speaker of the House of Commons upon their appointment, formally renounces their affiliation with the party that they came from, in an attempt to keep the role of the Speaker impartial. In return for their impartiality, they are elected unopposed at the next General Election. I think that this is an excellent set of protocols to adopt if the Speaker is expected to maintain that degree of impartiality.
It's curious to think that the Australia Parliament initially started like this with  Sir Frederick Holder resigning from the Free Trade Party upon his election as the speaker but the second Speaker,  Dr Carty Salmon, retained his membership of the Commonwealth Liberal Party.

The problem is that Ms Bishop hasn't really conducting the business of the House in an impartial manner; frequently ejecting Members under Standing Order 94(a) "Direction to leave the Chamber" that sends MPs out for an hour.
The first Liberal Party member to be ejected by Ms Bishop  under 94(a) was the Member for Herbert, Ewen Jones, who was only ejected but he was only the 109th MP to be ejected by her. Before then, there had been 108 Labor MPs ejected to nil. I haven't been able to find a complete list but it is at least 400 since this term of parliament began in 2013 and it includes records for both a single day at 18 and a week at 47.

Personally I don't really like the way that any of this has been conducted but what is certainty true is that the person at the centre of this, Bronwyn Bishop, is an imposing personality and a redoubtable political operator. Whether or not she should be Speaker is another question entirely and the question of her expenses should be investigated properly along with the whole procedure for MP's expenses.