The opposition has asked the Australian Federal Police to investigate whether Speaker Bronwyn Bishop broke the law in claiming A$5227 for a helicopter trip between Melbourne and Geelong.
As the political stakes rose over the money – which Bishop has now repaid together with a 25% penalty – Bishop was effectively in hiding. She missed the memorial service held in Parliament House to mark the first anniversary of the downing of MH17, which claimed the lives of 38 Australians.
The manager of opposition business, Tony Burke, said Bishop would not answer a basic question. “Has she or has she not lied on a form which, if you lie on, carries criminal penalties?”
The form covers charter transport for presiding officers, opposition office holders and leaders of a minority party. It says holders of these positions may use charters “for their personal transport in connection with their office holder duties”.
Bishop was attending a Liberal fundraiser when she used the charter on November 5 last year.
The form says: “I understand that knowingly giving false or misleading information is a serious offence under the Criminal Code Act 1995”, and “I certify that I travelled on the charter and it was provided for official purposes”.
Burke said there were times when people made honest mistakes claiming entitlements – he had done so himself.
“But for the life of me I don’t see how someone accidentally gets on a helicopter and ends up at a Liberal fundraiser. For the life of me, I don’t see how anyone argues that a political party fundraiser is part of the official job of being the speaker of the House of Representatives.”
If Bishop had nothing to hide she should just “release the document”, Burke said.
Peter Slipper, a Coalition defector who served as speaker under Labor, faced court action over his claim of less than $1000 for the cost of transport to visit wineries around Canberra. He was convicted but the conviction was later overturned.
The letter to the Australian Federal Police commissioner, Andrew Colvin, has been sent by MP Pat Conroy, the chairman of Labor’s waste watch committee.
Conroy pointed out in the letter that parliamentarians had previously been prosecuted for fraud for deliberately misusing their entitlements. He wrote that it had been reported that Bishop “chartered a luxury helicopter to travel from Melbourne to Geelong to attend a fundraiser for Mr Ron Nelson, who unsuccessfully contested the seat of Bellarine in the state election”.
The row over Bishop has now become a serious distraction for the government, and a matter for much ridicule on social media.