One’s first question, on hearing Bronwyn Bishop’s unconvincing apology and declaration of remorse, was: did Tony Abbott suggest the approach when the two met in Sydney on Wednesday to discuss tactics for handling the crisis?
Apologies and seeking absolutions are Abbott’s thing. They are not part of Bishop’s repertoire.
The apology has done nothing to help. Few would be taken in by it. The transformation from the defiant, give-no-quarter Bishop of a fortnight ago to a contrite, I-wish-I’d-said-sorry-earlier Bronwyn on Thursday doesn’t pass that sniff test.
“I’ve been listening to what the Australian people are saying,” Bishop told broadcaster Alan Jones. “And no matter what anybody else has done, there’s no excuse for what I did with the helicopter.
"And with regard to other things, where there’s controversy, I have to say I’ll be repaying all expenses related to weddings, which while technically in the rules, just doesn’t look right. And I know that I’ve disappointed and let down the Australian people.” At her later brief news conference Bishop described the helicopter trip as “ridiculous”.
More than two decades ago, a profile on Bishop began with the observation that she was “born to perform”. Her Thursday appearances smacked of “performances” that were, indeed, overacted.
Many people, already disgusted by what they regard as Bishop’s gross use of entitlements, would be further infuriated at what they would see as her hypocrisy. Labor’s allegation that she was only apologetic to save her job would resonate.
While she still insists she was acting within the rules, Abbott and Bishop agreed at their meeting that all her entitlement claims going back a decade will be examined by the Finance Department.
Guardian Australia has now reported that there were at least 15 occasions in 2005 and 2006 for which Bishop claimed travel allowance as a parliamentary committee chair when there are no records of committee hearings at the time.
This is becoming a more dangerous issue for Abbott by the day. His cabinet is openly split. His three leadership rivals – Julie Bishop, Scott Morrison and Malcolm Turnbull – publicly distanced themselves from Bishop on Wednesday.
Christopher Pyne strongly backed Bishop that day; Liberal sources assume he was sent out by the Prime Minister’s Office to try to herd the cats.
But Treasurer Joe Hockey repeatedly refused to be drawn on Thursday. A number of other Liberals are pointedly failing to endorse her. No Liberal can appear anywhere without being grilled about their attitude. Abbott himself did not make himself available for news conferences on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday, despite having two public appearances on Thursday.
Abbott’s colleagues are not just judging Bishop but the prime minister as well. He personally chose Bishop and now she has brought politicians generally into further disrepute and is harming the government.
Abbott’s commitment to the good of the government is being tested against his loyalty to Bishop.
Having the Finance Department review move suddenly from Bishop’s charters to all her entitlements delays things – though it will surely have to be done before parliament resumes on August 10 – and carries its own problems.
If it exonerates Bishop – and you can drive a truck through the rules – it will be met with public scepticism. It would also make it near impossible to persuade her to go. Findings that she had breached the rules would put more pressure on her to quit. But if the breaches were limited, she could dig in, saying she was repaying and that should be the end of it.
Then there is the question of transparency. Finance Department reviews are not made public. But to have a shred of credibility, the government will need to release this one. If it just puts out bald findings, it will be a joke.
Not only does the issue of Bishop herself have to be resolved but the government should tackle the matter of entitlements, if it wants to flag to the public that it understands why people are outraged.
This would not be as hard as it seems - if there were the will. Allan Behm, former chief of staff to then-Labor minister Greg Combet and former public servant, has suggested some sensible principles and guidelines for a tighter system.
Behm writes in part: “The creation of a spurious ‘public’ event to justify a private expenditure should be prohibited. Tacking on a conversation with a parliamentary mate in some distant electorate, or imposing on the hardworking staff of a hospital or a school, to justify a taxpayer-funded journey across the continent should be seen for what it is – fraud. The same should apply to the use of publicly funded vehicles to attend private events.”
Beyond tightening the rules, the government should set up a small independent secretariat to process MPs’ claims quickly and with scrutiny. This arrangement should be more hands-on than the present system. The payments should be made public more regularly than now, when they come out twice yearly. Publication every two months would be better.
Large businesses seem to manage their employees’ entitlement arrangements satisfactorily – it should be possible to get a proper system in place for MPs.
One problem, however, and a difference with companies, is that MPs, including and especially frontbenchers, are trying to finance a lot of campaigning work under the general heading of official work. This can vary from fundraising to profile-raising. Bishop has done a lot of both throughout her parliamentary career.
If all this were cut back under tighter rules, the public would save many dollars and have more trust in the system. It would be inconvenient for the politicians but, as Hockey likes to point out in other contexts, everyone has to tighten their belts.