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Abbott’s attempt at damage control brings inquiry into MPs’ entitlements

When claiming entitlements, Bronwyn Bishop seems to have had no normal sense of awareness. Mick Tsikas/AAP

One snippet sums up Bronwyn Bishop’s disconnect with the real world. Her spokesman was quoted at the weekend saying she had often preferred limousines because they could travel in bus lanes, thus getting her to places more quickly.

Bishop’s view of her own importance as a public figure is breathtaking. She seems to have had no normal sense of awareness – no idea that, if she wanted to be on time for a function, she should leave earlier, or cram in fewer engagements. Not get a helicopter or charter a plane. Or even choose a car service based on its capacity to zip along in the bus lane.

Bishop’s Sunday resignation is a massive relief to the government – but anyone else would have quit well before.

We don’t know the final dynamics between Bishop and Tony Abbott in the lead-up to her letter to the Governor-General. But we do know that Abbott has come out of the affair very badly.

After Bishop’s A$5000 helicopter flight came to light, Abbott misread the situation completely, thinking it could be easily dismissed as a bit of trivia, soon forgotten, especially when Bishop said she would repay the money with the required penalty.

Even after senior ministers were distancing themselves from Bishop last week, Abbott was workshopping survival tactics with her, which resulted in that cringe-making apology.

Then on Sunday Abbott, unveiling a comprehensive review of MPs’ entitlements system, was arguing the problem was the system rather than the individual.

“Plainly, what has happened – not just with Bronwyn but with quite a few people, on both sides of the fence – is that we have a situation where spending is arguably inside the rules but plainly outside of community expectations, and that’s what needs to be dealt with once and for all and that is why we need this fundamental root and branch review,” Abbott told his news conference announcing Bishop’s resignation.

But in fact there are two problems: the system, and the woman who treated it as though she was responsible to no one.

The review is welcome. Getting an independent, clearer, more transparent set of rules is important – although Abbott’s stress that they need to acknowledge MPs’ “political duties” as well as their governmental and parliamentary ones might be a bit of a worry. Hopefully this will not see the legitimisation of claims for attendance at fundraisers.

The rules, however, were not the primary problem in Bishop’s case, although their vagueness may have made it harder to nail her breaches.

MPs know they should not claim to attend fundraisers. They certainly know that taking a helicopter to travel between Melbourne and Geelong is beyond the pale, whatever the occasion and the letter of the rules.

They should know that colleagues’ weddings are social occasions, for which expenses should be met personally. Undoubtedly they know that stories should not be spun of secret meetings to do with parliamentary committee business.

There is a clear distinction between the totally unacceptable behaviour of Bishop and some obvious faults of the system.

Abbott himself was, until the last few days, showing little interest in a big overhaul of entitlements.

Abbott’s initiative for the review looks to have two drivers. He used it to cast the specific Bishop case as just part of a more general problem – to excuse Bishop or soften the blow for her. This is to distort reality because her case was out on its own, given her pattern of behaviour and the amounts involved.

Secondly and centrally, Abbott had to find some way of trying to mollify public outrage. What better than a very long inquiry? It will report next year, perhaps just in time for Abbott to announce a reformed system before the election.

Meanwhile Abbott has to get a new Speaker.

Defence Minister Kevin Andrews previously has been spoken of – but he has ruled out any interest.

Philip Ruddock would be a safe choice, overlooking the irony that such an elevation would follow Abbott having sacked him as whip.

Deputy Speaker Bruce Scott would slip easily into the job – if the Liberals didn’t mind handing a plum position to a National.

South Australian Liberal backbencher Andrew Southcott’s name is being mentioned. Often in the past the post has gone to a senior backbencher so that would be in the groove.

Bishop was Abbott’s captain’s pick. Will the Liberal members of the House of Representatives want a say this time? Certainly consultation will be expected.

One thing you can bet on pretty confidently: the next Speaker will be both better, and cheaper for the taxpayer, than the last.

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