When the Bronwyn Bishop “choppergate” scandal broke, it could have disappeared into oblivion without any major consequence. Instead, it grew disproportionately and culminated in the Speaker’s resignation on Sunday.
Bishop’s charging of the taxpayer more than A$5000 for the 75km trip between Melbourne and Geelong was excessive. But, if she had quickly apologised and paid back the money – plus the penalty – the story probably would have lost its appeal. Instead, her refusal even to consider an apology for weeks aggrandised the scandal to the point of no return.
Combined, the nature of the controversy, Bishop’s party affiliation, her behaviour as Speaker of the House, and the way she and her party leadership dealt with the issue created the perfect storm for a political scandal.
Should we expect long-term consequences?
My research on the consequences of scandals, based on American data, shows that they have a clear electoral effect that lingers for several years after the fact. The Bishop scandal’s potential consequences should be analysed on at least three distinct levels.
First, are the consequences to Bishop herself, which may be both personal and political. Even though an investigation is still in progress, it seems unlikely that Bishop’s actions will end up being – strictly speaking – illegal. She may end up being liable for the repayment of a few more expenses, but this will probably be the only consequence she personally faces.
Bishop could, however, face electoral consequences. She represents the NSW seat of Mackellar, which is considered a safe Liberal seat. However, the electoral effects of a scandal, especially during the electoral cycle immediately after the scandal itself, can be quite brutal.
In the United States, I estimate the electoral impact of a political scandal at between ten and 15 points. Should the same – or a similar logic – apply to Australia, Bishop could be at risk of losing her seat despite holding it by a margin of more than 18%.
This is true especially because given such a prominent scandal, the Labor Party could have a clear incentive to find a strong candidate to run against Bishop.
Second, there may be consequences for the Liberal Party more broadly. Because Bishop occupied such an important office, and especially because Prime Minister Tony Abbott gave her his support throughout the scandal, voters could view this as a scandal of the Liberal Party and its leadership, not only of Bishop as an individual.
If the electoral impact of scandals I found by analysing almost 50 years of American data applies similarly to Australia, and Australian voters attribute the scandal to the wider Liberal Party, even a much more modest impact than what I found in the US could safely hand the next election to Labor.
Third, there may be consequences for Abbott and his leadership. His response to this crisis was slow and unclear. He did mildly condemn the helicopter ride and the major expenses, but the timing was off and the remarks were not as clear as they could have been.
Abbott also clearly tried to divert attention from Bishop as an individual by announcing a wide-ranging review of MPs’ entitlements. The question here is whether the majority of voters will simply welcome this initiative as a step towards reducing the waste of taxpayer funds, or accuse Abbott of trying to bury Bishop’s sins by attempting to muddy all MPs.
Additionally, there was a clear rupture not only within the governemnt, but also within its frontbench. Several Liberal MPs, including some ministers, failed to express their support for Bishop during the past couple of weeks. It is unclear whether their differences were restricted to the scandal itself and, now that Bishop has resigned, they can all move on, or if this disagreement was a symptom of something deeper and more complex.
The scandal isn’t over with Bishop’s resignation
My analysis of hundreds of political scandals concluded that the only way one can end with a resignation is if the politician in question takes all the blame for the scandal, retires from public life altogether, and there are no legal consequences to the scandal itself.
In Bishop’s case, none of the these three conditions has yet been met. While she did resign as Speaker, she remains an MP. She is still a prominent figure within the Liberal Party; she is clearly close to Abbott. While the blame for the expenses does fall on her and her alone, Abbott got dragged into the story and is being accused of defending Bishop. Consequently, the blame could end up being diffused, at least in the public eye.
Finally, with an investigation into Bishop’s expenses underway, there may be more to come in this story. There is also now a whole review of the parliamentary entitlement rules, and it is almost certain that new violations by several MPs will be found in the coming months.
The scandal is far from being over. Only time will tell whether it has lasting electoral consequences. Either way, Australia will continue talking about Bishop and the expenses of its MPs for months to come.