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View from The Hill

Bronwyn Bishop doesn’t even give the impression of trying to be fair as Speaker

Appointing Bronwyn Bishop to the position of speaker seems to have been a mistake. AAP/Stefan Postles

Speaking at his swearing in ceremony, new Governor-General Peter Cosgrove told the MPs that as elected representatives, they would know best the vibrancy, even stridency of political discourse - its robustness, even abrasiveness.

“Yet the Australian people, even when expressing occasionally mild alarm and sometimes disappointment in the tenor of the political battle, maintain a profound underlying confidence that our system of government will continue to serve the nation’s needs effectively,” he said.

The confidence might be there but the degraded “tenor” can only increase public cynicism, which is bad for the system.

Presumably Cosgrove had finished preparing his speech when the House of Representatives had its Thursday brawl over Speaker Bronwyn Bishop’s performance. Stridency and abrasiveness abounded.

Labor’s no confidence motion against Bishop might have been a “stunt”, as the government asserted, but it was a stunt based on reasonable grounds for complaint. The outrage of Leader of the House Christopher Pyne – who has been ejected more times than any other member since federation – was a bit rich, even if his “I am no sook” was the quote of the day.

The House will always be a bear pit. And given the Coalition’s tactic of maximum disruption during the hung parliament, it is not surprising Labor in opposition has returned the provocation.

Even allowing for that, it seems clear the appointment of Bishop as Speaker was a mistake.

An excessively fractious parliament is usually going to rebound on a government rather than an opposition, and this government has enough problems without that.

Striking the right balance as Speaker is never easy. Harry Jenkins, the first Speaker in the Rudd-Gillard years, was extremely fair – and was condemned by some Labor people for that. They thought he allowed the Coalition far too much licence.

Bishop doesn’t even give the impression of trying to be fair. She hasn’t been able to establish authority in the job – an elusive quality that is bound up not just with fairness but with an ability to know when to be tough and when to be lenient – and when to bring a touch of humour.

A Speaker inevitably throws out more opposition than government MPs. But nearly 100 expulsions (all Labor) since the election?

Bishop is very obvious in favouring the government side and it comes through in her tone – she is often dismissive, sometimes bordering on rude, to Labor MPs, sounding like the cross school mistress.

Bishop wanted to be a minister in the Abbott government, not Speaker. Her name and that of Kevin Andrews were the two mentioned for the Speakership when he Coalition was in opposition. Andrews preferred the ministry too – and got his wish.

It’s not clear whether Abbott installed Bishop because he could more easily lean on her to take the job, or because she would get up the opposition’s nose.

A better course would have been to make Philip Ruddock (the father of the House) Speaker and to have put Bishop in the ministry.

Although she has become something of a caricature of herself, Bishop is an good retail politician (especially among seniors) and there is no reason to think she would have not been a competent minister.

As aged care minister in the Howard government she was unlucky. She could never live down a “kerosine baths” incident in a Melbourne nursing home, even though it was not something for which the minister could reasonably be blamed.

She performed adequately as minister and reportedly had a good touch with residents and carers.

When John Howard dropped her after the 2001 election Tony Abbott was one of the first to rush to her side to sympathise.

She was on Abbott’s frontbench in opposition. If he had put her in the ministry he would have had the bonus of one more woman.

During the no confidence debate, manager of opposition business Tony Burke painted Bishop as the natural warrior. He told her she was acknowledged on both sides of the house as a “formidable parliamentarian”. “You have been one of the people who have able to come to the dispatch box and launch scathing and effective attacks on us as the Labor party.” But she couldn’t take that approach into the Speaker’s chair, he said.

Bishop took the position Abbott pressed on her but she has not made the mental adjustment from partisan to referee. This is symbolised by the fact that unlike Jenkins, who did not attend caucus, she goes to Coalition party meetings.

Maybe she can’t change. But if she can she should, stepping away from the party room, being more even handed and improving her “tone”. As things are going, her Speakership is headed to being remembered very negatively.

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