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Why me? Bronwyn Bishop’s ‘Choppergate’ scandal has taken off for two reasons: it created an image in the public mind and it feeds into an underlying perception. AAP/Mick Tsikas

Why, among so many issues, Bronwyn Bishop’s helicopter trip gets our attention

Why has the issue of expense claims by House of Representatives Speaker Bronwyn Bishop dominated the news since mid-July? To understand how this one issue, of all the many political issues, has seized public attention, we need to understand how agendas are set.

At any time, many issues are competing to get onto the public agenda. This has been defined as “that set of items explicitly up for the active and serious consideration of authoritative decision makers”.

The media certainly have a role in saying that X or Y is an issue worthy of public concern. Often such issues rise and fall within a day or two. Some issues emerge again and again.

Let’s look at some examples. As Ken Robinson argues, what’s worth knowing is very arguable. Yet the call for schools to “get back to basics” is a perennial one.

In the late 1970s, some fundamentalist Christians centred on Baulkham Hills certainly used it to demand that the NSW Department of Education’s schools do more reading and writing, and drop the “frills”, or unnecessary things, like a course called “Man: A Course of Study”. They argued it was somehow anti-Christian because a comparison of human and animal life implied that evolution had occurred.

It seemed as if the Hills were alive with angry parents, but the various groups – Concerned Parents, Parents in Education – could all be traced back to one post office box. The arguments were powerful and long-lasting, though, because of the underlying concern among all parents that their children were being well prepared for life.

Our next example is the so-called Cronulla riots. Based on the account of a student who witnessed it, we argued that the event happened largely because the media – in particular, one radio commentator – had framed the issue in a certain way. This could be summed up as “Who rules our beaches?”.

We reported that the day progressed uneventfully. Late in the day, affected by too much sun and alcohol, sections of the crowd showed uncontrolled hostility to dark-skinned people. Recorded for TV, these events have been referred to many times since.

Western media and voters have long subscribed to the idea that politicians have their snouts in the trough. Daily Mirror

Violent events occur in various Australian cities: why did this one gain such lasting prominence? Once again, there was an underlying issue: is Australia a free and fair society, or liable to become racist? Once again, a substratum of perennial importance gives events a longer life than would otherwise occur.

And so we turn to the Bronwyn Bishop saga. Australians learnt on July 15 that she had chartered a helicopter flight instead of making the one-hour drive from Melbourne to Geelong. Treasurer Joe Hockey conceded it failed to pass the “sniff test”. It was “not a good look” for the government on whose behalf he had declared the “age of entitlement” was over.

The issue was dubbed “Choppergate” after the 1972 Watergate scandal in the US. The suffix “-gate” is media shorthand for “here’s another public scandal”.

And that is precisely why this issue has lasted so long. People in democracies say they do not like politics and politicians. It’s common for ordinary folk to say that “they’re all as bad as each other”. Cartoons have depicted politicians as pigs with their snouts in the public trough. Here is the substratum of belief, or prejudice, that gives an issue a long life on the public agenda.

It’s also about the image

Roger Cobb and Charles Elder’s work predates the internet and social media. We might update it with a further suggestion. To last a long time, issues need to provide a vivid image.

The image of a woman dressed up to the nines with a bouffant hairdo riding in a helicopter is a very vivid one. It inspired scores of memes on social media.

Bishop’s expensive European trip fuelled the public debate. It was further revealed that she claimed for the flight to a colleague’s wedding and chartered expensive cars to take her from Mosman to the Sydney Opera House, a journey easily made by bus or ferry.

For comedians it was a gift: a figure who dresses in a distinctive way, fast becoming unpopular, using expensive transport unnecessarily in a dramatic way. ABC television showed Bishop in a helicopter to the soundtrack of Ride of the Valkyries. For film buffs, this was a reference to the helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now.

The ABC managed to reference this scene from Apocalypse Now when reporting on Bronwyn Bishop.

So much for an issue appearing on the public agenda. But on the government’s agenda, which Cobb and Elder termed the institutional agenda? That’s a different matter altogether.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has declared that Bishop is “on probation”. Commentators have questioned what this means and suggested that the Speaker is now firmly under the prime ministerial thumb.

Issues tend to come in bundles, as Cobb and Elder argue. So when the “Choppergate” issue arose, up came another, far more serious. What about Bishop’s performance as Speaker? Why has she ejected some 393 Labor MPs from the House of Representatives, but only a handful from the Coalition? The media have often mentioned this before but now it resonates.

The “Bishop issue” will be fodder for more debate when parliament resumes. Pure gold, as the comedians say.

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