The view from Billinudgel

It's time Bronwyn Bishop was removed

It was inevitable that sooner or later Labor would be forced to move against Tony Abbott’s chosen speaker, Bronwyn Bishop, and last week the no-confidence motion finally came. Of course it failed on the numbers, but that does not mean that it was futile gesture; in the interest not just of itself but of the parliament as a whole it was time, perhaps past time, for the opposition to take a stand.

Not only is Bishop a one-eyed party loyalist, but her entire parliamentary career was built on attacking opponents and hectoring and berating public servants in committee hearings. It was this sheer unbridled aggressiveness which caused otherwise sane people to propose her as potential leader of the her party in the dark days following the coalition’s fifth successive election loss in 1993.

Commonsense eventually prevailed and she did not even contest the position, but she was elevated to the front bench as shadow minister for health. She immediately mounted a spirited defence of tobacco advertising which brought her into conflict with the AMA president Brendan Nelson, himself a future party leader. Bishop was shuffled off to a more obscure portfolio, but on regaining office in 1996 John Howard brought her back into the spotlight; she ended up as minister for Aged Care (also known as Caged Hair, after her uncompromising bouffant) where she promptly became involved in a scandal involving nursing homes bathing their clients in kerosene as a possible cure for scabies.

She was dropped from the ministry again, this time for good. But she was determined to gain public office of some kind, and campaigned to be made speaker. Lost for anything else to do with his close factional ally and electoral neighbour, Tony Abbott finally acquiesced. And then, of course, the trouble started. In the Australian parliament, unlike the English Westminster system on which it was largely modelled, the speaker has never been truly impartial; the job has always been the gift of the ruling party, and a lavish gift it is, with generous salary and allowances and a huge office with a well-stocked drinks cabinet.

Some speakers have been fairer than others; the Liberal Billy Snedden and Labor’s Harry Jenkins were both well respected, and ironically, perhaps the best of them all was the disgraced Peter Slipper, poached from the Liberals by Julia Gillard to shore up her parliamentary numbers. But by and large it has been accepted that the speaker, when the chips are down, will protect the government of the day; even-handedness is neither required nor expected. But at least an appearance of it is, and Bishop has not made the slightest attempt to pretend that she is anything other than a front line warrior for Tony Abbott.

Her record of ejecting 99 Labor members and no Coalition members in a single session speaks for itself, but more disturbing is her capriciousness; people have been thrown out for laughing or even for trying to get her attention. And she clearly revels in the hostility she evokes in what is supposed to be the role of mediator and peacekeeper. Many on her own side are uncomfortable, but not Abbott: Bishop’s take-no-prisoners style fits perfectly with his own approach. But in the end it is bad for his government, bad for parliament and bad for the country in that it further undermines respect for our whole political system. It is time this Bishop was removed from the board.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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