April 18, 2016

The view from Billinudgel

A Bishop sacrificed

By Mungo MacCallum
Bronwyn Bishop’s long career has come to a fitting end

The saddest thing about Bronwyn Bishop losing her preselection was that Bob Ellis did not survive to dance on her political grave.

The only thing that would have delighted him more would have been the ultimate humiliation of her losing her seat in a general election. Still, near enough is good enough.

The two unlikely antagonists came together in 1994 when Bishop, who had achieved considerable publicity by bullying and harassing public servants in senate committee hearings, began to nurture delusions of grandeur as a potential party leader.

Bishop had been given an easy run into the senate by the retirement of a sitting member, and seemed to have a sense of entitlement from the beginning; she was convinced of her superiority over the hoi polloi and even over her own party room.

She became known as an uncompromising and relentless right wing ideologue, determined to destroy anyone who got in the way of her reaching the political heights she believed she deserved. She had no room for compromise or self doubt, far less for the feelings of others. She was, she felt, destined to rule.

Few agreed with her. Labor senate leader Gareth Evans asked: “Why do people take an instant dislike to Bronwyn Bishop? It saves time.”

However, Bishop decided to move from the senate to the house of representatives and gained preselection for a by-election in the safe seat of Mackellar as the next step in her campaign. Ellis challenged her as an independent, and badly dented the Liberal vote; he later proclaimed that he had saved Australia.

Bishop continued to chase as many media appearances as she could devise, and when John Hewson fell as Liberal leader and the hapless Alexander Downer succeeded him, Bishop was mentioned as a possible saviour – at least by some fevered members of the press gallery.

The idea was always preposterous: she never had more than a handful of votes in the party room, and in the end settled for a junior ministry when John Howard eventually settled the leadership. She was promoted to become health minister, but was later sacked over a scandal about giving kerosene baths to inmates of nursing homes.

Despite her best (or worst) efforts she was never returned to the ministry: she spent seven lonely years on the backbench until Brendan Nelson gave her a junior shadow portfolio. Malcolm Turnbull quickly returned her to the backbench, and there she stayed until the 2013 election.

She had hoped and expected a ministry, but that was not to be. Tony Abbott used a captain’s pick to install her as speaker, where her displays of partisanship demeaned the office and the parliament. Then came choppergate, and the rest is history. She fell out even with Abbott, who had once described himself as her political lovechild.

In the end the implacable warrior could not even defend her own constituency. It went, not to an ally from the hard right, but to a moderate. Tony Abbott’s own candidate was also beaten.

So the defence against terrorism of Sydney’s northern peninsula, its beaches, marinas and multi-million-dollar holiday cottages, will now fall to Abbott himself. He too, of course, will have to put up with the sepulchral chuckling of Bob Ellis.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum was a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Much of his work can be found here: The View from Billinudgel.

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