Bronwyn Bishop isn’t much worse than some Speakers of the modern era. But she’s becoming a distraction for the government.
How does Bronwyn Bishop compare as Speaker in terms of bias, given the opposition motion of no confidence yesterday?
Well, the problem is that the last three speakers — Harry Jenkins, Peter Slipper and Anna Burke — have all, to varying degrees, displayed an unusual level of independence. Jenkins wasn’t averse to turfing out Labor members, on occasion dispatching both government and opposition MPs for sniping at each other, and was notoriously indulgent of Christopher Pyne. Slipper tried to be genuinely independent, since that was the only card he had to left to play at the end of a long and undignified political career, and even booted then-treasurer Wayne Swan out for invoking the Three Stooges one too many times. Burke was more traditional, but still inclined to tell the likes of Julia Gillard and Swan if they weren’t answering questions.
Bishop is from an earlier tradition. The tradition of New South Wales Labor mediocrity Leo McLeay, who let Paul Keating get away with murder — most of Keating’s famous barbs at John Hewson were delivered in an atmosphere of complete indulgence by McLeay, whose lasting legacy turned out to be an unfortunate association with bikes. The tradition of the Howard-era non-entity Neil Andrew, the subject of repeated Labor criticism and a motion of no confidence in 2002. The tradition of Ian Sinclair, the subject of a dissent motion in virtually his first hour in the job.
Read John Hewson’s motion against McLeay in 1992, and it reads very similarly to that of manager of opposition business Tony Burke yesterday — the complaint of bias, the comparison of the number of times opposition MPs are disciplined versus government MPs (that was in the days before standing order 94A allowed a sin-binning for an hour), the accusation of taking direction from the Prime Minister; the difference of course is that Keating was PM — whatever else Labor might throw at Abbott, it’s difficult to see them saying anything like “[h]e stands up here on a daily basis and flouts every conceivable sense of propriety in this Parliament, and you allow him to get away with it” about him.
That’s not say Bishop isn’t particularly biased — she is, and so much so she’s occasionally had to be rescued from her own rulings by Abbott and Pyne. She has none of the indulgence for Burke that Jenkins showed for Pyne, routinely criticising him and denying him points of order before he has made them; when she booted Labor MP Julie Collins out on Wednesday, complaining about Labor’s tactic of “infectious laughter” (Collins had got the giggles and was unable to stop, and kept laughing as she left the chamber), she looked downright spiteful. But she’d still comfortably fit within the older tradition.
But one of Bishop’s problems is she isn’t presiding in 1992. There was more mainstream media coverage of politics back then, but there was no social media allowing political tragics across the country to tune into and comment on #qt even if they’re not watching it. Every word from Bishop is instantly scrutinised in a vast echo chamber occupied by journalists and observers; everything she does is instantly examined in a way that Leaping Leo or Neil Andrew were never subjected to.
That, and the higher expectations created by the previous three speakers, mean Bishop is becoming a problem for the government, because exactly as she did yesterday, she enables Labor to distract from the government’s agenda. This week was supposed to be about using the last week of Parliament before the WA Senate election to beat up Labor over the carbon price, the mining tax and its fiscal legacy. Instead Labor, and various government stumbles like knights and dames and George Brandis’ comments on bigots, ensured the focus was on racism, Tony Abbott’s absurd obsession with anachronism and Bishop. Things reached a nadir for Abbott on Wednesday when he grumpily complained to Bishop that Opposition Leader Bill Shorten was humming Rule, Britannia across the table at him. “I knew you’d recognise it!” yelled Shorten. It takes a lot to make Shorten, still occasionally wooden in his public delivery, look witty.
And after yesterday’s attempt to move no confidence, Bishop appeared anxious not to kick any more Labor MPs out, her 98-0 record of expulsions having been noted by Burke. She eventually ejected Labor MP Nick Champion, but it’s an unusual question time that doesn’t include him being booted, so that’s par for the course. But she instead issued warning after warning, all of which were ignored by Labor backbenchers, who continued interjecting and talking loudly among themselves whenever ministers were on their feet.
Regardless of yesterday’s motion it’s unlikely Labor wants Bishop to stay anywhere other than right where she is, where she will continue to cause distractions for a government that keeps finding ways to go off-message.