I have yet to hear anyone who supports the spending by Bronwyn Bishop of $5,000 in taxpayers’ money for a helicopter ride from Melbourne to Geelong for a Liberal Party fundraiser. It is surprising however that, as a member of parliament, she attracts so much attention for this relatively small misuse of public money, but little mention is made of large scale indulgences of companies that provide private travel, yachts, holidays and entertainment for senior executives at the expense of the taxpayer..
But the real issue at the moment is the damage that Bronwyn Bishop has been doing to our parliament and the lack of trust we all have in our members of parliament. She is a biased and partisan class warrior and quite unsuited to uphold and advance the dignity of parliament. In the current parliament up to February this year she had ejected 309 MPs of whom 304 were from the Labor Party. That bias is intolerable.
Tony Abbott speaks often of our constitutional roots in the UK parliamentary system. There are some practices in the House of Commons that we could consider. The first is that candidates for speaker must be nominated by at least twelve members of whom at least three be of a different party to the candidate. This ensures a degree of bipartisan support. Second, the speaker resigns from his or her party and does not attend party meetings. Thirdly, the speaker’s seat is not contested at the next election by a member of the opposition party.
The speaker of the House of Commons clearly sees his or her role as the servant of the parliament and not of the government or the ruling party. There is a long tradition in the House of Commons that the speaker must protect the parliament against the encroachment and power of the king/the government. It is a hard won tradition. House of Common’s speakers have been executed for placing the interests of the parliament ahead of the government. That is why we still preserve the fiction that the speaker has to be ‘dragged unwillingly’ to the speaker’s chair. But that’s as far as the relevance goes these days. Unfortunately, in Australia on taking the speakership, the speaker becomes not a servant of the parliament but of the government and the ruling party.
Our system has developed differently but there are still things that we could learn from the House of Commons. Most importantly, there are two things. The first is that a new speaker should have the support of both the government and opposition parties. Second, the speaker should never attend caucus meetings of the ruling party. If Tony Abbott and Bill Shorten could agree to such terms in a replacement for Bronwyn Bishop, I would be confident that we could begin to see a renewal of our parliament. Alternatively, if they could not agree, Bill Shorten could propose that he would adopt such an approach in the next parliament if he was able to win a majority. I am sure the public would respond very favourably.
The real problem is not so much $5,000 for the helicopter ride, but the way parliament has been damaged by a biased speaker who cares little for the reputation of the parliament.