The loss of Bronwyn Bishop from the role of Speaker in the Federal Parliament is a blow to the Abbott Government.
Bishop was not the least talented in a Government which – despite the supposed neutrality of the office – she seemed never to cease to be a part.
In her chaotic 22 month reign as Speaker of the House of Representatives she was, in the eyes of long-time parliamentary watchers, the least competent, least impartial and most disruptive person ever to hold that office.
Yet, given the ministerial performance of some from Tony Abbott’s front line, Abbetz, Brandis, Dutton, Andrews, Hockey and the PM himself come to mind, Bishop’s inadequacies hardly made her singular. Some actually made her performance look normal. Tony at least seemed to think so.
Bishop’s departure is a personal loss for the PM whose judgement on her future was once again letting himself and his Government down.
It was in fact a double failure in the political judgement of the PM who had already attracted notice for his seeming lack of familiarity with even the most basic tenets of Australian politics.
Bishop’s appointment in the first place was an Abbott’s Captain’s pick – there was no chance she could ever be elected to the post – and when, what was widely foreseen from the start eventually happened, it took him nearly three weeks to appreciate what was apparent to most of his backbench in a matter of days – to the Australian public Bishop and her outrageous excesses were electoral poison.
Abbott has a deep personal commitment to Bishop whom he once described as his political mother. This supposed relationship perhaps explains his own repeated hopeless lapses in political judgement – lapses which almost cost his job back in February.
Like a real Mum Bishop returned the favour of her ‘off the wall’ appointment, day after day in parliament setting out to protect her boy from the buffeting of awkward questions and criticisms, often at the cost of abandoning any semblance of independence or impartiality. Isn’t that what good mums do?
Anyway, the loss of an independent or impartial facade hardly mattered. Statistics alone demonstrate that these qualities, the hallmarks of competent occupancy of the Speaker’s Chair, had long since been abandoned. 400 dismissals – a record for barely half a term with more than 390 Opposition victims and barely a half dozen from her own side quite adequately told that story.
Way back, Labor’s then Senate Leader Gareth Evans remarked of Bishop, then a relatively new Liberal Senator, that the reason people often took an instant dislike to her was that it saved them time.
The Australian Electorate was only slightly more tardy than the prescient Evans.
However, they needed only minimal exposure to the egregious manner to which she approached an exalted office to make Gareth look prophetic.
But Tony’s latest misjudgement was that together they could successfully ride out the crisis, keeping his protector in the Chair.
Even as the rising heat forced him out of the public eye, where, to his considerable discomfort, there was only one question his interrogators wanted answered, he judged that time would provide a cure. Repeated statements from him and the Speaker herself that she had done nothing wrong, hardly surprisingly, did not assist in making what was a major scandal vanish.
In fact, the passage of time only revealed more serious lapses by the beleaguered speaker.
Finally, backbench protests and warnings, threats from his own side to abstain in any no confidence vote and the refusal of a succession of senior Ministers – some of them Abbott supporters – to defend her publicly led to what from the outside had seemed an inevitable end. Tony alone had not seen this.
In her very last act as Speaker, her resignation, she continued to demonstrate her appalling lack of independence.
Most Speakers are aware that they are Officers of, and therefore responsible to, the Federal Parliament – not to the political party from which they come. Bishop failed here too. As an Officer of the Federal Parliament the resignation should have been made to the Parliament not through the Party of which she was supposedly independent. But it was in fact made not by Bishop to the Parliament as would have been proper but by Abbott as Leader of the political party which she had never ceased to serve.
Bishop came to the office of Speaker promising to be exceptional – she was – not in the way she foreshadowed. She would, she said, on taking office,” restore dignity and order to the Parliament”.
She has in fact left behind some benchmarks.
Inside the Parliament she is widely seen as the most obviously biassed and disruptive occupant of the Chair in memory. Outside the Parliament her arrogant extravagances are also on a scale not seen before.
In two theatres therefore her activities have registered extremely poorly. For pure paucity of performance in both areas she has indeed set a very high bar.
Half a mile from Parliament House senior officers of the Foreign Affairs Department are nervously waiting on what they believe – probably correctly – an instruction to find a diplomatic post for this political failure. They fear – again correctly – that with her girlish charm and coquettish smile she might have the same effect diplomatically as she has had on the Australia electorate – in three dramatic weeks becoming the single biggest issue in her nation’s politics.
Tony who has once again demonstrated that he is at best a meagre politician has said that no plum job is planned for Bishop post-resignation.
But Tony also said there would be no cuts to Health or Education – there were. He said there would be no cuts to the ABC or SBS – there were. He said a referendum recognizing Aborigines in the Constitution would take place in the first twelve months of his Government – it did not.
Foreign Affairs, therefore, remains on red alert.