CANBERRA – A successful leader most needs sound judgment. Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott singularly lacks good judgment. His judgment of people is proving appalling; his instincts for reading political tea leaves seem non-existent. For a onetime Rhodes scholar, he seems a surprisingly slow learner.
On Sunday Abbott’s handpicked house speaker Bronwyn Bishop resigned after three weeks of raging controversy for hiring a helicopter to fly 75 km from Melbourne to Geelong for a party fundraising event, costing taxpayers 5,227 Australian dollars. She did not save much time counting the time to and from the airport, and she could have used public transport or a chauffeured government car.
She has form, stretching back decades, as a serial abuser of the public purse. As a junior minister in the Howard government from 1998 to 2001, she spent AU$140,000 on charter flights (in addition to commercial flights). More recently, she spent AU$88,000 on an overseas trip last year to lobby unsuccessfully to become head of the Inter-Parliamentary Union; AU$6,000 to charter a plane to fly from Sydney to Nowra — a 20-minute flight that cost more than an economy round-the-world fare; flights to attend colleagues’ weddings; and AU$1,000 a day for limousines to transport her to operas. All this at a time when the government’s mantra was austerity and an end to the age of entitlements.
Abbott describes himself as captain of Team Australia and his personnel choices as “captain’s picks.” Even Peter Reith, a Howard-era Cabinet minister, writes that Bishop’s choice as speaker “was a captain’s pick. Just about every one of his picks has been a disaster for him.” On Monday his members of Parliament cautioned Abbott against another “captain’s pick” for speaker; they want to choose the replacement. The support of the party room is crucial for the speaker’s authority in conducting parliamentary proceedings. That is, Abbott’s own MPs no longer trust his judgment.
The office works best when there is reciprocal respect between all MPs and the speaker. The office is fatally compromised, and the incumbent “born in sin” if the speaker is imposed on the house by the executive. This happened when Gillard removed the well-respected Harry Jenkins with Peter Slipper; it was repeated with Abbott’s choice of Bishop; and her partisanship deepened the rancor and bitterness inside Parliament.
I have lived for years in five different parliamentary democracies (Australia, Canada, Japan, India, New Zealand). Never have I known such a blatantly political presiding officer in parliament as Bishop. In tipping over from plainly partisan to plain avarice, however, Bishop tripped the switch for public anger against the entire political establishment that has repeatedly shown utter contempt for the public it is meant to serve.
When the story first broke, Bishop was remarkably cavalier in dismissing complaints of impropriety and contemptuous of critics. In successive weeks into the saga, she insisted she had acted within entitlements but was generously repaying the costs because it did not look good, but would not apologize; she apologized most contritely for her error of judgment, but refused to resign; she resigned as speaker. Public anger was running red hot against her and on this issue even the media was united from day one, using strong language like “her grasping, clutching hands, with their twitching desire for power and prestige.” Only Abbott remained loyal to her.
Abbott sought to restore control of the political agenda on Sunday by engineering Bishop’s resignation and announcing a root-and-branch independent review of the system of parliamentary expenses. In truth, Abbott and Bishop reluctantly decided on her resignation only after learning that several government MPs would abstain on a no-confidence motion due when Parliament resumes next Tuesday. In other words, another insurrection had begun against the authority of the prime minister. Revealed once again as out of touch with the people and out of tune with public sentiment, Abbott risks running out of time to shift public perceptions before being voted out of office.
The schadenfreude of the opposition Labor Party is complete. On Nov. 24, 2011, Abbott had tweeted: “The Speaker’s resignation reflects a government that is in chaos. The Govt has lost its way, lost its majority and now lost its speaker.” Abbott’s glee four years ago stemmed from the departure of then-speaker Peter Slipper. Julia Gillard had been compelled to choose him because she headed a minority government. By offering Slipper the speakership, she had weaned one more critical vote away from the opposition.
In retrospect one wonders how much Gillard could really have achieved had she not been fatally undermined by the illegitimate political knifing of her first-term leader who had led Labor to victory against 11 years of John Howard’s government, and secondly if she had not been handicapped by a minority government.
Abbott has neither of these two excuses. He wholly owns the folly of his decisions and has been shown to be serially lacking in policy nous and political smarts. Instead of cauterizing the wound when first infected and so minimizing the damage to his government, Abbott stubbornly stuck by his friend and appointee — in a mind-defying metaphor, Abbott described himself as the ideological love child of Bishop and Howard — for three weeks of unremitting political damage. This happened to coincide with the period when opposition leader Bill Shorten should have been on the ropes because of serious allegations aired at a royal commission, but Bishop-gate drained all available oxygen.
The trauma and shock of the convulsions of knifing Rudd that turfed Labor out of office are yet to subside. Abbott’s trail of broken election promises and erratic policy decisions have ensured Labor remains solidly ahead in opinion polls. Still, Abbott is lucky in his opponent. Shorten joined the assassins twice to kill Rudd and then Gillard. Voters will recoil in the polling booth before voting him prime minister. Both leaders have net negative ratings with dissatisfaction with their performance much higher than satisfaction. Not that voters trust Abbott more, therefore, but they distrust Shorten more, enough to return the government to power in the next election.
Yet more collateral damage in the scandal’s wash is that the institutional integrity of the Australian Federal Police (AFP) has been impugned. Slipper was alleged to have criminally misused taxi vouchers to tour wineries around the Canberra region at taxpayer expense in 2010. When challenged he offered to repay the AU$954. The Department of Finance said as the matter had already been referred directly to the AFP, its hands were tied. Slipper was convicted but acquitted on appeal.
When Labor referred Bishop’s helicopter case, the AFP forwarded the matter to Finance for investigation. Treating like cases differently requires a public explanation that has not been forthcoming. Slipper’s lawyer Owen Harris commented that the fraud case that ruined his client’s health and reputation is “no different” from the Bishop scandal.
Labor MPs are no better in being prudent and frugal with public money. Like everyone else, politicians should pay up front for expenses and then seek reimbursement. Independent bodies, not bureaucrats, should decide who gets what and when and what penalties to enforce.
Ramesh Thakur is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.
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