To my knowledge I was the first person to seriously float the idea of Bronwyn Bishop for Speaker. Julia Gillard was still Prime Minister at the time, there were too many members in Abbott’s shadow ministry and I recalled Bronnie had sought the position unsuccessfully during Howard’s Premiership. It seemed like a convenient fit and one I thought would be fantastically entertaining if it should come to fruition as indeed it did a year or so later. Did I expect Bishop to be impartial? Of course not. Did this bother me? Not really.
I’ve seen six speakers, Neil Andrew, David Hawker, Harry Jenkins, Peter Slipper, Anna Burke and Bronwyn Bishop and while each of them brought their own unique take to the job; no matter how nobly intentioned they might have been they were all restrained by a set of rules structured heavily in favour of the government. During the early days of his tenure, the avuncular Jenkins would from time to time all but concede that he agreed with then Manager of Opposition Business Joe Hockey before explaining that his hands were tied by the standing orders, such is the nature of our political system.
The real struggle for power is not held on the floor of our House of Representatives, any disputes that occur there are just resolved by a division, the result of which is determined months or even years in advance at a general election. Perhaps it ought not be this way, but the chamber itself has long since become little more than a theatre space. The real governing is done within the Prime Minister’s office, within ministerial departments and around the cabinet table. The chambers of parliament are for better or worse used for ceremonial purposes and hubristic blustering.
Question Time, where most of Bishop’s partiality rises to the surface is the worst of our parliamentary conventions. Every opposition question is laced with argument, every government question is a Dorothy Dixar. As Speaker Hawker once explained to the then Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs Kevin Rudd, while the standing orders do require answers to be relevant to the question, so long as there is a nexus between the subject matter of the question and the answer, the minister may answer the question in whatever way they choose which includes “open slather to rant about the opposition.” The vague and unenforceable nature of the relevance standing order (104a) is similarly abused by opposition MP’s who (only permitted to raise the point of order once per question) will take the point of order at opportune moments to disrupt the momentum of the minister, whether or not the minister is being relevant to the question is no concern of theirs, the Speaker cannot enforce the rule either way so it used merely as a device for tactical interruptions and occasionally witty quips.
I watch Question Time because I find it very entertaining, but I’m allegedly a comedian, for those sincerely concerned about the governing of our nation it should be viewed as a disgraceful waste of time and resources yet as fate would have it, aside from divisions, it is the one time in which all MP’s from the major parties are required to attend the chamber. Luke Simpkins MP brings a stack of mundane paperwork and completes it during Question Time and good on him says I, an elected official has too many more worthy obligations to waste ninety minutes a day watching what amounts to little more than a very lame version of theatre sports. Given all this I don’t really care if the Speaker behaves in a partial way and nor will I so long as both sides of politics behave in such an appalling way as to render Question Time altogether pointless.
But if commentators must pretend that Question Time has some sacred importance please let’s stop with the pretence that Labor are some well intentioned bunch who’ve done their best to make the arrangement work. The reality is Labor have spent months working towards a brilliant tactical manoeuvre which has won them public sympathy and nullified the government’s ability to flout the standing orders.
Bishop’s performances have been poor (although very entertaining) but Labor, lead by Tony Burke have worked relentlessly to antagonize Speaker Bishop and destroy whatever fragments of impartiality that might once have existed. On the day of her swearing in, Labor dispatched too backbenchers to put the case for Rob Mitchell to serve as Speaker instead. Given the numbers on the floor of the House and the content of their speeches this was a transparent pretext to lacerate Bishop’s record as a Member of the House of Representatives. It was an early sign that Labor would not give the new Abbott government the breathing space that the Nelson opposition gave to Rudd six years earlier. Whereas Rudd’s choice for speaker, Harry Jenkins received a coronation as both sides feted his admirable commitment to public life, Abbott was forced to use his numbers to power over an aggressive and defiant resistance from the opposition. Even after Bishop had been elected, in conceding defeat Manager of Opposition Tony Burke lobbed a string of backhanded compliments in the Speaker’s direction setting the tone for months to come.
Labor never made an attempt to hide their disrespect for the speaker. Tony Burke ever officious and lawyer like lead the charge with constant displays of righteous frustration but the others were not so nuanced. Burke’s deputy Mark Dreyfus was supercilious and patronizing in his frequent objections, while veteran frontbenchers Anthony Albanese and Joel Fitzgibbon were outright mocking as they used pedantic appeals to anachronistic standing orders to irritate the speaker. Even Opposition Leader Bill Shorten got in on the game, repeatedly accepting the instructions of the speaker with a mocking faux thankfulness, laced with levels of disrespect sufficient to make Wilson Tuckey seem deferential.
Bishop, ever the warrior responded to these games in a predictably haughty and adversarial manner and thus plunged the parliament into ever heightening levels of dysfunction. For weeks now the setting has been ripe for a showdown like that we saw on Thursday and predictably Bishop obliged. As Christopher Pyne correctly noted, Labor’s insistence that this was a spontaneous uprising brought about in the heat of passion was unconvincing and dishonest. It was a rehearsed manoeuvre, months in the planning and executed with aplomb. Speaker Bishop with her clumsy grasp of strategy veritably sauntered into the trap, providing ever more ammunition to her critics as she failed to appreciate the extent to which she’d been outmanoeuvred.
And make no mistake, Bishop was very much defeated by Labor’s tactic. Though Christopher Pyne elegantly batted away the criticisms and Philip Ruddock easily organized the numbers for the government to win the vote, Bishop was visibly rattled by the ferocity of the attack. Her first major error was to snipe at the oppositions own mismanagement when Burke initially moved the motion. While he was all confected outrage on the outside his insides must have jumped for joy as the Speaker provided him with further ammunition in the middle of the debate itself. As he correctly noted, those were valid reflections but not appropriate reflections to be made from the chair and for the chair to make such reflections in the middle of a no confidence motion displayed an astonishing lack of decorum. She repeated the error when she interrupted Anthony Albanese’s seconding of the suspension motion some twenty minutes later. Convention dictates that the speaker does not interrupt during motions to suspend standing orders, they are typically the one and only opportunity opposition MP’s have to speak freely about whatever they wish, the groan of disbelief from the Labor side was therefore unsurprising when Bishop broke with this convention in the middle of a debate about her failure to, ahem, adhere to convention.
Albanese’s fury at being interrupted was unmistakable, unlike Burke’s more choreographed performance, Albanese’s was raw and genuine, indeed it seems probable that he was unprepared and stepped in at the last minute to give a speech meant for the sinbinned Mark Dreyfus. She had provided “a cracker of an example” thundered Albanese, of the sort of poor judgement that rendered her an unacceptable choice for Speaker. Bishop was silent thereafter as Albanese completed his diatribe. The vote was held and won by the government and Question Time resumed as normal, only it was not normal. Pyne’s insouciant taunting of the opposition might have been enough to save his own hide but it certainly hadn’t protected Bishop’s own self-belief .
When Bishop snapped that if Ed Husic didn’t know what desist meant “ he should look it up”, Albanese was on his feet again. When Bishop attempted to ignore him as is sometimes her fashion Albanese bellowed “Madame Speaker, Madame Speaker” until finally he was given the call. Ordinarily this little act of aggressive defiance would have won Albanese a warning if not a one hour suspension but Bishop it seemed was no longer game to take on a frontbencher in this fashion. When the Speaker gave a qualified apology for the attack on Husic in which she rephrased the slur to make it ever more offensive Albanese returned to the dispatch box, again shouting “Madame Speaker” until he was finally given the call, upon which Bishop, in an attempt to salvage some vestige of dominance added that Albanese need not shout. In an act of daring that would ordinarily have seen him booted, Albanese adopting a menacing tone, hitherto unseen, snarled “Well sometimes I do to get attention, Madame Speaker.”
When Albanese was allowed to challenge the Speaker in such a venomous way, and venomous it was, it signified that extent to which Bishop’s authority over the parliament had collapsed. Moments later, after another unconvincing apology from Bishop Chris Bowen was on his feet and shouted aggressively that Bishop should withdraw without reservation. Again convention dictated that raising his voice at the Chair in such a manner would have won Bowen his marching orders, instead he returned to his seat without so much as a warning or a demand for a withdrawal. Albanese’s menacing snarl moments earlier had been the moment Speaker Bishop’s authority was well and truly shattered. Less than thirty seconds passed and Burke was on his feet, the Speaker instructed him to sit down and that she would refuse to hear his point of order. Undeterred Burke stood at the dispatch box waiting and arguing with the chair until finally she gave him the call.
For the remainder of Question Time Labor MP’s challenged Bishop’s authority without penalty, Burke, Bowen, Albanese and Anna Burke all reflected disdainfully on the chair , more often than not their carry on was rewarded by Minister’s apologizing and withdrawing rather than prolong their own discomfit. Bishop’s previously held preparedness to shut down any opposition misbehaviour was well and truly gone.
Whoever masterminded Labor’s strategy, it has worked brilliantly. By subtly provoking Bishop for months now Labor have induced her to hack away at her own authority, undermining her own stature and rendering herself a damaged and ineffectual Speaker. Any future attempts by Bishop to assert her authority over the parliament will be viewed through the lens of bias and partiality and as such shine favourably on the opposition. Governments have historically enjoyed the luxury of being able to flout the parliamentary standing orders without penalty but now, due to the guile of Labor strategists and the clumsiness of Speaker Bishop they can expect their high jinks to be checked at every turn by Labor frontbenchers. And should Bishop return from the parliamentary break with her swagger restored, intending to exact vengeance on those Labor MP’s who attempted to put her in her box, all the better for Labor; it will only consolidate the perception that she is partial and that Abbott showed poor judgement in appointing her. Having worked with the Coalition to reduce parliament to nothing more than a theatre, Burke, Albanese and co have ensured Labor will always perform in the most flattering light. It’s a brilliant coup for the opposition and an embarrassing misstep for the government whose best opition would be to try and claim the more dignified posture, park the theatrics for a while and establish themselves as having more gravitas than the opposition.