Monday, July 20, 2015

OPINION: Why is Bronwyn Bishop meddling in matters that don't concern her?


In case you hadn't noticed, Canberra is not the capital of Britain . We do speak something resembling English, and our beloved Prime Minister was born in London. Australia shares many similarities with Mother England in our major institutions – the common law, a parliamentary democracy and a strong commitment to winning the Ashes.

Our lower house of Parliament is called the House of Representatives. The idea of referring to average Aussies as "Commons" isn't something the drafters of our constitution were too fond of. We also don't have Lords in our country, nor are Senators seen as Lords. And please, nobody mention Knights and Dames.

Our House of Representatives has a Speaker who presides over all meetings of the House. Unlike in the British House of Commons, our Speaker isn't so independent that she has to leave her political party and still needs to contest elections. Bronwyn Bishop remains the Member for Mackellar on Sydney's Northern Beaches, her seat next door to that of Tony Abbott's seat of Warringah. In his preselection speech, Abbott famously asked delegates to
... place an Abbott next to a Bishop.
The Speaker can also attend party meetings. But that's about it. The Speaker is supposed to be impartial, to speak for the House and the whole House. And the House is the place where the executive, the ministers of the Crown, are to be made accountable. That can happen during Question Time but it can also happen in committees.

The Commonwealth produced a colourful booklet entitled The Speaker of the House of Representatives 2nd Edition in 2008. You can find on page 5 of that booklet the following statement:
... the Speaker is the servant of the House and not of the Crown/executive.
If the executive is making decisions or attempting to implement policies which are the subject of heated debate, it is not the Speaker's role to act as a spokesman for the executive or to defend the proposed decision or policy.

The Abbott government doesn't need Bronwyn Bishop to defend its policies on national television, whether on Q&A or elsewhere. It is not Bronwyn Bishop's role to tell us how wonderful the executive are in developing aged care or national security policies. Currently this role is one the ALP and the Greens are fulfilling quite nicely, thank you very much.

So why did Bronwyn so quickly jump in to defend the contentious policies of the executive in the face of criticism from the government's handpicked former National Security Monitor and the Human Rights Commissioner? Why meddle in matters that didn't concern her?

Ian Hancock's 2007 book The Liberals: The NSW Division 1945-2000 mentions Bishop's period as state president of the NSW Liberals In 1985, succeeding John Valder.
Like Valder, Bronwyn Bishop was an interventionist state president; unlike him, she imposed no limits on her interventionism. No president had ever before occupied an office in the secretariat, and not one of her predecessors had treated the job as full time … Bishop was both a chairman of the board and a managing director. Virtually no matter was too trivial to escape her attention.
Bishop appointed Graeme Starr as state director. Starr's assessment of Bishop?
The distinguishing feature of her presidency was the endemic factionalism which brought the party to its lowest point in history.
Division and unnecessary intervention are not exactly the features one would expect from a Speaker of the House. Nor would one expect the Speaker to lecture a statutory officer to resign and run for office. If this is the quality of our elected representatives, our Human Rights Commissioner should remain where she is.

Gillian Triggs isn't the only person to be subjected to ridiculous attacks. Even someone as insignificant as yours truly was described by Bishop in September 2005 under parliamentary privilege as a
... Muslim activist known for his offensive behaviour to women.
She continued:
... I totally refute his statements but, as he has not resorted to bomb throwing, I guess we can handle his accusation.
A few days later, word of my behaviour to women spread far and wide and I was invited to become a White Ribbon Day Ambassador campaigning to eliminate violence against women. ASIO hasn't yet contacted me about throwing bombs. 

And speaking of women, a month earlier Bronwyn Bishop had this to say on the National Interest program on Radio National: 

Now this morning on a debate with a Muslim lady, she said she felt free being a Muslim, and I would simply say that in Nazi Germany, Nazis felt free and comfortable. That is not the sort of definition of freedom that I want for my country. 

Ms Bishop was, on that occasion, defending her great contribution to national security – calling for the banning of girls wearing headscarves in state schools. Despite periods in both Houses of Parliament, Ms Bishop's parliamentary career has been anything but stellar. She has never held a cabinet position. At best, she was a junior minister in the Howard government for the first two terms before being dropped. 

And now Ms Bishop may have the honour of being remembered as the House of Representatives' most partisan and partial Speaker. 

Irfan Yusuf is PhD candidate at the Alfred Deakin Research Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University. First published in the Canberra Times on 19 June 2015.

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