Tony Abbott just said speaker Bronwyn Bishop is 'on probation' after $5000 chopper ride

Speaker Bronwyn Bishop lands at the Geelong golf course. Source: Neil Remeeus/Twitter

Bronwyn Bishop’s future as parliamentary speaker looks shaky after prime minister Tony Abbott described her use of a helicopter costing taxpayers more than $5000 to attend a Liberal Party function in Geelong as a “serious error of judgment”.

Speaking at a media conference in Sydney this morning, the prime minister said he accepted that people were “seriously unhappy” about the issue, adding that “frankly, I’m unhappy about it as well”.

“I can fully understand why people are disappointed and dismayed, I can fully understand this,” he said.

Last week, following an audit of MP expenses, the details of Bishop billing taxpayers $5227 to fly via helicopter between Melbourne and Geelong to attend a Liberal Party function last November began to emerge. Bishop initially defended the trip as “in accordance with the guidelines and within entitlement”, but after treasurer Joe Hockey said the trip didn’t pass the “sniff test” and was “not a good look”, the Speaker agreed on Friday to refund the money “to remove any doubt”.

On Saturday, Bishop admitted she’d made an “error of judgment”, but said she wouldn’t resign, describing the story as “a political beat-up”.

Now, 48 hours after standing by Bishop saying “she’s a good Speaker, she has my confidence”, prime minister Abbott appears to be distancing himself from the veteran MP.

“The action she was responsible for was out of line,” he said. “Obviously she’s sorry, obviously she’s apologetic.

“Bronwyn is very contrite about this and I’ve had a number of long conversations about this.”

While paying tribute to Bishop as “a good servant of our country” who’d made a “serious lapse of judgment”, the prime minister said she was now “on probation”.

“I think all of us have learned the lesson,” he said.

The Finance Department is investigating the Geelong trip, plus two more recent charter flights to Young, 163km from Canberra, and Nowra, 215km away.

And pressure is mounting against Bishop, even on the conservative side, with columnist Andrew Bolt calling the Speaker “shameless” and calling for her to be sacked.

Bolt writes:

Caught red-handed billing taxpayers $5000 for a helicopter ride from Melbourne to a Liberal Party fundraiser near Geelong, Bishop just made it worse by showing little contrition.

Sure, she’s now repaid the money on the grounds that the travel cost was simply ‘unacceptable’, but what should have been an explanation and apology turned into a stuff-you to taxpayers.

And writing on The Drum, Paula Matthewson, a former media advisor to John Howard, argues that Bishop should resign not because of expenses scandal, but because she is “just not up to the job”, adding that her “flagrant tribalism is particularly shocking to political observers”.

Matthewson points out that 98.25% of the MPs ejected by Bishop are from the Labor side, compared to 91.3% under the previous speakers, saying:

A weak speaker, who can’t manage the chamber well enough to minimise the cacophony, is likely to resort to throwing out the troublemakers. The fact that Bishop has ejected more MPs in her time than any other speaker is one of several indicators that she is unable to effectively perform the role.

Another indicator is that Bishop regularly struggles to call MPs by their correct titles, as even a casual observer of Question Time would notice. The Manager of Opposition Business, Tony Burke, is often called the Member for Burke and some MPs have been called by the names of electorates they’d held in previous parliaments. Even ministers assist the Speaker with their correct titles when she calls them to the despatch box.

Tony Burke has begun to exploit Bishop’s failing acuity, and has at times managed to fluster the Speaker – who once had an encyclopaedic recall of “the Practice” – on parliamentary procedural matters.

In response, Bishop has taken to lashing out at the Opposition, ejecting one Labor MP for laughing and another for saying “Madam Speaker”.

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