In the end there was simply no choice. Bronwyn Bishop’s resignation had to be accepted, whether it was offered or not.
Even her most obstinate, deluded and purblind supporter (Tony Abbott) eventually realised that he would have to wake up from the nightmare that was engulfing the parliament, his government and most importantly himself.
He still could not bring himself to acknowledge that she had been a serial abuser of the public purse and a figure of ridicule and contempt for the public. He attempted to portray her rorting as little more than errors of judgement, a problem of the entitlements system. Preposterously, he was attempting to cast her as the victim.
Bronwyn Bishop’s role in the parliament of has been than that of Madame Lash, and her role in the Australian people that of Marie Antoinette
Bishop herself continued in denial: she had resigned, not because of what she had done wrong or even that she had been caught, but because of her love and respect from the parliament and the Australian people. This is self-serving nonsense: Bronwyn Bishop’s role in the parliament of has been than that of Madame Lash, and her role in the Australian people that of Marie Antoinette.
The former speaker’s cosy contrition at the sympathetic – indeed, sycophantic – hands of Alan Jones and her brief resignation, delivered as a statement, not in person, has to have been the hammiest performance since World Championship Wrestling. All that was missing was a background of violins, preferably air-lifted from the best orchestras of Europe at enormous expense.
If Abbott had been more trusted and Bishop less arrogant they might just have got away with it; but by now we all know the real Bronwyn Bishop: the ruthless, implacable political warrior who never gives her opponents an even break. She doesn’t just knock them down; she puts in the boot, tramples them into the dirt, consigns them to the intensive care ward. Her entire career has been based on untrammelled belligerence. She has been an endless source of fascination, but not of affection; she has become a political parody, a grotesque.
Having joined the Liberal Party at the age of 17, she fought her way through the party apparatus becoming the state president before gaining a casual senate vacancy in 1987. Two years later the then leader, Andrew Peacock, concerned at the lack of female frontbenchers and also to placate the New South Wales hard right made her a shadow minister.
Her aggression as a parliamentary debater soon caused Labor’s Gareth Evans to remark: ‘Why do people take an instant dislike to Bronwyn Bishop? To save time.’ However, her career flourished, at least in her own estimation: in what was seen as an exhibition of hubris she made no secret of her own leadership ambitions.
As a senator she gained her reputation by persecuting and terrorising public servants who, by virtue of their position, were unable to fight back and in 1994 made her move into the House of Representatives in the safe seat of Mackellar. There was an immediate setback: an almost equally unlikely contestant, the eccentric writer Bob Ellis, gave her expected majority a big dent.
There was a brief reality check when the then leader John Hewson resigned after losing the unlosable election of 1993; Bishop was not a candidate. But her profile if anything was enhanced: her public appearances were indefatigable. It was said that she would go to the opening of an envelope and the voters were intrigued, the more so as the brief and disastrous reign of Alexander Downer made its gaffe-prone demise inevitable.
But while she was a popular favourite among the masses, her colleagues were not overly impressed. Bishop was rightly seen not just as supremely arrogant, but far from competent. As shadow health minister, she immediately announced her support for tobacco advertising. She was later moved to another front bench position, but her ambition remained uncompromising.
The more excitable sections of the media extolled her as a serious contender for the leadership – anyone, they thought, would do better than Downer. But while the Libs were desperate, they were not that desperate; her support within the party room remained minimal.
In the event John Howard took over, and after winning the election of 1996 gave Bishop the consolation prize of minister for aged care, instantly spoonerised as the Minister for Caged Hair in recognition of her intimidating bouffant. But once again it turned into a fiasco; this time it was revealed that residents in a Melbourne Nursing Home had been bathed in kerosene on her watch and after the 2001 election was she was dropped, this time permanently.
But although her ministerial career was finished, her obsession for high office was not. She set her eyes on the plum job of presiding officer of the House – the speakership. Bishop’s ministerial superior and self-appointed protector, Tony Abbott, was not only an electoral neighbour of Bishop, but also an admirer; she was one of his clique of confidantes that included such right wing crusaders as the journalists Greg Sheridan and Piers Akerman and the shock jock Alan Jones.
While many if not most of his ministerial colleagues were unhappy about Bishop’s unrelenting combativeness, Abbott recognised a kindred soul. He announced that he was her political love child, and when the opportunity came to acknowledge his filial devotion, she became his captain’s pick as speaker.
And from that position of power and eminence, her naked partisanship, her extravagance and her self-indulgence became evident to all. The damage spread to the government as a whole and particularly the prime minister – his own judgement in her selecting her and his refusal to cut his losses when it appeared inevitable, Abbott spent days in hiding from the media as the storm built.
His double standards and hypocrisy were all too clear: his self-righteous and pitiless pursuit of a past speaker, the hapless Peter Slipper, has been constantly reprised. His long-delayed intervention – if that is in fact what it has been – has been far too little and too late.
Abbott and the ever-optimistic Christopher Pyne defied convention by dragging Bishop to the speaker’s chair; they remained her vocal supporters when almost everyone else had given her up. But finally even they realised that she had to be dragged out again, kicking and screaming if necessary, but dragged she must be; and so she went.
But she has cast a long shadow for a short woman, and the devastation she has wreaked on the whole parliamentary process neither be forgiven nor forgotten quickly.