The history of political rorting goes way back and involves politicians of all parties and none. Accusations of rorting usually come from outside the political class rather than inside. Proof of such rorting tends to be highly protected; where an example escapes it is usually matched by a counter-example, and tends to die down after a few days of tabloid media outrage with little real change (except to jack up security procedures).
Let's look at the history of rorts under this government, and see it for what it is: set-pieces of political theatre, whose wider significance is missed entirely by supposedly savvy observers.
When this government was first elected George Brandis and Don Randall were accused of rorting their entitlements. They made contrite noises and the debate moved on, as though members of a newly-elected government had made forgivable newbie errors.
When Joe Hockey delivered the 2014 budget, and it became clear that the government's problems were structural rather than anecdotal, News Ltd papers ran a half-hearted campaign to dump Hockey. Samantha Maiden was put up to do this. Neither Maiden, nor any of the almost two hundred other members of the press gallery, bothered to investigate whether the practice was widespread among MPs. Nor did it instigate one of those fabled NewsCorp campaigns to reform entitlement rules so that no politician could enhance their family's asset base at public expense.
Look at the dogs that did not bark here and give me no more of your nonsense about a fourth estate.
Hockey was set up for a fall. NewsCorp papers and talkback radio went after him in the hope that the pressure would get to him, he'd chuck in the high-pressure role of Treasurer, and the government's perceptions of incompetence would go with him. Hockey didn't quit, Abbott stood by him, and NewsCorp backed off when he sued Fairfax. When the result of that case proved inconclusive, NewsCorp declared their former target gloriously triumphant under the enemy-of-my-enemy principle, to the bemusement of Richard Ackland.
Now the rorting spotlight has fallen on Bronwyn Bishop. This, however, is no grassroots campaign from far beyond the manicured lawns of Canberra. It's not even a NewsCorp stitch-up, and it certainly isn't opposition research. It's an inside job from the government.
Bishop had been a ferociously partisan NSW President of the Liberal Party in 1986-87, around the time I joined the Young Liberals as a teenager. Fluffy profiles of Bishop like this do nothing to prepare people for what she was to be like as Speaker, helping the press gallery build the perception that an Abbott government wouldn't be all that bad, ha ha! As a result, experienced press gallery hacks fell about in amazement at her entirely foreseeable partisanship.
Bishop was always a soft target for rort accusations, for two main reasons borne out from her long record in Canberra. As Adam Gartrell points out, she has a taste for the finer things in life. As Gartrell doesn't, her record as a minister shows she's a clown. She demands fawning loyalty from her staff above all other considerations; this precludes those who are efficient or committed to principles other than her whims, to the point that they will stand up to her. A staff like that means that the minister will achieve little other than having become a minister, and such a record is fine by Bishop.
Infamously, Bishop's ministerial career ended when she was the minister responsible for regulating aged care, and it was revealed old people in nursing homes were being bathed in kerosene. The regulation of the sector was a shambles. When she was replaced by Julie Bishop, much younger and with a more substantial career behind her, stakeholders were consulted and the sector was regulated much better. This set the younger Bishop up for the higher offices that eluded Bronwyn.
The fuel used in helicopters is very similar to kerosene. It's funny how things go around, really.
This is why she's vulnerable: nobody in her office has that Credlin-like ability to get the job done and discourage would-be attackers. It is Bishop herself who stares down challenges from Labor strategists like Albanese or Tony Burke; her staff just do what she says. Bishop has hired people she thinks are loyal to her, and they might even think they're loyal, but none will die in a ditch for her.
Howard looked down his nose at Bronwyn Bishop, so did everyone really - but not Abbott. He is the son she never had. When it became clear she could not knock off the enfeebled John Hewson - and that the Liberal Party preferred even Alexander Downer, or Lazarus-with-triple-bypass John Howard, or newbie Peter Costello, or anyone really over her, Tony Abbott was elected to Parliament and her future became clearer than it otherwise might have been.
After she'd had her go in the Howard ministry, Bishop fought off Concetta Fierravanti-Wells for preselection in her seat because she knew she'd get a second, better chance in an Abbott government. When Abbott stumbled during the 2007 election campaign and in the two years after, Bishop had more faith in an Abbott government than Abbott did. She helped minimise the vote against him in February's challenge.
Bishop thought she was helping Abbott's national-security narrative by banning women from covering their heads in parliament's public gallery. When there was a backlash, one Bishop was inclined to ignore, Abbott took days to talk her down.
Abbott elevated Bishop, Bishop protects Abbott. Labor and the press gallery makes much of her one-eyed bias, but with any other Speaker Abbott would be strafed every time in Parliament. Labor's zingers would hit home. Given some people's focus on the "optics" of parliamentary theatre, he'd be "beleagurered" and "embattled", with all sorts of flow-on effects in what is already a failing government.
Why were only Bishop's expenses leaked, and why now? Aren't journalists supposed to be inquisitive? Isn't the whole point of experience to refuse to be led astray by lies, half-truths, fobbing-off, and other Canberra wiles? The press gallery thinks its job is to gratefully receive 'drops' of information like this and not question their provenance. You could say that the better press gallery journalists will ask these questions, and some might get answers: but those people will consider themselves under Chatham House rules not to disclose who's responsible or why, all for the sake of future drops, which puts them in the same league as those who take the drops and don't ask.
Bronwyn Bishop is close to Abbott, and not just because of their ecclesiastical surnames or adjacent electorates. Anyone who takes a shot at Bishop can expect a serve from Abbott, and vice versa. The leak against Bishop is designed to stoke public outrage; political insiders know how potent rort accusations are to non-insiders, like kerosene to a flame. It is designed to hurt Abbott at a time when he can't use the full force of his authority to hunt down anyone who'd embarrass her in this way.
Abbott, not Bishop, is the real target here. Since he was challenged for the leadership he has not fulfilled his promise to lift the government's fortunes. Whether it's national security, building submarines in Adelaide, the coalmine proposal on Liverpool Plains, the sudden discovery that solar panels are part of mainstream Australia - this government has been like a helicopter pilot revving the rotors at full speed, but still descending. The reason why same-sex marriage isn't getting up is not because of rock-ribbed conservatives, but those timid souls who would support it but fear shirtfronting the leader.
Lashing out at Bishop is a release, but also a warning. Those captain's picks haven't gotten any better. Early election talk only wards off the challengers if support for the Coalition goes up, not down. You could take a shot at Abbott directly, but you'd be finished if you failed. Far better to take on the hapless Bishop, and there will be a mob in every electorate to blast her indulgence; Abbott will get the message that he's the next target if things don't get better soon.
If Bronwyn Bishop had her way Joe Hockey would never have been elected to Parliament. All that money he raises goes to relative moderates rather than the conservatives she tends to favour. After all that's happened to him since, Hockey would be a dingo of the worst kind to turn on Abbott now - but he can turn on Bishop and it's fair comment.
You could say that it's in the nature of this government for a woman like Bishop to cop it for her rorts while men like Brandis and Randall get away with far worse. This is a fair point, until you realise Bishop's unrelenting hostility to lefty notions of feminism. She has always been able to mix it with men as friends or foes, but her most bitter contests have been with other women: Julie Bishop, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, and various moderates in Liberal Women's Council and the Young Liberals. Her only real female ally was Sophie Mirabella. Liberals who want to increase female participation in the party overall, including in parliament, are her sworn enemies. Peta Credlin is young enough to be her daughter, for goodness sake, without being nearly so deferential.
For once in her life, Bronwyn Bishop is just a patsy: Abbott is the real target. With the press gallery so busy writing the same story, and willing to drop it once Bishop announces a modest payback, they won't really think about the nature of the attack, who the real target is, and how little time and room for manoeuver he has left.