28 July 2015

The wrong way around

Mark Kenny reckons Abbott has Bronwyn Bishop in his pocket. As usual with him, the official press gallery bunny of this blog, Kenny has it the wrong way around.

Bishop is a major force in the Liberals' right-wing. Abbott was only ever a minor-to-middling figure. In the late 1980s, when Abbott was a seminary dropout admiring the doomed NSW ALP government of Barrie Unsworth, Bronwyn Bishop was NSW State President of the Liberal Party.

She has been raising money and otherwise supporting rightwing Liberals continuously since that time, building and maintaining an impregnable base among conservatives. He has only been doing general fundraisers for the party as a whole the last decade or so. He's the one on P-plates, not her.

She has been intimately involved in every challenge for the leadership since the late 1980s; since he entered Parliament in 1994 he has voted the way she told him to vote, including the 2009 ballot in which he was a candidate. His victory in that ballot over not one but two moderate leaders owes more to her tactical shrewdness and hard work than his dumb luck.

In recent days, journalists have dug into the paper trail left in Bishop's wake, recording her helicopter trip here or limo trip there, questioning what "official business" she might have transacted on a given day in Hawthorn or Geraldton or wherever. Digging this stuff up can be hard; this hard work should be recognised - but no more so than, say, digging up a road or preparing a tax return from a shoebox full of receipts.

What those journalists have missed, of course, is the context.

Bishop, as with most politicians, knows that you have to put yourself about if you want to build and maintain your base. The reason why the rules on parliamentary entitlements are like that, and why they won't change much, is because politicians from all parties agree that you have to travel a lot to maintain your base.

To most people, there is a clear delineation between work and social events. The social events that political parties stage as fundraising events are designed to be social for those contributing money. For the politically ambitious, they involve all the performance-indicator aspects of work with the addition of social skills like seeming pleasant, knowing who to chat to (and if they're really important, how to chat to them) and not drinking as much as you might at a purely social event - particularly if you're going to many such events in a day.

For most people, a golf course is unambiguously a social place, different from Bishop's workplace in the green room under the hill in Canberra. Bishop regards her job as going where her job requires: Collaroy, Launceston, Ottawa, wherever. She has been in politics so much and for so long that she is genuinely astonished that turning up to a fundraiser might lie outside a reasonable definition of a politician's "work".

Political journalists also travel a lot. If there's an announcement in, say, Adelaide, journalists not based in Adelaide will have their travel costs there met by others. So too will those doing the announcing, and any politicians having to stand in the background nodding during the announcement. Every time there's a kerfuffle about travel entitlements, politicians and journalists alike are unprepared: both groups, regardless of employer/party, are keen to bury any such story as soon as possible.
Forget about an independent chair. And forget about a system of accountability where the executive arm is subject to the scrutiny of the legislative arm. These were rarely delivered anyway, and right now, they are not even worth pretending about.
"Right now"? How about: at no point whatsoever in almost two years since the last election. Has Kenny been asleep? Is he, like his press gallery colleague Katharine Murphy, just waking from some two-year slumber (but, like Murphy, rolling over and going back to sleep after realising it's all to hard)? Seriously: have you been paying any attention at all to Australian politics over recent years?
Leaving aside her past performance in the chair, the PM's "P" plate declaration makes her no different from any minister in his team.
Garbage. His opinion of Rudd, Gillard and their ministers was even lower, and their political standing was independent of "his team". And: "leaving aside her past performance in the chair"? That performance is the issue here. He's not just missing the point, he's attempting to shun it by sheer force of will.
The terms of Bishop's engagement are identical to theirs: if she displeases him, she's gone. No other criteria are relevant.
This is bullshit.

She displeased him when she sought to ban head-coverings in the public galleries of the House of Representatives. It took days for her to back down, days when he copped public opprobrium on her behalf.

Joe Hockey stuffed up the delivery of the 2014 budget and has not yet secured this year's, putting the fate of the government and the economic well-being of the nation in peril. Malcolm Turnbull niggles about the one issue Abbott has left, national security. Both of them have a secure political base, within and beyond the Liberal Party, which Abbott doesn't have. Bronwyn Bishop also has a secure base, and it shows: nobody is voting to replace her with an empty chair.

Bronwyn Bishop has held a few press conferences in her time, so why was the one she held last week such a disaster? Because she couldn't be bothered. She was blithe with what she thought was a non-issue, she was rude with journalists to whom she owes nothing. Look who is copping the full force of public scorn: Abbott, and easy-come-easy-go Coalition MPs in marginal seats. Look who isn't: Bishop. She didn't care, and nobody could make her care.

People with real power don't cop flak. Gina Rinehart benefits from the abolition of the mining tax and our continuing reliance on coal: Abbott cops the flak for making those things happen. Bronwyn Bishop still has her cushy job: Abbott cops it every day she stays. If she goes the new Speaker won't be as protective of his clumsy ministers as she has been, and he will have a relentless enemy on the backbench. This is why Kenny is flatly wrong in his analysis: his "Right now", and "Leaving aside her past performance in the chair", and "No other criteria are relevant" are simply the wrong ways to view the situation before us.
This is hardly the institutional arrangement one would choose if genuine independence were of any import.
For almost two years Abbott has behaved as though they were of no import - even more if you include his disgraceful treatment of the Speakers in the last two terms of Parliament. Has Kenny only just noticed? Is he blind, or stupid?
On the plus side, it might now be said that there are effectively three women on the Abbott frontbench rather than the paltry two we knew of: a Ley (Sussan) and two Bishops (Julie and Bronwyn).
Throwing Bishop in there does not make anything more effective, or less paltry. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Then there is the separate but equally important question of the role of the Speaker as chief guardian of parliamentary standards.

That too has been trashed.
Again, this happened ages ago - where have you been? Did you not notice the shambles of accountability from a government that thinks it is above it? This is not a new thing, and you are not entitled to pretend that it is.
In refusing to make the Speaker repay wrongly claimed travel entitlements for attending a colleague's wedding way back in 2006, Abbott has both endorsed her defiance of proper standards and rendered hollow his own efforts to salve an offended public.
So: he wants her to pay back the money, she won't pay - that tells me she's the one who has prevailed, not him. She's the one with the power, not him. That "P-plate" designation looks like more bullshit from Abbott rather than anything that meaningfully limits her, officially or otherwise. Kenny has it arse-about.

This goes to the question of privilege, which is the core problem for this government:
  • A bad government has all of the privileges of office while shirking the responsibility to govern well.
  • Julia Gillard was accused of acquiring the privileges of a new bathroom from AWU members who hoped their membership dues might be spent on them. This accusation was not proven, but Abbott was happy to create the impression.
  • George Brandis, Bronwyn Bishop, Barnaby Joyce, Joe Hockey, and the late Don Randall all claimed travel entitlements for journeys that were loosely, if at all, tied to their official responsibilities. Bishop has been asked to pay back a small fraction of these.
  • Joe Hockey sued a media outlet unsuccessfully, obscuring his efforts with the 2015 budget and casting doubt over his judgment and economic nous.
  • Christopher Pyne proposed a number of reforms to his portfolio area, Education. He is seen to be the government's master tactician in parliamentary matters, yet his reforms have been rebuffed by the Senate. He is the senior Liberal from South Australia, a state ravaged by decisions made by this government on cars and shipbuilding; he has fixed nothing for his constituents or their neighbours. Rather than redouble his efforts he has instead written a book about himself, and is using interviews that could be used to promote the government's message to instead plug his book.
  • When the going gets tough, the tough go skiing (note that Abbott's family was not present as the Murdoch tabloid claims, and that Frances is Abbott's daughter, not Credlin's).
  • The Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption failed to make the case that Bill Shorten had misused the privileges of office in the AWU for his own benefit, strengthening him as the alternative to the hapless, self-indulgent Abbott.
  • The onus is on the government to both a) curb its own self-indulgent behaviour and b) point out even worse instances of it by the alternative government, and c) fend off independents and minor-party challengers protesting said self-indulgence. I bet it can't succeed at all that, but then I'm biased against this government. Those who aren't require vast reserves of faith in the ongoing acumen of Bishop, Abbott, and other members of this government.
Abbott is governing about as well as he can, which isn't very well at all. Seasoned journalists who've known Abbott for years had no right to assume he'd govern well, no right to tell us that he would, and no basis to judge anyway. They see him fail to rein in self-indulgent behaviour and still assume, like Kenny does here, that Abbott is holding the whip hand.

Abbott is powerless in the face of self-indulgent behaviour. He is not keeping his powder dry, he has no powder. Once the backbench realise this he is finished.
Remember, he already, repaid his claimed travel allowance for the same event.
Well, he said he did - and the journos believed him!
This bizarre situation reveals that even the pretence of impartiality in adjudicating the people's house has been abandoned and the pantomime of probity has ended with it.
The very idea that Bronwyn Bishop might be an impartial Speaker was always rubbish. Mark Kenny should have been smart enough not to fall for it. The proof against the idea has been very strong for years now, without any countervailing proof for it. Having not been smart enough to see through Abbott rhetoric, Kenny is too proud to admit he's been gulled, and pretends that Bishop's unfitness for office is a recent development.
And for that matter, why not make the Speaker a formal cabinet post? Don't think for a moment Bronny wouldn't accept it - even now, amid all of this.
A stupid end to a stupid article, by someone who has spent so long covering politics he doesn't even understand what Cabinet is.

The Cabinet sets the policy course for the government. The only person who has been brought into the cabinet since 2013, Sussan Ley, is there because she has superior policy and political skills to the only person who departed it, Senator David Johnston. Bishop is 72 years old; she would take a seat for which others half her age have made a stronger case. The fact that Kenny - alone - considers her a serious candidate underlines both his incompetence, and Bishop's enduring power. That power undermines the premise of Kenny's article. It undermines his already thin credentials as an analyst of our political situation.

Kenny is trying to be flippant about a story that he doesn't believe is a big deal, but which clearly is bigger than he can imagine. It's big because it goes to the question of what The Narrative is, and who sets it. Before 2013 the press gallery narrative was that the government was dishonest and incompetent. This government is dishonest and incompetent too, but also has a ferocious sense of self-entitlement - and this narrative is being imposed upon the press gallery by the facts at hand, rather than people like Kenny coming to their own conclusion and agreement. The press gallery has lost control of the narrative. Maybe Kenny should give up and go skiing.

This government has always been self-indulgent and lazy, and so has the press gallery that covered it. The press gallery is not entitled to pretend this self-indulgence, and incompetence, is a new development and one the gallery can be forgiven for not noticing. Their observations are becoming less valuable as each day passes, which is why their circulation, influence, and financial viability are in terminal decline.


  1. Thank you for blogging regularly on the abject performance of both this government and the Press Gallery. I trust there is an element of tension release, as it must be at times tiresome to have to dissect the banal and superficial slurry of words which the Kennys and Hartchers try and inflict upon those who still bother to read them.

  2. Bravo. She is really something. a movie worth of something. Toni Colette for the biopic.

  3. Absolutely brilliant! Thank you!

  4. "Well, he said he did - and the journos believed him!"

    Ooh, do tell, Andrew!

    1. Well, would you believe anything Abbott said without independant verification?

      I just assume he's always lying - it saves a lot of time.

  5. Mark Kenny is the cousin of right wing looney Chris Kenny.

  6. I saw that thing about Bishop being beholden to Abbott earlier, and it seemed to make some sense. (I lack your intimate personal knowledge of the players.) If I'd realised that hypothesis originated with Kenny, I would've dismissed it out of hand.

    In any case, it's hard to see how she could be any more partisan.

    1. Hardly intimate or personal, David. The next Speaker will expose Abbott and his team a lot more.

    2. Well, you've at least met most of them.

      I look forward to the next speaker, but I think we'll have quite a wait. It'll take about a kilogram of semtex to blast Bishop out of the chair.

    3. Heh. Looks like someone found the semtex.

  7. "This government has always been self-indulgent [and} lazy ..and incompetent"

    I want to know how these lunatics managed to take over the asylum.

    I assume that their masters (the miners, the press barons, the kings of coal, etc.) have other minions pulling the strings who are at least passably competent. Who are they? Who are the go-betweens, the apparatchiks who interpret the wishes of the Capitalists for the idiots in this government?

    Some of them appear in the IPA and the business council, I assume. Anywhere else, Andrew?

    An (ex?) insider's view would be fascinating.

    1. Follow the money. Kevin Andrews isn't the first to be exposed, and he won't be the last.

    2. Millennium Forum. THAT is where the money is, get the member list and you open the Pandora's box of corruption at the highest levels of government.

  8. Wow, very thought provoking.

    I share your opinions of this government and particularly of the press gallery and their tendency towards reporting only facts which fit their narrative (and, even worse, twisting facts to fit). Nowhere is this more apparent is the treatment of polling data - only polls which fit the narrative get headlines, and if you read only polling stories you'd think Abbott bounced in every polling week of the year...

    Where you have challenged my perceptions is with the idea that Abbott is beholden to Bishop and not vice versa. You make a very strong argument there. Ironically, the other person I've seen put forward that hypothesis in the past 6 months (albeit in a much less convincing way) was Katharine Murphy. Coming from her it seemed like another Abbott apologia, deflecting blame for the government's policies and dogma to Liberal Party powerbrokers controlling Abbott, but perhaps there was an echo of truth in it. Not that it improves my view of Abbott (who, contra Murphy, is and always has been a dogmatic arch-conservative who really did say and write all those things Gillard raised in the misogyny speech), but it certainly broadens my view of how this government works. Or doesn't work, as the case may be.

    1. It doesn't take any of the gloss out of Abbott's polished turd of a government to say he is beholden to powerbrokers. Whilst the 'blame' can be put squarely at their feet. Abbott is coasting along for the ride, and must accept a good portion of the blame.

  9. I really, really love you Andrew, your contempt for the Press Gallery is as dense as mine. They are lazy loathsome tools who sit in the gallery in the house and pick each others nits day in and day out and then say the same bloody things.

    1. That is the best image of the Canberra Press Gallery - busy digesting each others' nits.

      Yeuch, but so accurate.

  10. Hillbilly Skeleton29/7/15 10:22 pm

    Has anyone in the Press Gallery ever thought to do some real research into Bronwyn Bishop, other than sitting at their desks in the Press Gallery and calling up the Expenses list?

    Like how about someone seeks out her first husband and interviews him about the tawdry way he was treated by her when he had the temerity to ask for a divorce? She crushed him under her 6 inch stilettos until he was a man broken into tiny little pieces. He persevered and got his divorce but Madam Mackellar made sure he could never show his face in 'polite society' on the Northern Beaches of Sydney again. This woman truly is a witch and a bitch.

    So what if she knows the Standing Orders back-to-front and upside-down!?! That doesn't make her a good Speaker. She just uses them ruthlessly in her bald-faced attempt to de-nut Labor. It does not make her a good Speaker.

    What I find interesting to observe, however, in this melodrama being played out so publicly in the Liberal Party at the present time, is who will defend her and who will not. Christopher Pyne is going all out. Taking time away from touting his 'Look at me!' effort on the printed page (and I just can't wait to see how quickly it makes it's way to the Remainder bins), in order to come to her defense. Hmm.Why is that I ponder? Does Bronwyn know the skeletons in his closet? The closet he won't come out of?

    Then there's Tony Abbott. Valiantly stonewalling every effort by the taxi drivers of Australia, once his touchstone, to give her a duck shove. What Bronwyn doesn't know about the skeletons in his closet, and there are many, would be able to be written on a bus ticket. Actually, and that's something I constantly wonder about, why is it that the political journalists of Australia can make the effort to go back into Julia Gillard's past in order to dig up any dirt they can find about her but they can't be arsed to do the same thing with Abbott? There's a rich vein of dodgy behaviour that would be circulation gold for them if only they got out the metaphorical metal detectors. Over and way above that which David Marr sniffed out. Oh well, I live in hope that one day, but probably only long after he's gone, we'll all be entertained by the sordid details.

    On the other hand, Julie Bishop, Malcolm Turnbull, Joe Hockey and Scott Morrison are not at all afraid of attempting to cut Bronwyn adrift. She mustn't have anything on them. Or they realise that Abbott & Bronwyn Bishop are so intimately entwined that it would suit their ulterior motives to try and take them both down at once.

    Who knows the truth really though? But it is more fun to watch than 'The Days of Our Lives'.

  11. Talk about passing the "sniff test" The first thing I thought when I read Kenny's article was "Bishop on the backbench? Than ain't gonna happen"

    Thanks Andrew, great read as usual.

  12. 'This government has always been self-indulgent and lazy..', the worst of it is they never had any economic strategy (bar items off the IPA weblist) that went beyond the self satisfied assumption, that an incoming LNP government could simply improve business conditions and confidence. It seems to never have occurred to them, that perhaps that the shibboleth of the LNP as nation's 'natural' economic managers is just a long standing election slogan, and beyond that, that where and when the LNP has previously managed the books with some competence, under previous leaders, someone did some actual hard policy and consensus decision work to make that happen. That is why is was supremely ironic for Hockey to stand up and declare the End of the Age of Entitlement - because their self entitlement goes way beyond simply mooching off generous expenses - right to the assumption that their mere governing presence will solve the problems in state of play. Unqualified diagnosis: borderline delusionals...

  13. Fairfax were so busy kicking Gillard and thinking they'd steal some of News Corpse's market they all forgot how to do real journalism. Hasn't gotten any better since, and now they own a slice of Alan Jones, big surprise to see that bitter old toilet dweller getting more coverage on their site. It's a one way trip down the S-bend from here folks.

  14. Swollendanube30/7/15 9:08 am

    Andrew, I really can't see how Bishop can return to the Speaker's chair in 10 or so days. Community opposition is absolute, and our one-track media will chug along until then. The Libs can't vote in confidence of her with such strong community opposition.

    If you're saying that if Abbott asks her to step down, she'll white-ant him from the backbench and it will seriously upset the Libs internally, then aren't they completely stuck? Doesn't that make this a really big deal? I mean, I know she's powerful but if she stays in that chair no one will have any faith in the Government going forward. They'll never move past this issue.

    On any issue of conviction, Labor need just point to the chair.

  15. Bronwyn is following the manual - lost grip on reality, never made a mistake, skeletons in the closet - she seems to tick all the boxes to be a polly.


  16. cardboard brown2/8/15 6:52 pm

    I can see that it's more likely Abbott is beholden to B Bishop, and therefor , there would be parties within the LNP to seeking to take advantage and undermine her power. But what is politics behind the murdoch press being so keen to put the boot in.....
    Andrew, you're posts as always are a necessary read for backgrounding and an alternative angle.

  17. Abbott is a grossly weakened leader and has time and again shown terrible leadership judgement in the most crucial political moments - this current Bishop fiasco is not about his loyalty to colleague as NewsCorp wishfully advocate - it's just Abbott in yet further paralysis.

    Abbott will not remove her - the public will and it will be against Abbott's wishes. Abbott has literally gone into hiding this week to avoid any political accountability over his Speaker and her excessive expense largesse. That is stunningly weak from the leader of his both his parliamentary party and the country - say again - he is actually hiding from the media and public.

    Abbott's political judgement is again in the doghouse - he thinks he can ride this out - after his own LNP Treasurer told the country they are either (welfare) leaners or lifters? Abbott is so wholly committed to political skirmishing and its representation in the daily media cycle that he refuses to cede Bishop is a walking political corpse for fear of giving the ALP any victory - he is too myopic and stubborn to recognise that Bishop 's political corpse must be tossed for the public's devouring, not necessarily the ALP's.

  18. Spot on. Bishop is a major puppetmaster of Abbot's, and has him by the nuts. If she didn't agree to resign herself, and was pushed, then expect some dirt on Abbot to appear at various stages.

    By how long it took for her to resign, Abbot didn't push her. He didn't have the power to. She got a good deal to resign, and knew the gig was up.

  19. Andrew, your posts are becoming bitter and hysterical.

    And I disagree: Bishop will resign - it will be her final act of service. And, as you predict, the government will probably fall regardless.


    1. Joe: "bitter and hysterical"? "final act of service"? Bwahaahaahaaaah!
      You know what happens to those who fail the Scum King don't you Joe?

    2. Is that you, Smokin' Joe?

      -M Santorum

    3. 'Bitter and hysterical'. Sums up Australian politics perfectly.

      I disagree Joe that Andrew's analyses can be categorised as such but I suppose it is all in the eye of the beholder in the end.

      I think you are being overly generous to BB when you describe her resignation as a final act of loyalty. Come on Joe. It took her three weeks to display that loyalty. Even now some pundits are suggesting that she will be rewarded with a plum diplomatic posting.

      I hope not. In my opinion tact is not one of BB's strong suits. I have been astonished by critical accounts coming from her own side about Bronwyn's aggression.

      As a recent graduate from the Andrew Elder Academy of Political Crystal Ball Gazing I sniff a spill. Soon the land will groan and heave with a battle between Turnbull and ScoMo. Malcolm has been very visible of late. Not so Scott. I wonder if he has the abacus out in a back room somewhere. Of course my diploma is pretty worthless as Andrew himself would attest.

  20. "Final act of service" Yeah, poor Bronwyn.

    To quote Milton
    "When I consider how my light is spent
    Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
    And that one Talent which is death to hide
    Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent..."

    Okay, that seems a good place to stop.