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Bronwyn Bishop: child of the Uglies felled by her own excess

As Bronwyn Bishop was pursuing public servants over their spending habits in the 1990s, David Leser found she was racking up bills of her own.

The irony is exquisite. Nearly a quarter of a century ago Bronwyn Bishop rose to national prominence on the issue of public accountability. Her forum was Senate estimates and joint public accounts committee hearings, and her quarry, public servants who had the misfortune to appear before her.

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The speakership of Bronwyn Bishop

During her time as Speaker Bronwyn Bishop smashed the record for MPs thrown out of a single Question Time.

These hearings had traditionally been controversy-free, serving mainly to make public servants and their departments more accountable through an assessment of how and where they spent their appropriations.

That all came to a spectacular end when Bronwyn Bishop became – to use former Fairfax columnist Alan Ramsey's immortal phrase – "the Arnold Schwarzenegger of the estimates committee system", turning the hearings into virtual show trials.

Who can forget her clash in 1992 with Trevor Boucher when she scolded, taunted and badgered the then-commissioner of taxation over the ATO's alleged political bias and its borrowing and spending habits.

Boucher described Bishop's line of attack as "utterly offensive"; so, too, the chairman of the inquiry, Labor's Gary Punch, who upbraided the Liberal senator for her "vilification of a decent public servant"

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There was also the luckless Lynda Tin, an executive project officer with the federal parliamentary library, who had been invited to China to help foster contacts between the two countries. The Chinese government was footing the bill for internal travel and accommodation, while the library was paying for the return airfare to China.

Bishop's examination of Tin caused outrage among her own colleagues who witnessed the proceedings on closed circuit television. "It was one of the most obscene displays I have ever seen," a senior Liberal Party staffer told me at the time.

One of Bishop's Senate (Liberal) colleagues added: "What I find absolutely and utterly offensive for our side of politics is the rudeness of the interrogation. There have been occasions where a number of us … just couldn't watch anymore."

Bishop's excoriation of Tin was particularly interesting given that during the same week she was forced – under a freedom of information request – to release details of her own travel costs for the financial year.

Between July 1992 and June 1993 the backbencher had spent $93,456 of taxpayers' money on airfares and car hire while criss-crossing the nation and – at the same time – undermining John Hewson's leadership of the Coalition.

Bishop had form when it came to travel. On one occasion, between 1987 and 1988, she had allegedly hired a helicopter – again at taxpayers' expense – to take her from a fete to a dog show because, as her staffer Ellis Glover told me, she didn't want to be late.

But it was not just Bishop's travel expenses that caused concern among her colleagues. It was also her fundraisingmethods.

Four months before the 1990 federal election the state executive of the NSW Liberal Party ordered Bishop to stop going outside the organisation to raise funds for her re-election campaign. This followed a cocktail party in which she reportedly received pledges of up to $5000 a head, money she wanted to put into a private bank account for use as she saw fit.

Bishop was told this breached party guidelines. No member of parliament, or candidate, was entitled to accept money on the party's behalf for their own campaigning. That was the responsibility of the finance committee.

The guidelines on fundraising had, in fact, been clarified in 1985 when a memorandum had been sent to state divisions spelling out how money could be raised. Bishop was president of the NSW Liberal Party at the time.

"No one in modern political history could have been more aware of the fundraising guidelines than Bronwyn," former state director Peter Kidman told me. "Because it was unfortunately during her reign as president that the issue came to such a head."

Bishop was under siege again shortly after entering the lower house in 1994 when it was revealed that Rodney Adler's FAI Insurances had been paying the wages of a staff researcher during her last months in the Senate and her recent appointment as shadow minister for health. Bishop was forced to sack the employee when the Liberal Party's federal director, Andrew Robb, pointed out how this contravened the rules.

Before becoming the first Liberal woman elected to the Senate in 1987 this daughter of an engineer father and soprano-singing mother had risen through the ranks of the organisational wing with the support of the so-called "Uglies", the ultra-right wingers in the party. (Bishop has always denied this.)

In 1994, in her maiden speech to the lower house, she borrowed heavily from , a book written by Bedrich Kabriel​, a Czech-born migrant with close links to one of the Uglies' more notorious figures, Lyenko Urbanchich​. Urbanchich had been dubbed "little Goebbels" by the Yugoslav War Crimes Commission for his role as a fanatical propagandist for the Slovenian puppet regime during World War II. (Urbanchich denied these allegations too.)

In other words the early warning system for today's karmic events was well in place long before her "ideological love child", Tony Abbott, made her Speaker of the House.

David Leser, a former staff writer at Good Weekend, is the author of Bronwyn Bishop: A Woman in Pursuit of Power



 

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