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Bronwyn Bishop's final revenge on her nemesis, Tony Burke

When Federal Parliament resumes on Monday, the biggest casualty will be front and centre in the House of Representatives. It will not be the imperious former speaker, now in reduced circumstances. It will be someone still conspicuous, who, not long ago, was widely considered prime minister material: Tony Burke.

Not any more. This is the final revenge of Bronwyn Bishop.

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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.

During the year after Bishop assumed the speaker's chair in November 2013, Burke, as leader of opposition business in the house, became her nemesis, challenging, goading, criticising, questioning her impartiality and therefore questioning her fitness for the job.

When Bishop's weakness for self-grandeur became fatal she unwittingly flung open the door to the word "entitlements" and the media rushed through that door. Many reputations have been battered by the subsequent public examination of the sense of entitlement within the political class.

Illustration: Michael Mucci
Illustration: Michael Mucci 

The very word "entitlement" should go in the reforms promised by the Prime Minister as it offends the sensibilities of voters from all sides.

Given that Bishop, at age 72, and as speaker, had already passed the peak of her political career, the entitlements contagion means that Burke, at just 45, and one of the heavyweights of his party, is a much more consequential figure to sustain heavy reputational damage.

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Bronwyn Bishop has taken her chief tormentor down with her.

Under scrutiny, Burke has emerged as someone who worked the entitlements system to the edge of the rules, both in government and in opposition. The examples are numerous and now public. The scale of his entitlements spending was Bishopesque.

Bronwyn Bishop was forced to resign as Speaker following outcry over her $5000 chopper flight to a Liberal Party fundraiser.
Bronwyn Bishop was forced to resign as Speaker following outcry over her $5000 chopper flight to a Liberal Party fundraiser. Photo: James Brickwood

While there was no helicopter, there was something else. Burke's willingness to bill the public purse for trips on which he was accompanied by his children, flying business class, also extended to numerous trips accompanied by a staffer who would later become his partner. There was nothing improper about this but it appeared to push too far through the spirit of the rules.

In Parliament, Burke, as leader of opposition business, took over the role of the opposition's chief head-kicker, replacing Anthony Albanese, who had no interest in doing such dirty work for Labor leader and rival Bill Shorten.

Tony Burke launched a passionate defence of the Grand Mufti.
Tony Burke launched a passionate defence of the Grand Mufti. Photo: Andrew Meares

Offstage, Burke is one of the most charming politicians. He is also one of the most well-rounded, intelligent and articulate.

After the first session of Parliament following the election of the Abbott government in 2013, and after a less than impressive start by Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek, I ventured the following assessment in my column on December 30, 2013:

"Tony Burke will be the next Labor prime minister. He is authentic, a crucial advantage in politics, and pragmatic, intelligent and decent …

"However, like most Labor MPs, he is yet another former union official and has thus not spent a day of his career in a wealth-creating business. The bulk of his career has been at public expense."

I also went on to praise the new Treasurer, Joe Hockey, who at the time was clearly the best performer in the house in the first session.

That was then.

The past 18 months have been kind to neither Burke nor Hockey. Both came into the new Parliament looking like men on a prime ministerial track. Both have been derailed.

Hockey, as Treasurer, was the government's chief advocate for budget austerity. He was given the treasury portfolio because he wanted it and because, in Tony Abbott's words, "Joe is a great retail politician".

Hockey's problems as the ambassador of austerity have been exhaustively documented.

He is also the national figure who signalled the end of "the age of entitlements" but it turns out that he, too, has worked the entitlements system, while staying within the rules. Hockey claimed 13 trips to Cairns while in opposition, at a cost of $20,000. The trips were within the rules, but why would he go to Cairns so often? It happens that the ambassador of austerity owns a farm up there.

The other damaged figure on the government benches is Tony Burke's opposite number, Christoper Pyne, leader of government business in the house. He was the last mast standing defending Bronwyn Bishop, even when her position was so dire that she could have brought down the Prime Minister if she had not been removed or resigned.

Had Bishop still been in the speaker's chair when Parliament resumed today I believe the Liberal caucus would have staged another revolt.

Pyne's obtuseness on this was poor judgment by one of the Prime Minister's inner sanctum. It transpired that Pyne himself had used his entitlements to make trips that, to voters, look like family holidays.

There are vastly more important matters facing Australia than excessive and cynical entitlements claims, but the public want character from politicians, not expense-padding and rule-stretching.

Finally, there is the timing of the scandal. Most of the information revealed could have been unearthed months earlier but emerged while Bill Shorten was under exacting scrutiny by the Heydon royal commission into union corruption.

The entitlements saga took much of the oxygen from Shorten's discomfort before the commission. Very convenient for Labor. But the royal commission has a long way to run.

Twitter: Paul_Sheehan_

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