FRIDAY, 17 JULY 2015 

SUBJECT/S: Speaker of the House of Representatives; George Christensen speaking at Reclaim Australia.

SHADOW FINANCE MINISTER AND MANAGER OF OPPOSITION BUSINESS, TONY BURKE: Thanks very much for joining me today. The reason I’ve asked you to come together is with respect to the unfolding disaster that is the height of arrogance from Bronwyn Bishop. I know there's a rule that we're not meant to criticise the Speaker outside of the Parliament. I'm not going to accept for one minute that on a day like today I should be the one apologising. 

This is a disaster what Bronwyn Bishop is currently doing. For somebody who has already gained a reputation as one of the worst Speakers ever, we're in a situation now where she will not answer a basic question, which is, has she or has she not lied on a form, which if you lie on, carries serious criminal penalties? 

The form I'm referring to is this one. Some people in Parliament who hold particular positions get a charter allowance. Most members of Parliament don't get one. But if you're a Presiding Officer, an Opposition Office Holder or the leader of a minority party, you have access to that particular budget and there are particular rules that are different to you, different when you use this, to when Members of Parliament fly in any other circumstance.

Now, the budget there applies specifically to the job you hold. For example, if you are a leader of a party, then obviously work that is related to being leader of a party applies. Here we're talking about what applies if your role is to be the Presiding Pfficer. If your role is to be the Speaker of the House of Representatives.

When you sign off on this form, the declaration is different to what it is for other members of Parliament. The declaration states: ‘I travelled on the charter and it was provided for official purposes.’ Not ordinary parliamentary purposes, official purposes, and that relates directly back to the job that the person holds.

It then also says: ‘I understand that knowingly giving false or misleading information is a serious offence under the Criminal Code Act 1995.’ If this form has been signed in a way that is providing false information, then there are criminal penalties which apply to the person who currently holds the office of the Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Now, there are times when people make honest mistakes. There are times when an administrative error is made, where someone makes an honest mistake. But for the life of me, I don't see how someone accidentally gets on a helicopter and ends up at a Liberal Party fundraiser. For the life of me, I don't see how anyone argues a political party fundraiser is part of the official job of being the Speaker of the House of Representatives.

I don't see how you get on a helicopter, look around and say, ‘Oops, how did I turn out to be here?’ I certainly don't understand how anybody, if they were paying for it with their own money, would say the best way to get from Melbourne to Geelong was in a luxury helicopter. That is the exact argument that Bronwyn Bishop currently appears to be in, and that is why we've been asking for her to release this document.

If there is a qualifier, if she signed it in some different way, if she crossed out the bit about official purposes, then maybe there's an argument, but I think the thing that's very telling is as Labor has asked for this document to be released, as the media has asked for this document to be released the Speaker of the House of Representatives Bronwyn Bishop has gone to ground.

For that reason, the Chair of our Waste Watch Committee, Pat Conroy, has written today to the Australian Federal Police, asking for them to investigate what Bronwyn Bishop is currently trying to hide. If there is a reasonable explanation, then Bronwyn Bishop should give it to the Australian people, and she should provide it to the Australian Federal Police. But if Bronwyn Bishop is claiming that part of the official purposes of being Speaker of the House of Representatives is to attend a Liberal Party fundraiser, then we all know she's wrong. If she has claimed that on this form, then she has done so knowing the serious criminal consequences that will follow.

I say to Bronwyn Bishop, if you've got nothing to hide, release the document. Release it to the public, release it to the police. The Australian people believe that this one is completely beyond a joke. This is a born to rule attitude gone absolutely mad. No-one would do this if it was their own money. Nobody should be behaving this way with the money of Australian taxpayers.

REPORTER: Are there any parliamentary mechanisms you can use to compel Ms Bishop to provide this form, or is it in the realm of the AFP investigation, if there is an investigation?

BURKE: Pat Conroy has provided the referral to the Australian Federal Police. The Australian Federal Police haven't made a decision obviously, they will have only just received the referral and the request. I note they received referrals and requests relating to members of Parliament and indeed to a Speaker in the previous parliamentary term.

How they handle it is up to them. It is also the case, the fact that this request has gone doesn't provide them with some process argument to say, ‘Oh, there's now an investigation we can't answer questions publicly,’ because the AFP haven't decided whether there will be one.

The right thing for do is for Bronwyn Bishop to release this form now. The right thing for the Government to do is to disclose the information, and show they've got nothing to hide. If as a result of this, it’s clear the law has not been broken, that would be the end of the matter. I think the fact they are refusing to release this document may well say it all.

REPORTER: Do you think the fact that Mrs Bishop has offered to repay the more than $5,000 should temper any investigation, or would an apology suffice or do you think that investigation needs to continue regardless?

BURKE: I think the precedent was set during the last term. Peter Slipper repeatedly offered to repay an amount that was $900 and the argument was: ‘No, repayment's not the issue.’ The issue we have in front of us is whether or not this form, with criminal consequences potentially following, has been signed honestly or dishonestly.

REPORTER: Do you think the Speaker needs to resign her position while this is looked at?

BURKE: Well Parliament doesn't resume for a few more weeks. She can release the document right now. If there has been a lie put on a form that has criminal consequences, I think we all know you can't remain Speaker of the House of Representatives. It's for Bronwyn Bishop now to make it clear whether or not that's what's happened.

REPORTER: Can you guarantee that all travel claims made by Federal Labor MPs have been within these rules?

BURKE: What I just said at the opening is I accept fully that people make honest mistakes. There's been people from either side of politics, myself on a couple of occasions as well, where there's been an administrative error; you discover it and pay it back, that's done.

What we're talking about here is a specific claim that something was for official purposes that's then been signed off, that has criminal consequences and when the issue hit the public only a few days ago, Bronwyn Bishop's response was to say she believes that nothing inappropriate has happened. Well, if that's the case, release the form and let us know what was being done other than a Liberal Party fundraiser, because all the evidence we have said it was a Liberal Party event that she was descending from the clouds to attend.

REPORTER: Nick Xenophon said yesterday that this shows the rules around expenses are broken. Would you look at reforming the rules, or a push to reform the rules?

BURKE: I've got to say, I don't accept for one minute that we can say this was within the rules. I think Nick Xenophon there is accepting Bronwyn Bishop at her word, while I want to see what document she signed. I don't think we should just say ‘oh this means the rules are wrong.’ No, let's check whether or not the rules have been broken, because on the evidence we have so far it looks like they have.

REPORTER: But would you look at rules that could perhaps make expenses more transparent to the public?

BURKE: At the moment there's a document to be released. This has come out because of documents that were made available publicly. That's how we've got to this point in the first place because of that transparency. So there's always an argument back and forth as to whether the rules should be further tightened and whether the rules should be changed. What I don't want is for us today to be distracted by that when we have the person who holds the office that is meant to be the key to an independent role within the Parliament, the presiding officer, and whether or not there has been an untruth put on a form with criminal consequences.

We already know that this doesn't pass any logical test. Even if it wasn't to a political party event, who on earth catches a helicopter from Melbourne to Geelong? We already know that this is arrogance gone mad. What we now need to determine, is whether or not there is, in fact, a criminal action that has taken place.

REPORTER: What have you made of Ms Bishop's colleagues remarks? Joe Hockey said it didn't pass the sniff test, do you feel this strengthens your claims?

BURKE: I think every one of them is holding back from what they really feel. Every member of the Liberal Party right now has an inner voice they're not quite letting out. How can this be justified? Why is it all we've seen is a statement from Bronwyn Bishop's office and she hasn't fronted to answer questions before the cameras? 

We're used to, as members of Parliament you have to turn up on a bad day and you have to answer tough questions. If she thinks this is defensible, then defend herself, but I think the secrecy, the suppression of this document, I think it really says it all. The Australian people knew exactly what this was about the moment they heard it.

REPORTER: (Question inaudible regarding the CFMEU)

BURKE: If the police have taken an action, if the police think someone has broken a law then the police should take that action. I think it's silly to get into a space where we try to then say this applies to a whole lot of people who've committed absolutely no offence. That would be an unwise way, and just an illogical way, of dealing with it. Certainly, and indeed the point of my media conference today, is if someone has broken the law then consequences should follow.

REPORTER: Did you want to make a comment about George Christensen?

BURKE: According to reports and according to comments I’ve seen from George Christensen himself, he’s decided to attend a Reclaim Australia rally. This is happening in a way that Tony Abbott could easily stop. Tony Abbott needs to decide if he wants to be Prime Minister for all Australians or not.

This group have as one of their policies that they are willing to contemplate, the closure of all mosques. This is an extraordinary extremist view. They have the point of view, for them to argue it is one thing. For the Prime Minister to condone one of this own supporters and one of the people who makes up his majority, attending it, is for the Prime Minister to allow an association with those views.

If the Prime Minister is open to that, particularly on today, one of the two most significant feasts in the Islamic calendar Eid al-fitr, if he’s willing today, while people are celebrating Eid to think there’s no need to step in and say George Christensen should not attend, then this Prime Minister has no interest in being a Prime Minister for all Australians.

Let’s make clear, the Prime Minister was willing to stop people from appearing on a television program on the ABC. We now need to find out whether he’s willing to stop one of this colleagues from attending an extremist rally that’s about dividing Australia. 

Tony Burke