TUESDAY, 21 JULY 2015 

SUBJECT/S: Speaker of the House of Representatives on ‘probation’; NewsPoll.

SHADOW FINANCE MINISTER AND MANAGER OF OPPOSITION BUSINESS, TONY BURKE: Thanks very much for joining me here today in Melbourne. Yesterday we had one of the most extraordinary comments imaginable from the Prime Minister of Australia. It used to be the case that the Speaker of the House of Representatives was employed and beholden by the members of the House of Representatives. It used to be the case that members of the backbench would be the ones who nominated the Speaker of the House of Representatives. 

We now have a situation for this Speaker, Bronwyn Bishop, where she was nominated by the Prime Minister, against all precedent, physically dragged to the chair by the Prime Minister, has been getting instructions from the floor from Christopher Pyne and it has led us to the situation now where the Prime Minister is able to unilaterally put the Speaker of the House of Representatives on probation. That's where we are now. It's an extraordinary situation to be in.

We are in a situation now, where years ago a Speaker would walk in with a wig and gown, now Tony Abbott gives Bronwyn Bishop one of these. Bronwyn Bishop now is told by the Prime Minister "you are on probation". Instead of walking in with a wig and gown which was always ridiculous, Bronwyn Bishop now gets to walk into the Parliament with a P plate. That is the chaos and the joke that the Parliament has become under the most biased Speaker in living memory.

Yesterday, I wrote to the Prime Minister to ask what on earth does it mean for the Speaker of the House of Representatives to be ‘on probation’. He said it yesterday. He said it again today. Today he's even made clear that it is because Bronwyn Bishop has broken the rules. He specifically referred, in his media conference today, to the breaking of rules, something that up until now Bronwyn Bishop had denied. But whatever the reason, we need to know what on earth this means. 

Last night, I wrote to the Prime Minister in my position as Manager of Opposition Business. I asked what it means for the Speaker's authority over Parliament House and the House of Representatives; what it means her role will be when Parliament resumes; what her entitlement reporting responsibilities are while she is on probation; and what impact it will have on her salary while she is on probation. I also asked how long will the probationary period last.

It used to be the case if you were put on probation, it happened either at the beginning of a new job or the end of a court case. They are the ways we used to use the word "probation". The Prime Minister has claimed this is something he will apply to the Speaker of the House of Representatives. What on earth it means at the moment only one person knows. That's Tony Abbott.

I concluded my letter by saying given his previous statements on the importance of upholding the integrity of the Parliament, I hope that he will treat the request with the seriousness it deserves. Never before has the Speaker of the House of Representatives been put on probation. We need to know what on earth it means and only Tony Abbott can tell the Australian people.

REPORTER: Should Bill Shorten feel safe as Labor Leader given the approval ratings going into the Labor Conference this weekend?

BURKE: Of course. This is the two-party preferred vote that is almost an exact mirror image of what happened at the election but in reverse. Where Tony Abbott was in a landslide win at the election is where that poll has us today.

I'm not going to spend my life commenting on polls as they come and go, but when you are in that sort of position where the Australian public are looking to you the way they are looking to Labor and saying ‘Please get this incompetent, chaotic mob out’, that's a time to be pretty happy and to be locking in together.

REPORTER: There has been a lot of speculation today about an improbable friendship developing between Tanya Plibersek and Wayne Swan. Should Bill Shorten be worried about that?

BURKE: I think it is interesting there is a presumption that somehow we don't form friendships across factional divides. I found the concept of the friendship completely unsurprising. The fact that any politics was drawn into it, I found more than a little bit odd.

REPORTER: Are you able to guarantee you have never used taxpayer funds to travel to Labor Party fundraiser or Labor Party events?

BURKE: It has never been the reason for the travel. So there would be occasions when I've travelled on other business and at the same time have attended a fundraiser. It's never been the purpose of my travel because that's never been the purpose of my role. My role's been in a range of portfolios but sometimes it can be different for party leaders, I expect because of their role, and they have an additional entitlement for that purpose. But for myself, no.

For Bronwyn Bishop, remember, she doesn't get a charter allowance because she is a Member of Parliament. She gets a charter allowance because she’s Speaker of the House of Representatives. If there is any role where not only should you not be using an allowance to attend a party fundraiser but, moreover, it is the opposite of what you should be doing in your role, it is when you hold the office of Speaker of the House of Representatives. It is the exact opposite of what she was meant to do.

She's now confirmed in a media conference over the weekend that there was no other work to be done. Not only no other work to be done in Geelong, it would appear no other work to be done in Melbourne. The entire reason for flying all the way from Queensland to here was purely to attend a party political fundraiser. Everybody has always known that's against the rules.

The Prime Minister reported to his party room, and it was published in the media at the time earlier this year, when he said that he was late for the party room because he had attended another event, I think it was in Melbourne, to visit a hospital because obviously he was saying that he had to make sure there was some work associated with it as well. That's always been the rule. But that's the rule even for the Prime Minister that he's imposed and yet he won't apply that to the person who is meant to be the independent one.

The Prime Minister decided he wanted to take ownership of the Speaker. He did that at the beginning of the term. It has resulted in the most biased Speakership we have ever seen. Bronwyn Bishop has clearly, clearly flouted the rules and even Tony Abbott today for the first time in his media conference specifically referred to the breaking of rules.

BURKE: Should Bill Shorten repay the taxpayer funds he claimed to travel for the Labor leadership contest?

REPORTER: He didn't travel for that purpose. His example goes to exactly what I was just describing. He had an appointment in that city that had been determined before he ever even nominated to be leader. I expect before that event had - the fundraising event had been organised. It is not a problem if you are going to be somewhere, to attend a fundraiser while you were there. What matters is what's the reason you were travelling. That's what matters.

REPORTER: Do you accept each side is as bad as each other on this?

BURKE: No one is as bad as Bronwyn Bishop on this. No one. Let's not pretend that anybody has done anything like what Bronwyn Bishop believes is an apology-free zone. Bronwyn Bishop travelled from Brisbane to Melbourne, from Melbourne to Geelong by helicopter to attend a fundraising event for the Liberal Party and nothing else and used an allowance that is only available to her because she holds the independent job of Speaker. This is entirely new ground and it is entirely outside what has been in the guidelines and what has been accepted practice.

REPORTER: What did you make of Clive Palmer's suggestion this morning a crossbencher should be made Speaker?

BURKE: I don't have an objection with the Speaker coming from a member of the Government. I've got to say, in the last term, the Deputy Speaker that normally would have been a government member, that position was held by Bruce Scott from the National Party. The logical thing after the election would have been for Bruce Scott to become Speaker of the House of Representatives. Tony Abbott didn't want to give it to the National Party.

If Bruce Scott, who is respected across the Parliament, he is a member of one of the governing parties, that's fine, but he has the respect of the House. If Bruce Scott had been Speaker of the House of Representatives, the Government would not be facing the chaos it is facing today. You can guarantee there never would have been a request from the Prime Minister to put someone of the integrity of Bruce Scott on probation.

REPORTER: Do you agree with Mark Butler it is time to review all MPs' entitlements?

BURKE: I don't think that's quite what Mark Butler said. He said at times like this, this is something that happens and we normally end up with some tighter rules as a result of that. I'm relaxed with what Mark said last night. I also don't want us to be distracted. Let's not pretend the rules were the problem with Bronwyn Bishop. Bronwyn Bishop broke the rules. Bronwyn Bishop has acted inappropriately. Bronwyn Bishop has made an inappropriate use of taxpayers' money.

So the discussion about whether rules should be changed, Nick Xenophon has some ideas, other people have ideas about what you might want to do, that's a fine discussion to have. But nobody should be allowing a view that Bronwyn Bishop has acted within the current rules and the rules are the problem. They are not. She has broken the rules and the current oversight provisions we have are why she has been exposed for doing so. 

There’s been a few goes at the back to ask a question.

REPORTER: Sorry Minister, will you be claiming a travel allowance for the Labor Party national conference?

BURKE: Absolutely. It is a specific ruling of the Remuneration Tribunal that we do so. If I travel to my State Conference – well for State Conference I catch the train there, so the example doesn't quite hold up. But in the same way, there are some areas where specifically the Remuneration Tribunal says you don't claim it, on the party's National Conference every three years, there has been a specific ruling to say that's appropriate. So, yes, I will.

REPORTER: Is it time we move to a system where the Speaker is more removed from the party political system like in the UK, for example?

BURKE: We had that system. We had that system last term. Last term we had a system where the Speaker of the House of Representatives stopped attending party room meetings. For the history of Federation, we have had a system where nobody has done what Bronwyn Bishop did with that Geelong trip.

It needs to be understood. The rules are not the problem here. You can always improve the rules, I'm not saying don't have that debate. But the rules are not the problem here. The rules that are in place have been broken by this Speaker. She has done it in the most arrogant, born-to-rule way. It's not the rules that need to go. Bronwyn Bishop needs to go.

Thank you very much.

Tony Burke