SUBJECT/S: Bronwyn Bishop

TONY BURKE, SHADOW FINANCE MINISTER AND MANAGER OF OPPOSITION BUSINESS: Thanks for coming out to Hurlstone Park today. I wanted to hold today's media conference to have an opportunity to refer to some very disturbing reports that have appeared in today's Telegraph

In those reports, Bronwyn Bishop's office have refused to answer the questions as to whether the company that has been organising a series of charters that are now under investigation, is in fact the same company in every instance and whether or not that company is one that has an association both with Bronwyn Bishop and with her office.

These allegations take this entire saga to a new level, to an absolutely new level. What we're talking about now is not simply whether or not the rules have been broken, but whether or not there's been an extra layer of completely inappropriate conduct. 

Now, these are questions that Bronwyn Bishop should simply answer, and yet in the reports today, in the first instance her office refused to answer the questions and then when the questions were put directly to Bronwyn Bishop she claimed the phone line was breaking up and she had to stop the call.

Bronwyn Bishop may well have made an art form of preventing Ministers from having to answer questions in the Parliament, now Bronwyn Bishop is refusing to even answer the questions that are asked of her. 

This issue needs to be resolved. The easiest way is for Bronwyn Bishop to confront the cameras and to answer the questions she refused to answer to the newspapers. Whether or not the same charter company's being used and also whether or not that's a charter company she and her office have an association with. 

We need these questions answered and Bronwyn Bishop shouldn’t do what she does for Ministers and prevent questions being answered, she should front the cameras and do so herself. 

Can I also add, Tony Abbott chose Bronwyn Bishop in this role in a way no Prime Minister previously has chosen a Speaker. Instead of reprimanding the Speaker, instead of calling for the resignation of the Speaker, by keeping her there Tony Abbott's response is to just continue to reward her with this particular office. It cannot go on. 

You walk anywhere in the Australian community and people say it cannot go on. The only reason Bronwyn Bishop is still in this role is Tony Abbott can't help but continue to reward her. Happy to take any questions.

JOURNALIST:  What's the nature of the alleged association with that company? 

BURKE: The alleged association with the company goes to previous reports of a very strong personal relationship between a member of Bronwyn Bishop's office and the person who heads up this company. 

Now, it may well be the case they'd gone off, sought different tenders, different prices and this one's come in the cheapest, that may well be the case. In which case we're only looking at whether or not the trips were appropriate to have. But if there's an extra layer of there being a compromised deal here to favour a friend, that takes it to a new level completely.

In a few hours’ time, Pat Conroy, as the head of the Waste Watch Committee for the Labor Party, will be writing again to the Australian Federal Police. We don't want to interfere in the independence of an Australian Federal Police investigation, and at the moment they've sought the Department of Finance to provide further information to them. 

This extra issue must be added to the consideration of the AFP and Pat Conroy is today writing to the AFP and asking for the AFP to find out the answers to the questions that Bronwyn Bishop is refusing to answer.

JOURNALIST: It could take some time for the Finance Department to conclude its investigations, and indeed she might even be found blameless, but what would you be suggesting she should do in the meantime?

BURKE: In the meantime, for Bronwyn Bishop's conduct, it's straightforward. She should front the cameras and answer the questions she refused to answer to the newspapers. Simple as that. 

The Telegraph asked reasonable questions, they might have been uncomfortable questions but they are reasonable questions, and they had a right to an answer. The Chief of Staff flatly refused to answer as it's reported and Bronwyn Bishop claimed the phone line was breaking up and then never called back. 

In terms of the Australian Federal Police, they have to consider whether or not this issue should be added to any investigation they conduct, because it does take everything to a brand new level. 

In terms of the Department of Finance, their review of this has been compromised from the start. The head of the Department of Finance had given a prejudicial view of the circumstances relating to Bronwyn Bishop, right at the start. In that way the Department's consideration of this has been compromised the whole way through, and at the very least, whatever their findings are they should commit to making those public.

But the person who all of this comes back to, all roads on Bronwyn Bishop lead back to Tony Abbott. Unusually, we had a Speaker of the House nominated by the Prime Minister. Unusually the Prime Minister has treated her as a Member of the Executive in putting her on probation. The Prime Minister can fix this. 

The Australian people are saying Bronwyn Bishop can't remain in a role that's meant to be the top of Parliamentary standards and is meant to be the adjudicator impartially of the Parliament. Bronwyn Bishop's lost all credibility on this a long time ago. The only reason she's still there is because Tony Abbott continues to give her advantage, to give her privilege, to do her favours.

JOURNALIST: She's steadfastly saying she won't resign, are you suggesting she should at least step aside?

BURKE: A time ago Bronwyn Bishop was steadfastly refusing to apologise, she's still steadfastly refusing to resign, the Australian people know what needs to happen here and that's what Labor's calling on.

[Additional reporters arrive and request Mr Burke make another opening statement.]

BURKE: There are further reports today in The Telegraph the Bronwyn Bishop saga has now gone to a new level. Not only are there questions being asked about whether or not Bronwyn Bishop took inappropriate travel against the guidelines, against the rules, we now have a further allegation she may well have done so to the advantage of a business that has an association and friendship with her office. 

Now The Telegraph asked completely reasonable questions on this, Bronwyn Bishop refused to answer, claiming her phone had broken up.

Now, it may well be the case that different quotes were sought and this was the cheapest, we don't know. What we do know is when reasonable questions have been put to Bronwyn Bishop she's refused to answer.

When she was asked directly, she told the newspaper apparently her phone was breaking up and she had to hang up and never called back. When her office was asked, they refused to answer the questions. 

These are significant questions as to whether or not, as well as breaking the rules, she’s acted to the advantage of a company she has a relationship with. 

It’s a serious issue. Serious enough that today Pat Conroy, the Head of our Waste Watch Committee, is writing to the Australian Federal Police asking them to include this particular issue in any investigation. We respect that it’s up to the AFP to decide whether or not they will conduct an inquiry. 

We do believe the inquiry currently being conducted by the Department of Finance has been compromised from the start, because the Head of the Department of Finance made comments completely favourable to Bronwyn Bishop before the inquiry began.

All of this ends up coming back to Tony Abbott. Tony Abbott, like no Prime Minister before him, personally sponsored the election of the Speaker. Bronwyn Bishop remains in this role because Tony Abbott continues to want to give Bronwyn Bishop advantage and privilege. Bronwyn Bishop only has this advantage and privilege because Tony Abbott wants to continue to bestow it on her. 

The Australian people now what needs to happen here, they’ve known for ages. Bronwyn Bishop was dragged kicking and screaming to finally give a not so heartfelt apology. What we need now is for Tony Abbott to realise the Australia people can’t have any confidence in the Parliament being run in a non-partisan way if Bronwyn Bishop is the person in the position of privilege sitting in the big chair.

It’s time for Bronwyn Bishop to go. Tony Abbott so far has completely failed this test of leadership and he needs to act.

JOURNALIST: Moreover though, to the Australian people there’s a bit of a racket in Canberra where MPs get to claim all sorts of entitlements. This really has to be looked at more thoroughly than it has been in the past?

BURKE: There are two separate issues. One is whether the rules need to be changed, and that public debate will always occur. But I don’t want that to distract from the fact that we’re dealing with here, not whether the rules are unfair, but the concept that the rules were broken.

Nobody can credibly claim it’s the job and official duty of the Speaker of the House of Representatives to catch a helicopter from Melbourne to Geelong to speak at a Liberal Party fundraiser. No one can credibly claim it’s the role of someone who’s chair of a committee to have secret meetings that you don’t even tell the committee about either side of weddings you want to attend. 

Bronwyn Bishop’s dealing with something that doesn’t go to wether or not the rules should be changed, what we’re dealing with with Bronwyn Bishop is the concept that the rules have been flagrently broken and clearly broken. That’s on top of the bias she’s always shown in the chair.

I think people had become accustomed to the fact that Bronwyn Bishop would treat one side of politics with absolute contempt. But in breaking the rules, she’s treated the Australian people with contempt. 

JOURNALIST: You mentioned the bias. Do you have any confidence whatsoever in Bronwyn Bishop as Speaker when the Parliament resumes? Will you support a no confidence motion?

BURKE: I’ve previously been the mover of no confidence motions, so it’s no surprise when we get there as to where Labor will land in any motions like that that come before us in the Parliament. 

Can I just clarify though. When Parliament resumes on the first day, a Western Australian Liberal Member, Don Randall, has passed away since we last met. Quite appropriately, every protocol is going to be observed for appropriate condolence motions for Don Randall. I don’t want there to be any view of when we first get to Parliament that we will let the circus and saga and soap opera we’ve had from Bronwyn Bishop take away from the dignity of a proper set of condolence motions for Don Randall.

JOURNALIST: In relation to Bishop’s apology, do you think if she dealt with it differently, if she had apologised more efficiently and quickly when it all came out, that this would be different?

BURKE: What mattered was whether or not the apology was real, I think it’s as simple as that. If an apology is real, you realise when you look at something that you’ve done the wrong thing, you say sorry and you move on. There’s big different between apologising because you knew you’d done the wrong thing and apologising because you’d been dragged for weeks and realised you might be about to lose your job. 

Australian people saw the apology for what it was. It was a performance, it was a half decent performance, but if it was real it would have come weeks earlier. 

JOURNALIST: There’s been some criticism that you’re coming out very strongly against Bronwyn Bishop’s actions and that you have also used a lot of charter flights and travel expenses when you were a minister. I know the circumstances are slightly different, but how do you respond to criticism that you’ve used a lot of travel expenses and tax payers money to attend official events, and she’s used that as well, do you think it’s appropriate? Having been accused of being a hypocrite, how do you respond to that?

BURKE: I’m really glad you’ve raised that and the way you’ve framed it as well. In the first instance, it’s true when the focus is on the Speaker of the House of Representatives it comes to reflect on every member of Parliament and we’ve seen that through stories on members of Parliament on both sides. 

There has not been an allegation at any point there’s been rules that have been broken by me. Any repayments I’ve made have been voluntary and immediate the moment I’ve seen what’s actually occurred, that there’d been something not occur. 

In terms of the level of charter used by me, let’s not forget, the two main portfolios I held for six years were environment and agriculture. There are not commercial flights to the places I had to visit. So, that was the way of getting there. The alternative would have been to be an Environment Minister or an Agriculture Minister who spent all their time in a capital city. 

For charter flights for my own part, I’ll tell you I hate them; there is nothing fun about being in light aircraft. But, in those jobs, if you’re going to do them properly then you spend time on farms. If you’re going to do your environment job properly, you spend time with rangers out on the land and that’s what I did.

JOURNALIST: Surely if a lot of politicians, including yourself, have had to pay back funds that have been used for charter flights and other travel expenses, there really is an issue, a grey area, in claiming that everyone seems to be making mistakes. What will Labor be doing in terms of trying to change the rules around claiming travel expenses?

BURKE: Well, can I give one of the simplest examples of one of those errors? Just so you can get a sense of exactly what they involve. One of the ones that’s been referred to in the paper was a repayment for an airfare relating to my late mum. 

What happened there was I used the same travel agent, I mean now you can just book online but back then, this was many years ago, I used the same travel agent to book a private fare and asked for them to charge it to my credit card. The travel agent made a mistake and charged the Government. The moment I realised, I rang the travel agent and they said ‘sorry the Government’s already paid, the only way you can fix it is to repay the Government.’

Now, that appears as a repayment, but I just don’t think there is any comparison between that sort of circumstance and somebody who gets onto a helicopter to travel from Melbourne to Geelong to attend a party political fundraiser. 

JOURNALIST: So is there anything Labor will be doing to try and clarify the rules around claiming for travel expenses?

BURKE: I think it’s important for any of these rules the basis becomes the Independent Remuneration Tribunal. I’ve always believed that’s the right way to do it. 

I think the concept of politicians working out what’s the best system for politicians is not real smart. 

I would rather have a situation where the Remuneration Tribunal makes these decisions and then the rules are set down by people other than politicians. I think that’s the best system and if further developments come forward, whenever there’s been a recommendation from the Remuneration Tribunal, including when it’s been to remove entitlements, both sides of politics have always supported that.


BURKE: Thank you.

Tony Burke