Abbott burdened by MP's spending

Mrs Bronwyn Bishop meeting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during her 12-day trip to Asia last year that cost A$43,000 (S$43,400).
Mrs Bronwyn Bishop meeting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during her 12-day trip to Asia last year that cost A$43,000 (S$43,400). PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

SYDNEY • Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has come under pressure over a  scandal in which the Speaker of Parliament, Mrs Bronwyn Bishop, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on lavish foreign and domestic travel.

Mrs Bishop has faced calls to resign over her excessive spending, including a now-infamous luxury helicopter ride which cost A$5,227 (S$5,274) for an 80km trip between Melbourne and Geelong that takes about an hour by car.

The journey was to attend a Liberal Party fund-raiser and did not appear to be for an official parliamentary duty.

Mr Abbott said yesterday said that Mrs Bishop was "on probation" but dismissed calls for her to resign.

"She does have my confidence but like everyone who has done something like this, inevitably for a period of time they're on probation," he said.

A veteran MP, Mrs Bishop, 72, is considered one of Mr Abbott's political mentors. The controversy has reopened debate about expenses for MPs, with calls for tighter rules on the generous entitlements.

Several ministers and former Liberal Party MPs have questioned Mrs Bishop's expenses. Her international travel expenses last year included A$88,000 on a two-week trip with two aides to Europe and A$43,000 on a 12-day trip to Japan, Malaysia, Vietnam, Laos and South Korea. Mrs Bishop has not specifically apologised for her expenses, but has repaid the helicopter fee, plus a penalty of A$1,300.

She said that when she learnt of the cost of the helicopter ride, she "thought it was too large".

"The taxpayers' money has been repaid and that's why I did it and it is very much the best form of apology," she said.

But political commentators have said Mrs Bishop must resign to prevent further political damage.

"Her extravagance at taxpayer expense… appears to be a habitual offence rather than a solitary error of judgment, as she claimed," wrote commentator Simon Benson in Sydney's Daily Telegraph.

"Her handling of it and apparent indignation at having to be made accountable for it added another dimension to the political problem."

Labor leader Bill Shorten said that Mrs Bishop's expenses were an "arrogant misuse of taxpayer funds" and that she must resign.

For now, however, Mr Abbott appears to hope that a public censure will be enough to end the saga. 

"Despite this serious lapse of judgment, Bronwyn has a long and distinguished history as a servant of our country, as a servant of our party, and she will learn a very salutary lesson, a very, very salutary lesson," he said.

Jonathan Pearlman

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 21, 2015, with the headline 'Abbott burdened by MP's spending'. Print Edition | Subscribe