The first and last time I had a conversation with Bronwyn Bishop she screamed at me.It was late summer 1994 and we were standing on Collaroy beach in Sydney’s north. Bishop, a senator since 1987, was giving an impromptu press conference following the official launch of her campaign for the lower house.
Liberal opposition leader John Hewson had 11 months earlier lost the “unloseable” federal election to Paul Keating. Bishop was now launching her bid for the summer playground federal seat of Mackellar, while also angling for John Hewson’s job.
I was angling for Bronwyn Bishop.
“Bronwyn, have you decided yet whether you’re going to cooperate on [my biography] project?” I asked her after the press conference ended.
“I’ve told you ‘no’,” she said, as we both walked towards the sea.
“You actually haven’t told me … ” I began.
“I have told you ‘no’ a number of times,” she snapped again.
“No, you haven’t ever personally told … ”
“Well, stand still.” (So I stood still.) “Look at me.” (So I looked at her.) “NO,” she yelled, and with her smile now a ruin on her face, she stormed down the beach in her stilettos.
Even then, Bronwyn Bishop didn’t appreciate the kind of scrutiny she liked to apply to others.
Two weeks after our coastal clash Bishop suffered a 4.36% swing (on primary votes) against her in the safe Liberal seat, thanks mainly to the exhaustive – and highly colourful – campaign run by the Independent candidate and local writer, Bob Ellis.
It was a disastrous result for Bishop, and in stark contrast to the outcome in the adjacent Warringah electorate where a virtual political unknown, Tony Abbott, had achieved a 5.2% swing (on a two-party-preferred basis) to him.
As Peter Reith said at the time: “Bronwyn’s been running on her popularity … and on Saturday she broke one of her legs, if not both.”
For the past 21 years – and indeed during her entire political career – commentators have been writing Bronwyn Bishop’s political obituary. Today, with the furore surrounding her $5,000-plus helicopter ride from Melbourne to Geelong, it is tempting to do so once again.
A note of caution. For all the ridicule Bishop has often attracted, for all the outrage she has provoked – particularly as the most partisan Speaker of the House in living memory – Bishop’s determination, ambition, vanity and imperviousness to criticism should not be ignored.
Bronwyn Bishop (nee Setright) became a household name in Australia in 1992 when she turned the rather prosaic-sounding Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit into a show trial, scolding, taunting and badgering – among others – one of Australia’s most respected public servants, the then commissioner of taxation, Trevor Boucher.
Bishop was suddenly propelled on to the national stage – exactly the place she had been coveting since 1955, when, at the age of 13, she had declared to a group of school friends that she was “definitely going to be the first Australian woman prime minister”.
“We all fell about,” one of those friends told me years later. “We thought, ‘That’s just Bronwyn, there she goes again.’”
And that was Bronwyn. Between 1974 and 1987 this daughter of an engineer father and dramatic soprano mother made seven separate attempts to win a seat in either state or federal parliament. On her seventh challenge she got there, the first Liberal woman from New South Wales to be elected to the Senate.
She was an ideological warrior from the organisational wing of the NSW Liberal party, and her years as president of the party – between 1985 and 1987 – were marked by some of the worst infighting and personal feuding the party had ever witnessed.
She was accused of relying on the support of the so-called “Uglies” (ultra-rightwingers within the party) to become president, which she denied and described as “slur and innuendo”. She was accused by the then state director, Dr Graeme Starr, of breaching party convention by using the presidency to further her political ambitions. She was accused by the then operations manager, Peter Kidman, of changing the culture of the party with respect to how it raised money and then, a few years later, of contravening the party’s fundraising guidelines for her Senate re-election.
The other damning assessment of her – and this from many of her own colleagues – was that she possessed a genius for getting people offside, for being alarmingly short on policy substance while being driven by personal ambition.
After being dumped from John Hewson’s shadow ministry in 1990 she poured her considerable energy into becoming – as Sydney Morning Herald columnist Alan Ramsey said at the time – “the Arnold Schwarzenegger of the estimates committee system”.
Everything from government waste and public service indolence came under her pitiless interrogation. In September 1991 she savaged a parliamentary library project officer on her upcoming trip to China which was being paid for by both the library and the Chinese government.
One senior Liberal party staffer told me that “it was one of the most obscene displays [they had] ever seen”.
That same week Bishop was forced to release details of her own travel costs, which – for a backbencher – were simply staggering: $93,456 spent on airfares and car hire from July 1992 to June 1993.
And that was before allegations from ex-staffer Ellis Glover were made to this writer that shortly after entering the Senate in 1987 she had hired a helicopter – at tax payer’s expense – to get from a fete to a dog show, so as not to be late for the opening.
David Leser is the author of six books, including Bronwyn Bishop: A Woman in Pursuit of Power (Text, 1994) and his recent memoir, To Begin to Know: Walking in the Shadows of My Father (Allen & Unwin, 2014)