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Former Liberal Leader John Hewson critical of Tony Abbott’s response to Bronwyn Bishop expenses scandal

Speaker of the House of Representatives and federal member for Mackellar Bronwyn Bishop at a press conference. Photo: James BrickwoodBishop left staff to check expensesFront-row rat in the Liberal Party ranks

Former Liberal leader John Hewson says if Prime Minister Tony Abbott continues to support Speaker Bronwyn Bishop throughout her expenses scandal, it will come at “enormous political cost”, while Treasurer Joe Hockey has continued to criticise Mrs Bishop.

Mr Abbott stood by Mrs Bishop  on Friday after she paid back more than $5000 in public money to take a helicopter from Melbourne to Geelong to attend a Liberal Party fundraiser. Mr Abbott said Mrs Bishop was doing a good job and that he still had confidence in her.

But Mr Hewson said he was “staggered” by Mr Abbott’s decision to support Mrs Bishop. “He’s got to nip it in the bud, it’s just going to run hard against him,” he told Sky News.

“The fact that she’s just obfuscating rather than addressing the substance of the issue, as is he, is unsustainable.”

The Coalition’s support for Mrs Bishop, who also spent $90,000 on a trip to Europe, including $1000 a day on limousines, was inconsistent with its calls for former Speaker Peter Slipper to resign over allegations he misused $900 in taxi vouchers. Mrs Bishop’s trip was partly aimed at securing her a job with the International Parliamentary Union, based in Switzerland.

Mr Hewson was “staggered” at Mr Abbott’s decision, during a week when he had a chance to score political points against Labor, following Opposition Leader Bill Shorten’s appearance at the Royal Commission into Trade Unions, and ahead of Labor’s national conference. “You’re spending all your time defending the indefensible,” he said.

“I just think it’s pretty bad short-term politics and it’ll end in tears for a lot of people.”

Mrs Bishop’s “only hope” to keep her job as Speaker was if she gave “a complete and honest and open account” of what happened and why, and to openly admit where she had tried to claim entitlements for the wrong purpose. This would give Mr Abbott an opportunity to deal with the scandal differently, he said.

“I suspect it’s too late for that, I suspect they’ve put the barricades up and they’re going to fight this at enormous political cost,” Mr Hewson said.

Mr Hewson said Mrs Bishop was “ducking and weaving”  on the issue. “It’s amazing how history bites you in the bum,” he told Sky News.

Mr Hockey criticised Mrs Bishop for a second time, saying he has “never heard of anyone” doing such a thing in his party.

But he says the scandal is now sucking too much oxygen from the political debate and he wished Australians would keep talking about “job security, economic security, and national security.”

Revelations that Mrs Bishop charged taxpayers $5227 to charter a helicopter ride from Melbourne to Geelong in November last year to attend a Liberal fundraiser are continuing to roil federal politics.

Mr Hockey called on Mrs Bishop to explain why she did so earlier this week, saying in a now-infamous radio 2UE interview that it didn’t pass the “sniff test”.

He was the first Abbott government minister to publicly call her behaviour into question, and Mrs Bishop fired back at him on Saturday – in a defiant press conference – saying: “Joe says some funny things sometimes, doesn’t he?”

“I think he said poor people don’t drive cars or something,” she said.

Asked on Sunday about Mrs Bishop’s reaction, Mr Hockey said it was good to see that she had admitted she made an error or judgement by taking the helicopter flight.

“She recognised that what she did was an error of judgment, paid the money and is cooperating with the Department of Finance, and that’s all happened since I had that interview with 2UE,” he told Andrew Bolt on Channel 10.

“I haven’t heard of anyone who has taken a helicopter to a fundraising event.”

Earlier on Sunday morning, Environment Minister Greg Hunt said Mrs Bishop had done all she needed to do to make amends for the trip.

“She has acknowledged that she was wrong,” Mr Hunt said on ABC’s Insiders.

“I’m not going to comment on a colleague but I’ve made it clear… it was an error, it was wrong, she has repaid the full cost of it and with a penalty.”

But Former Treasurer Peter Costello weighed into the debate, saying Mrs Bishop needed to explain what she spoke about at the fundraiser in her official capacity that could have justified her helicopter flight.

Mr Costello said the rules must be tightened for parliamentary expenses to stop politicians misusing the system.

“The rule can’t be that you can just turn up somewhere and talk about Parliament because then it’s justified,” Mr Costello said on Channel 10.

“You could go to a wedding. You could go to a wedding, you could say. I could wander up to someone at a birthday party and say, “Look, I’d like to tell you about the Parliament.”

“That can’t be the rule. There has to be something other than the fundraiser. I assume there is. We’re all waiting for the explanation. We don’t know who the fundraiser was for.

Political leaders ramped up pressure on Mrs Bishop,.

NSW opposition leader Luke Foley said Mrs Bishop had no choice but to step down, saying in the past she has “disembowelled” public servants over their wasteful spending.

“What message does it send to the public if she keeps her job after the revelations?” Mr Foley said on Sky News on Sunday.

Greens senator for NSW Lee Rhiannon accused Mrs Bishop of fraud for spending more than $5000 on a chartered helicopter to attend a Liberal Party fundraiser. She later repaid the money.

“We have a situation where if Bronwyn Bishop signed the parliamentary form declaring her $5000 as a legitimate parliamentary expense, then it’s fraud and paying it back is not enough.,” she said.

“This is a weeping sore for the Abbott government.”

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