Julie Bishop for PM?


Mr Pyne: “I think she’s a great role model to everyone, not just women, by the way. I think she’s a great Foreign Minister but we have a fantastic Prime Minister, I want her to be Prime Minister for 10 years and after that people can worry about the next 10 years.

Interviewer: You want her to be Prime Minister for ten years?

Mr Pyne: Tony Abbott. I said we have a great Prime Minister and we want him to be Prime Minister for ten years. I said him.

His official transcript fixed the misspeak, but that minor slip did nothing to deflect attention from Julie Bishop’s growing stature within the Government.

Recent media speculation that Australian Foreign Affairs Minister, Julie Bishop could be our next Prime Minister needs to be beaten down with a cold spoon. Not a chance. Not yet. Not ever. There is little in Bishop’s achievements so far on the world stage and less in her achievements in other spheres that commend her as a potential Prime Minister. In terms of political power, she is a very doubtful starter. Her WA seat means that she is at a disadvantage because the power base of the LNP is located in Sydney and Melbourne. Typically NSW and Victorian MPs determine the leadership because the more populated states hold a higher number of seats in the parliament.

Yet, we should not be too alarmed or surprised at such reports. When it comes to predicting leadership challenges, elements of the Australian media have an insatiable appetite. It’s an absorbing ticket-selling spectacle, in its own right. Primitive, visceral, it can become an all-consuming orgiastic feeding-frenzy, such as occurs between praying mantis and mate. Or between politicians themselves as occurred when in 2013 Abbott’s attack dog Bishop tore into Prime Minister Julia Gillard on the pretext of uncovering the AWU slush fund affair. Make no mistake, it is a blood sport; part of its appeal is the thrill of the kill.

It’s not all morbid, some thoughtful souls see a curious life of its own created in leadership speculation.  Some claim the speculation to be an eager political player in its own right. Whatever the explanation, however, we have come to expect such things as part of who we are. If not the natural corollary to our national obsession with gambling, or our penchant for serial marriage, it fits our psyche. To say nothing of our fractured attention span. No doubt it is also feels healthy if not empowering: our tall poppy syndrome mixes with our mythic egalitarianism in our enjoyment of the ‘swallow the leader’ ritual. Other parts of our complex selves, even paradoxically the parts that venerate the strong leader may also be indulged. Above all there is  the sheer entertainment value of the whole circus with its inherent tendency towards self-parody. At times it resembles Abbot and Costello’s Who’s on First Base?

The lack of suitable leadership contenders does not put us off. We are a flexible, resourceful people. Instead of betting on two flies walking up a wall, other insects will do. So what if one turns out to be a sand groper? (Except of course for the matter of the sand groper’s handicap but we will discuss that later.) And in our media obsession, the calibre of the candidate becomes ever less relevant. Julie Bishop can talked up despite a patchy record. Despite being the wrong person for the job.

Why do we do it? For the media, speculation is easy. It doesn’t require too much research, it seems simple enough for most to follow and it makes for a handy moment in interviews when you have run out of other material. Ask the subject of speculation about the leader’s baton you think you discern in their knapsack.

It may also be that the current crop of contenders have so little going for them as politicians that the only thing real left to focus on is their ambition.  As with Abbott, ambition is Julie Bishop’s strongest suit. Since her days as Head Prefect at St Peter’s Girls in Adelaide, or her days in corporate law, she has been disciplined, diligent and highly successful in getting to the top. As a lawyer she was tough. Determined. Opinions vary as to how successful she was, but her career forged ahead. She seems to have been a tough boss to work for when she rose to lead the firm and not every other step of her ascent saw Bishop distinguish herself by an excess of humanity. Nor did she allow her too many compunctious visitations of nature impede her legal career at CSR.

Bishop’s critics, including Slater and Gordon founder Peter Gordon, allege that lawyers for CSR used their financial power to drag out the cases of dying men to avoid compensation. He told Australian Doctor magazine in 2007:

“We had to fight even for the right of dying cancer victims to get a speedy trial. I recall sitting in the WA Supreme Court in an interlocutory hearing for the test cases involving Wittenoom miners Mr. Peter Heys and Mr. Tim Barrow. CSR was represented by Ms. Julie Bishop (then Julie Gillon). (She) was rhetorically asking the court why workers should be entitled to jump court queues just because they were dying.”

Robert Vojakovic of WA-based Asbestos Diseases Society says Bishop “had a take-no-prisoners approach”.

NSW Labor MP Stephen Jones comments: “You can’t judge anyone by their clients, I suppose. But she had some pretty dodgy ones in my view.”

Bishop, naturally, angrily rejects the accusations, blaming the courts for controlling the pace of proceedings.

“We did everything we could to fight the case professionally – when I say fight it, to test the legal propositions, knowing that the other cases potentially rested on this,” she says.

“Did I stand there and say ‘no, I have a moral objection to working on this case’? Of course not.”

Of course not. Bishop is entering a version of the Nuremburg defence. Whatever its value in the legal field, the defence of just following orders, of having no individual moral autonomy, is in this instance more than unbecoming in an aspirant for politics’ top office. It is, surely, a prima facie disqualification.  Her record of success as a corporate lawyer is unimpeachable. Whether it prepares her to be a Prime Ministers is another question altogether.

Much has been made of Julie Bishop’s success as Foreign Affairs Minister. Some of this praise has been over generous. The record has been patchy. We need not dwell on her provocation of China by intemperate language early in her portfolio. Perhaps as Alexander Downer has said, she has grown into the job. Perhaps also her record of success is enhanced by spin rather than empirical evidence.

Interviewed in March on British radio she made less than compelling defences of Operation Sovereign Borders. Pressed on the treatment of detainees she said:

“… they’re not holiday camps… I have visited there and I am satisfied [that] people are treated appropriately.”

The asylum seeker who had his head broken when an attendant hit him with a piece of wood would no doubt completely agree that he was treated appropriately.

In the course of the interview and elsewhere Bishop has revealed a patchy grasp of her portfolio.

She asserted that the claims of asylum seekers ”are processed in third countries, and then we look for resettlement in other countries, including in Australia – and we’ve done this before and it worked”. It is not true.

Scott Morrison’s official message to boat arrivals is that they will never be resettled in Australia.

The only resettlement option for those on Manus Island whose refugee claims are recognised is resettlement in Papua New Guinea, even though this is a matter of conjecture in PNG. There is, of course, resettlement on Nauru, a ‘solution’ in serious trouble, it would seem from recent reports.

Bishop asserted, ”people are clearly having their applications for asylum processed there [on Manus and Nauru] and if they are found not to be genuine asylum seekers, they are returned [home]”.

The problem here is that no determinations on refugee status have been made – aside from one positive decision on Nauru – and the UN  refugee agency has serious doubts about the capacity of either country to make determinations and give adequate protection to those who have fled persecution.

Perhaps even more disturbing was Bishop’s attempt to defend Australia’s treatment of children:

“Their children go to school, they have community centres … the standard of accommodation and the standard of support they receive, in many instances, is better than that received by the people of Papua New Guinea.” This is not what has emerged at the Australian Human Rights commission’s hearings into the detention of children, Ms Bishop.

Despite being filmed talking to Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Asia-Europe economic summit in Italy  for example, and despite the publication of a claim that she met him for 25 minutes, there appears no formal outcome. The pair discussed MH17, the dangers posed by ISIL and the upcoming G20 summit in Brisbane, in a 25-minute meeting.

Despite having claimed success over having obtained a legal framework towards Abbott’s much-vaunted holy grail of an Iraqi government indemnity for our commandos in Iraq, they are still awaiting a green light. In the light of current political and military realities in Iraq as detailed recently for Fairfax by Paul McGeough, a signed indemnity looks ever more unlikely.

Is Julie Bishop’s gender also a handicap to high office? The short answer is yes. It is highly unlikely that the conservative, male-dominated hard-right power brokers in her own party would ever move to elevate her current status as token female in cabinet. The same doubts they expressed about Julia Gillard, unmarried and with no children would be voiced. It is further unlikely that her party would see her promotion as one which gave them any kind of electoral advantage, especially given the misogynistic treatment meted out to Julia Gillard from parts of the Australian community, whipped up by shock jocks and others in an appalling campaign of persecution.

In the end, however, it comes down to merit, especially job performance and relevant personal skills and qualities. Julie Bishop’s record as Minister for Foreign Affairs does not suggest anything like the level of performance required to merit the spin which is currently propelling her into the prime ministerial stakes. Her record of achievement in other spheres, moreover, in opposition and in corporate law would suggest that Australians be very cautious, indeed, before championing her as a candidate for PM or rushing to conclude that she has any real qualifications to lead us at the top.