The view from Billinudgel

Julie Bishop’s exit
On the highs and lows of the former Liberal Party deputy leader’s career

AAP Image / Lukas Coch

So the second of the Liberal Party’s two most senior women has now left its ranks. Julie Bishop, the only conservative woman to get within a bull’s roar of the Lodge (the ambitions of her namesake, Bronwyn, were never more than megalomaniac fantasy), has decided to retire her shoes – which many in the media seemed to think were her most important attribute.

Bishop’s early career was unimpressive. Under John Howard she served as minister for the ageing, for education and science, and, perhaps inevitably, for women, without notable distinction. When the Coalition went into Opposition, as shadow treasurer she was clearly out of her depth.

But she hit her stride as foreign minister, which will be her lasting legacy. Bishop was always a safe pair of hands, and occasionally a formidable one. Her measured and powerful response to the downing of MH17 was far more effective than Tony Abbott’s vain bluster about shirt-fronting the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. For that alone she should be remembered.

She also inaugurated the New Colombo Plan, which sends Australian students to live and work in the Indo-Pacific region, an initiative that was widely applauded. She avoided the gaffes and blunders that beset so many of her colleagues, and although she had her setbacks – for example, her unsuccessful attempts to gain a reprieve for convicted drug traffickers Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran in Indonesia – these were never held against her.

But in spite of her long tenure as deputy under three Liberal leaders (four if you count Malcolm Turnbull twice), she did not always display the loyalty that has often characterised more successful partnerships, where the deputy acts as the leader’s loyal backstop, the eyes and ears to ward off potential threats from within the party room.

The gold standard was Gough Whitlam’s deputy, Lance Barnard, who once had the numbers to topple his leader but declined the opportunity, knowing that Whitlam was the better choice for his party. The nadir was the long-standing rivalry of Andrew Peacock and John Howard, when the Liberal Party successively installed each as deputy under the other, a disastrous combination. As a result, Bob Hawke had a dream run as Australia’s longest-serving Labor prime minister.

Bishop was never into such deliberate sabotage, but she was her own person, and kept her options open, and therefore she was never really suited to the role of deputy. She more or less stuck with Turnbull, in both his incarnations, but she dropped both Brendan Nelson and Tony Abbott when she decided their time was up.

This may have been realpolitik, but from a deputy it was unseemly; Bishop should at least have warned them when trouble was brewing. And in the end, it put a stop to her own long-cherished advancement. Her defection from Abbott to Turnbull was never forgiven by the right-wing rump, which is the main reason that although she had been deputy leader for 11 years and was by far the most popular candidate with the public, the party unceremoniously spat her out when last year’s leadership ballot was held.

Would she have been a good leader, a good prime minister? We shall never know. But she at least deserved the chance.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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