April 2015


Bishop’s gambit

By Chris Wallace
Bishop’s gambit
What’s next for the perpetual deputy?

It is a late summer evening, and a woman in a silver gown glides towards the Sydney Opera House. Nicholas Milton observes her as he walks to work. He will conduct Puccini’s Tosca for Opera Australia that night, but the regal quayside progress of Julie Bishop and her companion has his attention right now. “She looks like a queen,” he says of the minister for foreign affairs, albeit one who is happy for people to bowl up for a chat and an autograph. She is having a magic moment – famous, in the job of her life, her new partner, handsome ex-pharmacist David Panton, in tow, and the possibility of the prime ministership shimmering just beyond reach.

Julie Isabel Bishop, 58, is one of the two people most likely to succeed Tony Abbott should his next blunders prove terminal. The other is her long-time friend Malcolm Turnbull, the communications minister. Behind them is the long tail of Liberal leadership hopefuls: Scott Morrison, Christopher Pyne, Joe Hockey and Andrew Robb. Turnbull’s supporters worry he has peaked: the longer the subterranean leadership rumble goes on the harder it will be for him to get the numbers, due to indulgent moves like his free-ranging critique, in a speech in the middle of the NSW election campaign, of the government’s failed budget strategy. There is concern that Turnbull’s tendency to unhelpful political breakouts could parallel those of the bull-in-a-china-shop prime minister they want to be rid of.

Turnbull’s best chance rests on his persuading the rest of the field not to run. Bishop’s political semaphore last month, that in the event of a successful spill motion she would run, changed the game – apart from anything else it increased the likelihood of another spill motion’s success. Several Liberal MPs did not support it last time because Turnbull seemed to be the only, and to them unacceptable, option. “She’s shown that skill of sending a message without actually breaking any of the rules,” says one former Liberal leadership combatant of Bishop. “She’s handled it very well.”

Voters feel they know Turnbull, the wealthy, republican, Point Piper–dwelling lawyer and merchant banker with a Bill Henson on his wall and a heart-shaped clutch of small-l liberal policies on his sleeve. But who is Bishop?

She is a frontbench success story in a government that doesn’t have many. Green-eyed colleagues say she has had it easy, supported by a good department and not caught, like them, in the ruck of domestic politics. But the facts are that she rates highly with voters; has been the deputy leader of the Liberal Party for the last seven of her 17 years in parliament, during which time her colleagues have lost confidence in, and changed, leaders twice; and has earnt appreciation from backbenchers for identifying as the servant of their interests ahead of others, including the leader.

What’s more, members of the Coalition’s other wing, the National Party, are suspicious of Turnbull’s trendy lefty scent but sniff a fellow traveller in Bishop. With a rural upbringing herself, Bishop might conceivably have been one of theirs. The common assumption about Bishop, that she was born fully formed as an Armani-coated litigator in a Laurie Connell–era Perth resembling Dallas on crack, is wrong. Historically, the Coalition only works well when both parties find the Liberal leader, who traditionally leads the alliance, acceptable. Swinging voters might love Turnbull, but if the National Party can’t stomach him, that’s something surmountable with only the greatest of difficulty.

However, Bishop may just be the most truly Liberal of the Liberal leadership contenders on offer – or, as party elder Peter Reith hinted in a recent Fairfax opinion piece, the only Liberal out of the three people at the top of the Abbott government pack. The implication is that Abbott has never really shaken off his BA Santamaria–loving National Civic Council roots, nor Turnbull his Labor leanings.

In the party room, Bishop is perceived as capable, consistent, grounded, predictable. Outside the party room, however, just below the “known knowns” sit a set of “unknown unknowns” sensed not least by journalists who can’t quite pin down her persona. The apparent dichotomy between her status as a high-achieving professional woman and her refusal to identify as a feminist is a prominent symbol of this. “I’m not good at self-describing,” Bishop tells the Monthly, “as is quite apparent when I refused to self-describe as a feminist, which drove the female members of the press gallery completely wild.”

This sense of not quite fully getting Bishop is juxtaposed with three sharp adjectives, “hard”, “posh” and “arrogant”, that come up early and often when one asks people about her. Bishop’s family history goes a long way to explaining who and what she is – and is not. Two of her cousins, John and Geoffrey Bishop, wrote an account of the extended family’s roots, There Cherries Grow: The Bishops of Eldervale – a history of the Bishop family of Huish Episcopi, Somerset and Eldervale, Norton Summit, South Australia (1990). It is not the “posh” tale some might imagine.

Julie Bishop is a Perth transplant. She is, in fact, a fifth-generation South Australian. Her great-great-grand-father James Bishop was from a family of farm workers in Somerset, England. He broke with family tradition in the 1840s and moved to London, where he worked as a porter. There he met a London maid, Jane Wells, daughter of a sailor. They married at Mary-le-Bone in 1847, and their first child, a son, was born five months later. Need may have propelled James and Jane to the altar but that was only the first stop on a journey that took them to the other side of the world. Their son was one of six children who died on the voyage to the Australia. They disembarked at Port Adelaide on Boxing Day 1849 and their daughter was born soon after; they lost her 18 months later to convulsions.

By 1860 James had bought 27 acres at Norton Summit, east of the city in the Adelaide Hills. He named the property Eldervale after the row of elder trees on part of the property that bordered his neighbour, the Reverend Thomas Playford. The land was hilly and forested, but it had rich alluvial river flats that would yield bountiful crops of cherries and apples, the foundation of the now-flourishing Bishop family’s fortunes.

When James went to try his luck briefly on the Victorian goldfields in 1862, Jane carried on with the garden, and for many years went to market with her babies. She claimed to be the first person to sell produce to retailers on the site of Adelaide’s East End Market in the 1850s, and she was also the first of a series of capable women with big personalities to marry Bishop men and play major economic roles in the family business.

The energetic, illiterate ex-skivvy “with a penchant for cockney expressions” looks nothing like her great-great-granddaughter, but she “carried herself very rigidly, upright and bold, words equally applicable to her nature”.

Then there was Alice, Bishop’s great-grandmother. “A fine looking woman with blue eyes and brown hair [and] a mind of her own”, Alice married into the family in 1883. “She was tall and slim with good bearing and could wear clothes to advantage,” according to family lore.

Alice also had a “droll sense of humour”. There’s a touch of late Victorian hauteur in the story one of her daughters told of shopping with her in an Adelaide emporium and Alice “being fitted personally with fashionable gloves, her arm on the counter, each finger seen to fit the item”. Back home, however, Alice worked the farm with the rest of the family.

Bishop’s grandfather Bill, like his father and grandfather before him, had cleared and put more Adelaide Hills land to orcharding in the small town of Basket Range. In 1922, the land became his own. The farm was called Tetratheca, after a four-petalled purple wildflower that grows on the property and around the Adelaide Hills.

Here a brief comparison of the patrilineal lines of the two Adelaide Hills families to have produced Australian foreign ministers is instructive.

Alexander Downer’s grandfather Sir John Downer, educated at toney St Peter’s College, was a barrister, a premier of South Australia and a senator in the federal parliament. Julie Bishop’s grandfather, educated at Basket Range Primary and Adelaide High, was a cherry and apple grower.

Alexander Downer’s father, Sir Alexander “Alick” Downer, educated at Geelong Grammar and Oxford University, was a barrister, a minister in the Menzies government and a High Commissioner to London. Alick Downer was godfather to Charles Spencer, Princess Diana’s brother; Spencer’s godmother is the Queen. Julie Bishop’s father, Doug Bishop, educated at Urrbrae Agricultural High School, was a cherry and apple grower.

The “posh” sledge thrown at Julie Bishop doesn’t stack up, not compared to a Downer, anyway.

“We got up in the morning and the first thing we did was run down to the dam and pick apples for our school lunch,” Bishop recalls of life at Tetratheca.

“We were always running, all over the property … We would run up the hill, and our grandfather would drive us to school – MaryLou, Patricia [her older siblings] and me, and we’d pick up our cousins Geoffrey and John – all five of us in my grandfather’s Holden. He would sing all the way to school for us, and smoke a cigar.”

By the time Bishop enrolled, Basket Range Primary had two rooms and a husband-and-wife team of teachers, the Nitschkes (who had a much older son called Philip). “The school population fluctuated depending on the fruit-picking season,” she recalls.

Sundays were complicated.

“As a little girl, because Mum was quite a strong Methodist and my father was sort of casually Church of England, but the Bishop family were very strong Church of England, Anglican, we used to go to both churches and both Sunday schools every Sunday.”

Bishop describes it as an idyllic childhood. “It was like a commune – my grandparents, my parents and our family, my uncle and his wife and their kids, my father’s cousin Murray and his wife Jean – they were both my godparents – and their two sons, Geoffrey and John, and then the manager Henry, and his wife and their two sons. And we all lived on the property and we were very self-contained.”

The star of this agrarian commune was Bishop’s mother, Isabel.

Isabel Wilson, from Port Broughton on the Yorke Peninusla, had won a scholarship to Adelaide Girls High and had dreams beyond a life on the land. They were derailed by her mother’s ill health. With the rest of her siblings either away at the war or married with family responsibilities of their own, it fell to her to leave school, go home and look after her mum. “I only found out years later that she desperately wanted to do law,” Bishop says. “And people ask me, ‘Why did you do law?’ And I had no idea. I now know that it was my mother’s quiet coaching.”

It was on a rare visit down from Port Broughton to visit an old Adelaide High friend, who took her to the Bishop farm for tennis, that Isabel met Doug.

“My father was madly in love with her. They had the most amazing marriage. No daughter could ever live up to the standard they set, believe me. Oh, I shouldn’t say that about my sisters. ‘Sorry, sisters – I mean, you all did, but maybe I didn’t,’” Bishop jokes. “They were a wonderful couple.”

Black Sunday on 2 January 1955 saw fires ravage the Adelaide Hills, taking two firefighters’ lives. They wiped out Doug and Isabel Bishop’s economic base too. “Much of my early years was dominated by my parents’ struggle to re-establish the property,” says Bishop, who was born a year later. “They lost their pine plantations, which were ready for harvesting. They lost fruit trees. They lost sheds, equipment, horses. It was traumatic.”

People wonder about Bishop’s hardness, but it is easy to trace it to a certain steeliness in her family history. Wiped out, Doug and Isabel Bishop stayed on the land and began again. The property would not return to profit until the 1970s.

The family completely changed their horticultural practices as a result of the fire. “All of the apple trees have gone now. For six weeks of the year we have a cherry crop, but otherwise it’s cattle.” Over the years, Bishop’s father and her younger brother, the two Dougs, bought out the rest of the family.

“I always describe my parents as the Menzian Liberals,” Bishop says. “Hard work was the ethic. They didn’t ever seek a handout. They probably didn’t even have insurance, knowing my family. They paid cash for everything, in the sense that if you didn’t have the money you didn’t borrow. They were very self-reliant, very independent and took personal responsibility for all they did. They instilled that in us.”

This prompts the question, how did the Bishops survive that long without Tetratheca turning a profit?

Isabel saved the day. She got an inheritance from her maternal grandfather that enabled them to survive at Tetratheca long enough to rebuild its productive base. “And I’m sure she used the money from her inheritance to put us through private school,” Bishop says. “That was her choice.” It must have been quite an inheritance, of course, to do all this; while not quite “posh”, there is no doubt the family is well off.

Despite the serious Methodism on her mother’s side of the family, Isabel sent her daughters to Adelaide’s Anglican St Peter’s Collegiate Girls’ School, which was closer than Methodist Ladies’ College, and it proved the final nail in the coffin of the family’s Methodism.

As the three Bishop girls graduated school and moved on to university – the first Bishops in their line to do so – Isabel’s restlessness came to the fore.

“She had been a housewife, a mother, a supporter to my father from the age of 21 through to her early 40s. And I remember it well – I was 17 at the time, I’d just started university, my older sisters had gone, my brother had just started secondary school, and my mum was complaining about the fact that she’d never achieved anything in her life. I said, ‘Why don’t you go and get a job off the property?’ She said, ‘I’ll never get a job. I don’t have any qualifications.’ I sat down and opened up the Advertiser and I went through the situations vacant. And guess what, there was a job. It was at the Norwood youth centre. We did up an application for her and sent it off, and we didn’t tell my dad because Mum was part of the team on the property.

“One day she picked me up from uni … and we got home, and there was a message from Dad on the table, saying, ‘The Norwood youth activities centre rang – you’ve got the job.’” Bishop still breaks into peals of laughter telling the story. “It was the first he’d heard of it.”

Isabel started off doing two afternoons a week and ended up becoming a government-employed community welfare worker.

It took four generations of the Bishops in this line for one to bust free of the farm, and that wasn’t Isabel’s only big move.

Isabel’s father-in-law, Bill Bishop, had been active in local politics, serving as the mayor of East Torrens for three decades. When his son Doug was approached in 1983 to run for the East Torrens District Council, he turned down the opportunity. “He said, ‘You’re talking to the wrong person – you should be talking to my wife,’” Bishop recalls. “So Mum said, ‘Yeah, OK.’ And she stood for council, she got elected and then a few years later she became mayor.”

You cannot understand Bishop without understanding her strong relationship, and identification, with her mother. “She was very popular,” she says of Isabel. “We act the same. She was very funny. She used to have funny little voices. She was very cute, [and] she’d make me laugh until I’d weep. She was very warm and very loving … When she died [in 2005] the funeral was at St John’s [Norton Summit], and hundreds and hundreds of people came.”

In the middle decades of the 20th century, the dominant party in South Australia, the now-defunct Liberal & Country League (LCL), blended the urban and rural, liberal and conservative, strands of thinking in a way that just didn’t happen elsewhere in Australia. Tom Playford, South Australia’s longest-serving premier and Bill Bishop’s best friend, ran a Deakinite Settlement–style government in which tariff-protected industrial development was encouraged alongside traditional rural industries. “I grew up only ever knowing Tom Playford as premier,” says Bishop. “I didn’t even know there was a Labor Party until I was in my teens … There was so much stability around the Playford era.” Of course, Playford’s record reign was underpinned by a gerrymander that survived until Steele Hall succeeded him as LCL premier in 1968 and introduced fair electoral boundaries.

From here on, the Julie Bishop narrative is well established. She graduated in law from the University of Adelaide in 1978 and went to work at the prestigious, male-dominated old Adelaide firm Wallman and Partners. When a senior partner, John Mangan, left and hung out his shingle, Bishop went with him and ended up a partner. “I’m a lover, not a fighter,” Bishop says, but much of her early work was in criminal law and most of her later work was as a corporate litigator. “I was a good negotiator as well,” she adds, challenged to resolve the seeming contradiction.

In 1983, a relationship and marriage to Perth developer Neil Gillon took Bishop west, where she was Julie Gillon for five years. While the marriage did not stick, the new geography and work opportunities did. “I fell in love with Perth,” she says. “It’s one of the most exciting places I could have imagined … The work in the law firm [Robinson Cox, which became Clayton Utz] was unlike work I could have ever have expected to get in Adelaide. It was very dynamic.” In 1994 she beat two male colleagues in the first election of a managing partner for Clayton Utz’s Perth office and ran the multimillion-dollar business with 200 employees.

Imbued from birth with Liberal politics, Bishop formally joined the party following the spectacle of the WA Inc royal commission. “I joined to help Richard Court get elected as state premier,” she says, “and through that involvement I then got involved in federal campaigns with different local members in my area.” On Court’s side of the WA Liberals were an unsavoury group of right-wingers, including Noel Crichton-Browne and Ross Lightfoot. The latter was briefly Bishop’s partner.

Some Liberal moderates still hold these associations against her. “Bishop would be much warmer if she wasn’t caught up with some of the dickheads she’s been caught up with,” says one, doubting how “warm and dry” the 2015 model Bishop really is. There is no doubt she learnt how to play hardball in the tough school of WA conservative politics. As the federal shadow minister for foreign affairs in 2009, she went in boots and all against Governor-General Quentin Bryce when the then prime minister, Kevin Rudd, ordered Bryce on a flying 10-country tour of Africa to court votes in Australia’s bid for election to the UN Security Council. It was an attack Bryce was unable to defend herself against, and some remain bitter about the ambush. Ironically, one of the biggest winners from the bid’s success turned out to be Bishop, who benefited from the high-profile platform the Security Council gave her in her early days as foreign minister in 2013.

When a sabbatical approached in 1996, Bishop consulted prominent businessmen John Horgan and Michael Chaney about how she might best acquire some management education. They pointed her to Harvard Business School’s Advanced Management Program. She attended and had an epiphany. Bishop cites international competitiveness expert Richard Vietor as a key influence, and says the government, business and international economy course taught by George Cabot Lodge was pivotal in developing her approach to government. “It took as a case study a country at a particular point in their history, and it would look at the political, economic, social indicators and say, ‘Well, this is what the government has decided upon in terms of policies and budgetary initiatives,’ and then we would have to work out what impact they would have on the country long term.”

One of Cabot Lodge’s scenario-building exercises focused on Australia’s recently elected Howard government. “This is what the Howard government had promised, this is what they’re proposing to do,” Lodge said. “What’s going to happen?” A fascinating debate unfolded. “At the heart of it was industrial relations reform,” Bishop says. “That was going to be the reform that would turbo-charge the Australian economy.”

Things moved fast from there. Doug and Isabel came to Harvard for her graduation, and the three went on a break to Martha’s Vineyard afterwards. Around the fire one night, Bishop told them, “Well, I now know what I’m going to do. I’m going to enter federal politics.”

“And my mother just got it immediately – she was delighted. My father said, ‘Over my dead body! No daughter of mine!’ All that sort of stuff. But by the end of the holiday he came around and said, ‘Of course, we’ll back you.’”

Back in Perth, Bishop was approached to be a member of the Constitutional Convention, where in February 1998 she first met the federal treasurer, Peter Costello, with whom she would become politically close, and Tony Abbott. A month later the WA Liberal Party president, David Johnston, asked if she would stand for preselection in the plum Perth seat of Curtin, then held by the ex-Liberal independent Allan Rocher, who was, coincidentally, a close friend of Prime Minister John Howard. By May she had been preselected, and by October she was the member for Curtin. Howard, who wanted Rocher back in the fold and had enmities with the Crichton-Browne gang dating back to his days as treasurer in the Fraser government, was not happy. Bishop served five long years on the government backbench before Howard appointed her minister for aged care in 2003. She became minister for education, science and training in 2006.

“Julie was a very efficient minister,” says one departmental secretary who served her in government. “She was always across the detail on the issues. She was very particular about how events were planned and run, getting involved in much of the detailed organisation. She was always polite but distant. I am not surprised that she’s been successful in Foreign Affairs. It is a strong department and has expert staff who are good at preparing detailed briefs, including comprehensive backgrounds on key international visitors and leaders.”

Like all top lawyers, the senior public servant says, Bishop would read all the material and absorb it. “I suspect she relies more on her department for advice than most of her front-bench colleagues. [This] is why she appears more successful.”

Even if this is the full extent of Bishop’s skill, it still sets her apart from most of her colleagues, many of whom are unable to harness the formidable resources of their bureaucracies to yield political dividends. This flaw is also at the root of many of Tony Abbott’s difficulties as prime minister (not to mention those of Kevin Rudd before him) and Malcolm Turnbull’s failure as leader of the opposition. If you’re unable to engage and employ the machinery of government, charismatic leadership is never enough in itself to maintain power for long.

“My mother instilled that in me, that if I want to achieve something, it’ll be done through your own talent, hard work, ingenuity and enterprise,” Bishop says. She notably refuses to acknowledge a glass ceiling.

“Gender has nothing to do with it … It’s there – of course it’s there. I’m not stupid. It’s all around me. I grew up in and always worked in male-dominated careers but I’ve always found my way through. How churlish it would be of me today as the deputy leader of the major party in the government, as the first female foreign minister, to claim that I’d been the subject of sexism in my career. I’ve achieved everything that I could have ever dreamt of achieving. And I haven’t done it through playing the gender card.”

And God help anyone who tries to do so on her behalf. “When people demand that I describe myself as a feminist – I don’t,” she declares. “Who am I? Well, I’m Australian, I’m a West Australian, I’m a Liberal. I’m a member of parliament. I’m the foreign minister. How much more descriptive do I have to get?” If you want to know her as a politician, look at her voting record, Bishop says. “Whenever there’s been a conscience vote – whether it be [the abortion drug] RU486, whether it’s been stem-cell research – I’ve always been on the socially progressive side.”

She is also Basket Range and, crucially, Bishop. Brother Doug, a partner in Clayton Utz’s Sydney office, now runs the farm on the side. Political junkies and cherry-lovers can book into the B&B cottages on the still-working farm. A version of the Tetratheca commune has been re-created in urban Adelaide. Sister MaryLou lives on one corner in Medindie, sister Patricia lives on the other corner, their father lives next door, a nephew lives in the same street. “And if I’m staying there over Christmas with my dad, I’ll get up in the morning in my dressing gown and wander over to Patricia, and then we’ll wander over to see MaryLou, and it’s just like we’re back in Basket Range,” Bishop says. “We are each other’s best friends.”

It is just as well, because in politics one usually doesn’t get any. Bishop’s critics say she’s a person “without a framework”. Others see this as a strength, pointing out that Liberal leaders with frameworks, like John Hewson and Tony Abbott, tend to wreck the political furniture. “She’d be a fantastic chairman of the board,” says one old hand who has observed her up close as foreign minister. “She’d lead debate, bring people together, allow people to have their say, do it in an orderly way.”

The future for Abbott, Turnbull and Bishop – and the 40 Liberal MPs whose seats are on the line – lies in the polls. There might not be a lot of the “vision thing” with Bishop, but party-room supporters sense she would occupy a sensible middle Liberal ground, and be able to run a proper cabinet government rather than government by the leader plus their personal office, as has become the worrying norm. There is a sense, too, that while Bishop would like the job, Turnbull desperately needs it, and neediness is an unattractive attribute at the top. Bishop may just be the grown-up the Liberals have been waiting for. 

Chris Wallace

Chris Wallace is a journalist and the author of Germaine Greer, Untamed Shrew and The Private Don.

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