The Politics    Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Bishop oversteps

By Sean Kelly

Poor political execution put pressure back on the government

In November 2012, Julie Bishop was the Coalition’s chief spear carrier on the contrived AWU scandal then dogging Julia Gillard, for whom I was working. Each day, Bishop would seize upon some headline and deliver a soundbite, giving what was usually a non-story some guaranteed airtime.

One day we were proceeding as usual: someone in the Coalition had attacked, and it was leading the radio bulletins for an hour. We had arranged for an MP to counterattack, ensuring our angle led the bulletins for the following hour. The reports didn’t change much, except for the first line or two.

This sort of stuff seems petty, but one of the frustrating things about working in politics is that you never know which of the millions of tiny things will blow up to become big things. You want, desperately, not to sweat the small stuff, but you know, too, that small stuff can rapidly inflate. You need to keep the momentum on your side, and the pressure on the other side.

Soon enough, Bishop called a press conference, to re-take the momentum. She said Gillard and others had “wanted to hide from the AWU the fact that an unauthorised entity was being set up to siphon funds through it for their benefit and not for the benefit of the AWU”.

That sounds unbearably complex and tedious now, but back then it was a dramatic escalation. Bishop, by referring to “their benefit”, had accused the prime minister of engaging in and benefiting from corrupt activity. We knew she couldn’t back it up, and that she probably hadn’t meant to go that far. But she’d said it, and her accusations were going to be broadcast to the nation.

Almost immediately, Anthony Albanese held a press conference and challenged Bishop to support her claims. He said that the Opposition leader, Tony Abbott, must support Bishop, or sack her.

It was enough to derail her attack. The momentum had shifted. Later that afternoon, Bishop was forced to hold another press conference and explain that she hadn’t meant to include Gillard in her accusations. It was a humiliating backdown, and damaged Bishop’s ability to prosecute the case against the prime minister.

To understand why I’m bringing this up, I have to give you a very quick recap of today’s events.

Yesterday, it emerged that Barnaby Joyce was a New Zealand citizen. While it seems this came out because of questions from Fairfax media, it’s also the case that someone in the ALP was in touch with a New Zealand Labour MP and asked them to follow up.

Today, the Coalition jumped all over this. It smacked of Soviet-era collusion with foreign governments, said assistant treasurer Michael Sukkar. Malcolm Turnbull told his party room that Bill Shorten was trying to “steal government by entering into a conspiracy with a foreign power”.

This is crazy stuff, obviously, and beneath a prime minister. Turnbull should have left such attacks to others. But you can see the logic of the accusation: it’s the battle-of-the-first-lines again. The government is under immense pressure, and is desperately trying to get out from under by shifting the focus to Labor. The crazier the accusation, the more likely the focus is to shift.

This isn’t about making a credible claim that the public will buy. It’s about creating a little bit of space for the government, even if just for a few hours – perhaps even coming to a draw on the evening news. There is also a tiny hope that journalists will pursue Labor doggedly until all the details of its co-operation with the kiwis come out. A pox on all your houses is always preferable to a pox on just one’s own house.

So it’s all silly, and won’t last long, but, within the artificial parameters of politics in parliamentary weeks, there was method in the madness.

Luckily for Labor, there was still a Bishop appearance to come.

Bishop, these days the actual foreign affairs minister of our country, said that, if the New Zealand election delivered a Labour government, she would have difficulty working with anybody in that party.

In case you’re wondering, NZ Labour are the underdogs – but their election is not unthinkable.

Not finished, Bishop also said that she refused to accept the word of the internal affairs minister, who comes from another party, and who had said that the New Zealand MP’s questions weren’t the instigator of the issue, questions from Fairfax were.

This is pretty strong stuff. Our foreign minister attacked both the government and the Opposition of our close neighbour, all because Joyce hadn’t got his own citizenship in order. She took an attack on the Opposition and turned it into a minor diplomatic incident. Overreach is an understatement.

In terms of the broader shape of politics, today is unlikely to matter much. I doubt Australians will be too worried about a complicated diplomatic scuffle with New Zealand – it’s no underarm bowling incident, after all. But there are some takeaways.

The first is that the amount of pressure on Turnbull right now is hard to overstate. If things were even slightly better the government might have limited itself to a single counterattack, it may have thought better of the conspiracy line, it certainly wouldn’t have made the PM the attack-dog-in-chief.

The second is that, while we shouldn’t overblow the significance of this kiwi trouble, it shouldn’t be totally ignored. A sensible government does not needlessly jeopardise foreign relations in the manner we observed today.

The third is that the government is not handling pressure well. We are in the early days of this Joyce crisis, with potentially weeks and weeks to go. Today was a bad sign of its ability to withstand the blowtorch.

The fourth is that Bishop’s attack is likely to have political consequences. Either Bishop’s stocks will suffer – political prosecution at moments of high threat turns on a level of precision that she didn’t display – or the finger will be pointed in some other direction. Both would have unpredictable effects. 

In the AWU matter, Gillard had one massive advantage: the facts were on her side. Until the High Court rules, we will not know if that is the case for Turnbull. In either case, he is up against it. If the facts do not favour him, then this is only a very small taste of the trouble ahead.

In other news


‘Bennelong’ by Bangarra Dance Theatre

Sydney Opera House (touring Canberra, Brisbane, Melbourne)

Fiona McGregor

“Nobody owns a story, they say. But that’s in an ideal world where everybody has equal access. Bangarra Dance Theatre’s version of Bennelong takes the man as close to his people as possible; the company’s headquarters on the harbour is right near where he was born. Bennelong was just over 20 in 1789, and his interactions with the English were intense. He learnt the language, travelled to England, adopted Western dress and the habit of alcohol, and died tragically young.”  READ ON


Bishop’s gambit

What’s next for the perpetual deputy?

Chris Wallace

“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 Dallason crack, is wrong.” (April 2015)  READ ON


Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.


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