There is a news picture of Foreign Minister Julie Bishop that sticks in my mind.
Bishop, lithe, agile (that word again!) jogs, smiling and confident, with her sweaty, be-suited Chinese bodyguard in his polished leather shoes, toiling behind, on an official visit to China.
There’s another one too, Bishop, fetchingly head-scarfed –not quite hijab-ed, her trademark blonde fringe peeping from under the folds of fabric- during her official visit to Teheran.
No doubt about it, Julie was the shining star – the only woman then – in the Government’s stratosphere. Even rusted-on old lefties of the Canberra Press Gallery loved her.
One of Australia’s top foreign reporters treasures a pic, taken on his phone, of a shared selfie, Bishop, her partner and the journalist, all smiling companionably into the lens during a companionable jog around the foreign capital they all happened to find themselves in.
Then, inexplicably, the picture starts to blur.
When some 1000 Vietnam vets and their families waited for hours for the much-anticipated Long Tan Cross commemoration, they were turned away by Vietnamese police after an abrupt termination of proceedings by the Vietnamese authorities. Australia gives thousands in aid, through DFAT and it was a serious slipup by the Department whose representative, the Australian ambassador in Ho Chi Min City should have advised the Australian government of what was in the wind before it became necessary for the Prime Minister and Veterans Affairs Minister Dan Tehan to scramble to cobble together a solution that didn’t, in the end, work.
Minister Bishop’s office was curiously quiet, low profile on the matter and while DFAT would doubtless affirm that this was a problem for Vets Affairs, the fact remains that Australia has a post in Vietnam and this happened on Bishop’s watch.
One of the most –if not the most- capable, prescient and knowledgeable diplomats, Peter Varghese, former head of the Department of Foreign Affairs, retired early, to take up an academic role in Queensland.
In a far-ranging interview with Radio National’s Geraldine Doogue, Varghese spoke of the coming ‘inflexion point’ Australia would face and what he called ‘the tyranny of the current’. Government, Varghese said, is a pact between the past, present and the future and we need to concentrate on the future which will present challenges but also opportunities and to use our advantages, “we have to hang onto what we do well, using our strong liberal democracy and egalitarian ethos, national traits that fit our strengths and hopefully will equip us against future shocks.”
Varghese was present when Bishop welcomed the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to a ‘working lunch’ meeting at Parliament House earlier this year, held to negotiate, among other issues, the repatriation of Iranian asylum-seekers. Either the smoked salmon and king prawns with lemon and dill avocado mousse failed to impress the taciturn Iranian minister or Bishop’s powers of persuasion failed her.
Iran has yet to accept repatriation of a single Iranian asylum seeker.
Another bombshell landed when the ABC reported that taxpayers, through the DFAT and World Vision, had funded a terrorist organisation, Hamas, to the tune of some five million dollars, through a World Vision manager in Gaza.
DFAT had to halt further payments but probably resumed them once the shouting died down. It’s becoming increasingly clear, as one senior DFAT mole in Canberra confirmed, that Bishop’s pact with her Department; is make the Minister look good and DFAT stays protected from maverick Nationals or Senate committees asking uncomfortable questions about how much things cost.
As a Department, DFAT is vulnerable to cost cutting; UK and European ambassadors now attend trade shows and lobby foreign governments for trade deals; embassies share spaces and telephone calls are made direct to from Heads of Heads of Government to their peers, person to person, not through an envoy, however illustrious.
Most recently Bishop was pulled into the media storm by Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s Anzac Day tweet . The Minister raised eyebrows in Coalition ranks when she defended Abdel-Magied, who holds a position on the Council for Australian-Arab Relations, a non-statutory body within DFAT and was awarded a plum travel gig to the Middle East to publicise her book. In a letter to Senator Eric Abetz, who wanted Yassmin dropped from the CAAR, Bishop wrote:
Given that Ms Abdel-Magied did not seek to defend her works, that the post was removed and that she has apologised, there is no need for me to make reference to the issue of the right to free speech, which has also been raised with me by other members of Parliament.
As to her part-time position as a member of the CAAR advisory board, I have made enquiries of a number of people familiar with her work on CAAR.
Without exception, they are of the view that she has made a significant and positive contribution to CAAR and its objectives, and has communicated a positive image of Australia as an inclusive, tolerant and multicultural nation where civic participation of Arab-Australians, and particularly women, is valued.
In view of Ms Abdel-Magied’s apology [and] the fact that her social media post was made in a private capacity drawing no link to CAAR … I do not intend to terminate her membership of the board of CAAR.
The letter was likely drafted within DFAT’s Ministerial Communication Unit, whose job it is to provide letters for the Minister’s signature.
Yassmin, it’s clear, is protected, in DFAT’s estimation she’s the acceptable face of Australian Muslim womanhood. So Yassmin can go on making provocative comments and Bishop will continue to support her because DFAT wants it that way.
Did anyone say “Yes, Minister ?”
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