Flat White

Pawns take Bishop

21 February 2019

7:45 PM

21 February 2019

7:45 PM

Julie Bishop has pulled the plug on her political career. The effusion of love in the House of Representatives on Thursday afternoon, and from Liberal MPs rushing to eulogise her on Facebook and Twitter was inversely proportional to the level of support Bishop won in the Liberal party room on that fateful day last August when Scott Morrison barged past her to take the prime ministership.

The over-loud applause you heard after her resignation speech was a lot of moderate Liberal MPs trying the damnedest to hide their shame and guilt at how they shafted her. If they loved her so much, where were they when she needed them to step up support her in the leadership ballot?

To be deputy leader for a decade, moving like the Vicar of Bray from Nelson’s side, to Malcolm Turnbull’s, then Tony Abbott’s, then Turnbull’s again, took some political skill that surely she deserved some party room votes for chutzpah if nothing else. Yet she did that not wisely, but too well: to her critics she was loyal to all her leaders yet loyal to none.

Like Brendan Nelson before her, the ambitious Bishop put her all into helping ‘the colleagues’ raise money and get elected. No chicken was too rubbery for her plate. No shopping mall was too bogany for her Christian Louboutins. No Liberal state council was too boring. She went not just the extra yard, but the extra mile for Liberal MPs and candidates far-flung across Australia. But unlike Nelson, her footslogging support for them didn’t translate into leadership votes for her when it counted.

Bishop is the classic case of the old adage, ‘if you want a friend in politics, get a dog’. A poodle at least would have showed her some loyalty: but as it happened, this Bishop was taken down by self-serving pawns in her own moderate faction. That will have hurt.

As for Bishop herself, if she did truly harbour post-election leadership ambitions, she should have nursed her hurt, suffered in glamorous silence and kept her head down waiting for the electoral earthquake to come in which her seat of Curtin could be one of the relative few Liberal seats to stay safe against the tide.

Instead, her constituents would have been forgiven if in the last six months they had asked Interpol to track her down as she went from one social event with the glitterati, one country to another.

Intelligent, charming and elegant she was but Julie Bishop was not, as Malcolm Turnbull tweeted, Australia’s finest foreign minister. Not by a long chalk.  As Greg Sheridan has written in the Australian Bishop was excellent at mastering her brief and did the job ably. She was well ahead of Labor poseur Gareth Evans, but way behind Doc Evatt and Richard Casey in terms of international clout and lasting hard achievements.

Her finest diplomatic moment, standing up for the victims of Russian aggression when Malaysian Airlines MH 17 was shot down in 2014, cannot be denied. But for all her frequent flier points as FM, it’s hard to point to an enduring foreign policy legacy from her tenure.

So it is that the Liberals’ best fundraising MP is calling it quits when her party needs that skill more than ever, and at a time when the Liberals can’t afford a full-on preselection contest to replace her in Curtin – something Bishop well knows. Dishes best served cold and all that.

From her resignation speech it’s clear she wants a woman to succeed her in Curtin, and the speculation is Bishop’s anointed choice is youngish foreign policy wonk Erin Watson-Lynn. Let’s hope, though, that Curtin is not a quick preselection rubber-stamping Bishop’s (or anyone else’s) patronage, or rewarding factional hackery, but a robust open contest with a strong field capable of selecting someone talented, patient and truly Liberal enough to be a frontbencher in the wilderness of Opposition, should that be what awaits.  Being Julie’s Anointed One is not enough; she must prove herself worthy in her own right.  But the last-minute timing of Bishop’s departure will help it become a coronation, not a contest, for her preferred candidate.

For now, though, Julie Bishop is shaking the Canberra dust, and the Morrison government, from her red soles.  She will not miss them and, going by what was done to her last August, she may not be all that missed herself.

Even her internal party critics should agree it’s sad that in the manner of her going Bishop has proven another adage: all political careers end in failure.

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