Friday 10 Apr 2020 | 01:02 | SYDNEY
Friday 10 Apr 2020 | 01:02 | SYDNEY

'Full and total support': Bishop hears the death knell


Graeme Dobell

17 February 2009 16:02

Julie Bishop has just discovered the law known to all football coaches — when the club starts vowing its full and total support for you, the knives are out and the light over the exit door is flashing. And so the deputy leader of the Liberal Party has ‘stepped aside’ as shadow Treasurer. Her reward for going quietly is to become shadow Foreign Affairs Minister.

When Malcolm Turnbull remade the Opposition frontbench in September I offered three hints for those who would become Foreign Minister: the aspiring international statesperson should be a lawyer, relatively senior in the party, and have shown no previous interest in foreign policy. The Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith, ticks all those boxes. So does Julie Bishop.

Bishop is also proof of one other curious aspect of Australian politics — the use of Foreign Affairs as a safe but senior repository for deposed leaders. Call it the Downer-Hayden effect. Both Downer and Hayden gave up leadership of the Party for the good of the Party. The consolation prize for both was Foreign Affairs.

The award of political plums usually has more to do with personality and party dynamics than any direct experience of the Ministry being awarded. That is the generalist-over-specialist nature of our politics. Australia’s diplomats — coming out of a generalist tradition — should understand.

Although Bishop hangs on to the deputy leadership of the Liberals, her shunting to Foreign Affairs further underlines Malcolm Turnbull’s judgement about the course of Australian politics. It’s the economy, stupid! John Howard may have won two internationally-flavoured elections  at the start of this decade, but that was a departure from the Australian norm.

If Julie Bishop lost Treasury because she was seen as a non-performer, then giving her Foreign Affairs is a tacit concession of that ground to the uber-Foreign Minister, Kevin Rudd. Turnbull’s priority is to fight over economic management. The international issue that will get most attention is climate change, not the traditional high policy issues of diplomacy or low policy concerns of trade.

The deputy leader of the Liberal Party has been given the Winston Peters offer. When Helen Clark needed Winston’s vote to form a coalition government in New Zealand, she gave him Foreign Affairs. The job came with an implicit order: travel overseas as much as you like, don’t worry about attending Cabinet, but do try to be back if there’s an important vote in Parliament.