03/06/2014 - 12:59

Diplomatic player Bishop steps up charm

03/06/2014 - 12:59


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SPECIAL REPORT: Politicians with the ability to cut through on-message are a valuable commodity, and WA has one of the best.

Diplomatic player Bishop steps up charm
PLAYER: Julie Bishop is a valuable asset to the Liberal Party, not only in WA but nationally, as the government seeks to advance its agenda. Photo: Attila Csaszar

Politicians with the ability to cut through on-message are a valuable commodity, and WA has one of the best.

Successful politicians have typically honed their communication skills to a point where they provide succinct messages that clearly cut through the white noise of media clutter.

Australia’s foreign minister and deputy leader of the federal Liberal Party, Julie Bishop, is a master of this art.

Her peers’ recognition of this was evident a fortnight ago when the government’s budget sales pitch was rapidly going off-message.

Ms Bishop’s foreign travel schedule was briefly curtailed so she could go into action, spending considerable time talking up the budget in western Sydney, which is a distant demographic from her home turf of the seat of Curtin or the St Georges corporate set she knows so well.

Her influence is often pinpointed around her fund raising success; occupying arguably the safest seat in Western Australia, the state with the highest per capita number of conservative representatives and a reputation for providing big political donations.

But Ms Bishop is more than that. Prior to politics her corporate pedigree was significant, as Perth managing partner of major law firm Clayton Utz. She retains strong links with business – a sector whose national sway has increased along with the iron ore revenues that swell state and federal treasuries.

She is understood to seek the advice of a small coterie of well-connected business leaders including Azure Capital chairman John Poynton, Macquarie Bank WA chairman Mark Barnaba, Wesfarmers CEO Richard Goyder and non-executive director Richard Court, the latter a former state premier.

Considered a political moderate, Ms Bishop is active among the broader party and is close to state Liberal Party president Danielle Blain, a successful business leader who is seen as a powerful figure in the conservative side of political organisation.

And, of course, Ms Bishop is Australia’s most prominent person in foreign affairs, charting the nation’s position across myriad issues from the complex relationships in our regions to global concerns.

Her role is elevated by Australia’s inclusion as a temporary member of the United Nations Security Council, a position gained by her predecessor. That term is completed at the end of 2014, and Australia will hold the council’s rotating presidency during November.

Ms Bishop leads a group of three important WA-based federal cabinet ministers. The other two are senators Mathias Cormann and David Johnston, the finance minister and defence minister respectively.

Senator Cormann has certainly become the man of the moment.

Last year, Business News controversially elevated him to a position of considerable influence based on speculation that the coalition would win the election and he would likely be a front runner for a junior ministry role (or even a fringe cabinet position), either immediately post-election or at the next reshuffle.

In fact, he has leap-frogged many players to grab a senior role as finance minister, a job that has put him front and centre of the government’s strategy.

The only potential hiccup is Senator Cormann’s central role in selling a budget as Treasurer Joe Hockey’s right-hand man. That budget has not been well received and only time will tell if the past few weeks will be a blotch on his otherwise stellar career.

Senator Johnston is understood to have the respect of the military due to his solid understanding of the portfolio. In terms of influence in WA, the defence ministry is not particularly weighted to this state. It will be interesting to see if, outside of major decisions like spending on the Joint Strike Fighter – much criticised by his fellow WA Liberal Dennis Jensen – and other major assets, whether local industry wins much from his tenure.

A bigger military presence in the valuable north-west and more maintenance contracts at Henderson are on the agenda for WA industry. 

“We have the charm, the guns and the money,” said Ms Bishop, succinctly summarising these powerful key roles held by WA political leaders.

You certainly do not have to be an expert in diplomacy to see the foreign minister has the former part of the equation nailed. Her reputation as a tough political operator has been accentuated by images of her icy stare, but few constituents in her Perth backyard would have seen anything but the charm offensive from this experienced and powerful political figure.

And it is not just the official positions that create influence.

Much has been made of the Abbott cabinet, in which Ms Bishop is the sole female member (garnering a considerable amount of attention as a result, for a number of different reasons). Many media watchers will have noticed how her new haircut proved a distraction from the drier news of the day when the foreign minister sported her new look, seated just behind Mr Hockey as he handed down his budget in parliament.

Ms Bishop told Business News the decision to change her hair was not strategic and the timing was not deliberate. She simply sat down at her regular hairdresser and said she wanted something different.

The result, no doubt, is easier to manage for a minister who now spends even more time aboard aircraft than a typical WA politician, all already well travelled due to the long haul to Canberra each sitting week.

Be prepared for other aspiring women on the conservative side of politics to change their style.


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