25/09/2007 - 22:00

Maybe more than mischief

25/09/2007 - 22:00

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This month, a page two advertisement in The West Australian, paid for by the WA Labor Party, carried a head and shoulders photograph of Liberal MP Julie Bishop, alongside a headline that read: “Is she staying? Or is she going…”

Maybe more than mischief

This month, a page two advertisement in The West Australian, paid for by the WA Labor Party, carried a head and shoulders photograph of Liberal MP Julie Bishop, alongside a headline that read: “Is she staying? Or is she going…”

Accompanying text said: “Speculation continues that Member for Curtin Julie Bishop will be drafted into the State Parliament as Leader of the Opposition before the 2009 State Election.

“With the continue poor performance of Paul Omodei and the absence of any effective alternative leader, many Liberals are calling for Julie Bishop to leave Federal Parliament and enter State politics.

“The 2007 Federal election will be called in just a few weeks’ time. The people of Curtin need to know now if Julie Bishop will serve a full three-year term.

“It’s time to come clean Ms Bishop: are you staying or are you going?”

It’s highly unlikely that Premier Alan Carpenter did not give this the nod, suggesting he fears a Bishop-led Liberal Opposition, which is quite understandable since his big-taxing government is far from impressive.

The Labor strategy group that conceived this mischievous little ploy did so to set tongues wagging inside WA’s demoralised Liberal ranks, especially in gossipy Nedlands, Dalkeith and Peppermint Grove, residents of which Ms Bishop represents in Canberra.

That said, there are several other observations worth making about Ms Bishop, and WA Labor’s decision to so publicly target her.

For reasons not entirely clear, talk occasionally surfaces suggesting that she’s leadership material.

That’s baffling, because evidence to hand points to her being more comfortable following than leading.

Soon after reaching Perth from her home city of Adelaide in the 1980s, Ms Bishop gained prominence as a St Georges Terrace lawyer for high-profile WA Inc and Burswood Casino figure, Dallas Dempster.

By the mid-1990s she’d emerged in Liberal circles and joined, at the behest of one-time Liberal powerbroker, ex-senator Noel Crichton-Browne, a branch in Perth division.

Along with this, she gained Liberal appointments to several quangos, including a pearl industry council, Murdoch University’s senate, the SBS board, and a planning tribunal.

More importantly, it was about this time that the Liberals lost their blue ribbon Curtin seat to dumped Liberal MP, Alan Rocher, a long-time John Howard pal.

Although Ken Court, Sir Charles’s son, had toppled Mr Rocher at Curtin’s preselection, Mr Rocher managed to retain his seat at the 1996 election by turning the tables on the Liberals and contesting the seat as an independent.

That prompted some within Nedlands, Dalkeith and Peppermint Grove Liberal circles to launch moves to regain Curtin for the Liberals at the 1998 contest.

It was shortly before that election that Ms Bishop surfaced as the chosen one to topple Mr Rocher, which she quite easily did.

Considerable planning went into ensuring Mr Rocher was toppled, down to staging a standing ovation for Ms Bishop as she entered a Liberal Party state council meeting held in Bunbury.

The reason for this was that Prime Minister John Howard was lobbying behind the scenes from Canberra to have Mr Rocher re-endorsed as Curtin’s official Liberal candidate in 1998 without having to go through the preselection process.

However, once the concocted standing ovation had been staged, those designated to move for the Howard-initiated Rocher re-admission to the party at the Bunbury meeting understandably felt they couldn’t proceed.

They’d been checkmated, and Ms Bishop was their opponents’ pawn in the power play.

The reason for revisiting this little-known episode is to show that Ms Bishop was a willing player, not an initiator or leader, in a party power group’s moves to thwart Mr Howard’s plan to resurrect Mr Rocher as a Liberal MHR after he stood against and beat the endorsed Ken Court.

Moreover, she’d agreed to play a similar blocking role straight after the February 2001 state election, at which Richard Court’s government was toppled.

This time she was earmarked to stymie the leadership aspirations of Liberal deputy, Colin Barnett, who was set to take over.

The complex game plan was to require her to resign as Curtin’s MHR, to inherit Richard Court’s Nedlands seat, and promptly become WA Liberal leader, leaving Mr Barnett in the dust, as she’d done to Mr Rocher in 1998.

Once again, a powerful party insider group came out promoting a willing Ms Bishop.

But the plan backfired because Mr Barnett created such a rumpus in the media that she quickly got cold feet and decided to continue as a Canberra MP.

Again, the crucial point was that she didn’t initiate the anti-Barnett displacement move; just as she hadn’t initiated blocking Mr Rocher’s intended re-entry into the party.

Thirdly, as national education minister, Ms Bishop has obediently followed Mr Howard’s arch-centralist dictates to the letter, something one wouldn’t expect from a WA Liberal politician.

It’s just further evidence of her preference for following, even if it puts her offside with some in Perth.

Although three swallows don’t make a summer, the fact that this trio of major political moves each involved Ms Bishop following the transcript of others, rather than initiating matters herself, means one is compelled to seriously question if she’s really leadership material.

That said, it should be noted that Labor has several well-placed informants in the swish Curtin seat who closely watch Ms Bishop’s moves and those of the Liberal Party.

On top of that federal Labor MPs are also watching her closely in Canberra.

Both groups of Labor spies have attempted to determine if she’s the sort of person who is likely to want to stay in federal politics after the likely emergence of a Kevin Rudd-led Labor government.

And the gossip from both is matched-up by Labor’s Perth-based strategy group with an eye to the February 2009 state election – just 17 months away.

Clearly that group has concluded that Ms Bishop is unlikely to relish being a powerless Curtin backbench MP undertaking those boring flights across Australia year-in year-out for perhaps two or three Rudd Labor governments.

With all that said, the only question to be answered is precisely what Labor’s two clandestine information channels that have been focusing upon Ms Bishop have discovered, or think they’ve discovered.

Unfortunately, State Scene can’t answer this question in detail since my sources don’t know precisely what’s been happening deep inside that group.

As time passes, things may become clearer.

The best guess is that Labor’s Curtin and Canberra spies have convinced Mr Carpenter and his strategy boffins that Ms Bishop may well be amenable to leaving federal politics should the Howard government fall.

Since it’s most unlikely that she’d return to being a St Georges Terrace lawyer, what other possible options are there?

Clearly, with WA’s Liberals being so rudderless and not looking like winning the 2009 or the 2013 elections, something drastic needs to be done.

And drastic here may mean looking once again to Ms Bishop to fill a perceived void.

This line of reasoning certainly appears to be backed by Labor, which went as far as to place the aforementioned advertisement in a statewide newspaper to publicly embarrass her.

Let’s wait to see how things pan out.

There’s still a substantial amount of water to flow under the bridge, including a federal election and the fall-out straight after.

If the Liberals are toppled, as is expected, a huge shakeout will accompany Mr Howard’s ignominious departure.

That means vacancies all over, including the party’s national leadership and deputy leadership.

Who knows which way Ms Bishop may jump? And who knows what she’ll prefer – Perth or Canberra?

Clearly Mr Carpenter and his strategists suspect she’s likely to opt for a top Liberals job in Perth rather than anything that may arise from expected changes in Canberra.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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