25/02/2009 - 22:00

Rudely awoken from a dream run

25/02/2009 - 22:00


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Rolled by her colleagues, what now for Julie Bishop’s political career?

JULIE Bishop's political career remains on thin ice.

A couple, or perhaps only one faux pas as opposition foreign affairs spokesperson and she'll be saying goodbye to a prospering life in Canberra, where, as she now knows, there's only the quick and the dead.

Ms Bishop fell on her sword as treasury spokesperson because of a series of embarrassing bungles, including charges of plagiarism; and her failure to inspire confidence.

Understandably, that prompted certain Liberal MPs to ask if she had what it takes to be in that job.

Until those doubts surfaced, Ms Bishop had enjoyed a dream run that began in 1997.

In that year she gained backing of the now-defunct Noel Crichton-Browne Liberal machine for pre-selection to Western Australia's blue-ribbon seat of Curtin.

And, at the 1998 election, she easily toppled Independent Liberal, Alan Rocher, who had retained Curtin at the previous election.

Throughout the 1990s, Mr Rocher was John Howard's key number cruncher, which explains why he received a semi-diplomatic job in Los Angeles after Ms Bishop toppled him.

Mr Howard was bitter that a key ally was snatched from him by Byzantine machinations inside the party's swanky western suburban branches.

Notwithstanding this, he elevated Ms Bishop to the ministry five years later, first to be ageing minister, followed by the education portfolio and as minister assisting for women's issues.

True, none of these posts was overly demanding.

Some even believe heading them up is a largely ceremonial task involving the delivery of prepared speeches, launching conferences, and having an occasional soft media interview, all of which Ms Bishop seemed to do competently.

Despite the demise of Howardism in late 2007, Ms Bishop's star continued to rise.

She became deputy Liberal leader, a post she still holds, even if tenuously.

As deputy to Howard successor, Brendan Nelson, she was, initially at least, ignored by those with a critical propensity and the wherewithal to cut one down.

This was in stark contrast to Dr Nelson's leadership period.

He was quickly targeted, and endured a campaign to undermine him launched clandestinely from within his ranks.

That, among other things, meant Ms Bishop was able to smoothly transition to the position of deputy to current Liberal leader, Malcolm Turnbull, who is now feeling the hot breath of one-time treasurer, Peter Costello.

But it wasn't long before she also encountered troubled waters.

In both the Nelson and Bishop cases, a core of hardnosed Liberal MPs with longstanding links to key press gallery journalists, decided to seek their removal once they were judged to be under-performers.

Those conspirators quickly came to the view that neither Dr Nelson as leader nor Ms Bishop as treasury spokesperson would lead them back into government; something they desperately seek.

Unlike many second-rank ministerial posts, leadership of the Liberal and Labor parties isn't ceremonial.

One must possess political nous, a sense of purpose, and display a strong desire to win.

On top of that, and this is generally forgotten, one needs to convey a sense of conviction.

Did Dr Nelson and Ms Bishop convey these qualities to colleagues?

Moreover, it's a fact of Canberra political life that leadership and other pivotal parliamentary posts are always, as they say in the bush, up for grabs.

Anyone doubting this needs only look back to the ongoing leadership challenges and change-overs - all extremely bitter affairs - since, say, the early 1980s.

After very few years Labor's most successful leader, Bob Hawke, who'd toppled Bill Hayden on the eve of the 1983 election, was himself challenged by his treasurer, the vitriolic Paul Keating.

After him came Kim Beazley, Simon Crean, Mr Beazley again, followed by Mark Latham, Mr Beazley yet again, and finally Kevin Rudd.

Furthermore, the initial moves to seek Mr Rudd's position have already begun.

In the still-evolving Rudd case, ambitious individuals have already concluded he's quietly seeking a top United Nations post, like one-time Labor foreign affairs minister Gareth Evans had done.

And the half-dozen leadership changes in the Liberal Party were no less bitter over those years.

There's always somebody plotting to replace a leader and that someone is often the person who'd been toppled previously, which helps explain why Messrs Howard and Beazley re-emerged after having been in top posts.

In light of this long-noted pattern, what has Ms Bishop's record been?

The simple answer is that she's clearly demonstrated that, like all named above, she's been aiming for the very top - to become Australia's first female prime minister.

This means she's just like Labor's deputy leader, Julia Gillard, who'd also like to become the first woman to take Australia's top job.

With this in mind it helps to note that both have much in common despite several marked differences.

Firstly, both hail from South Australia where they attended the University of Adelaide.

Both hold law degrees; neither is married, meaning they can more easily be focused upon their career aspirations.

Both left Adelaide in search of lush greener pastures.

Ms Bishop headed westward, to work in Perth, which even in the 1980s was seen as a boom town.

Ms Gillard, a hardened student leftist, went the other way, to Melbourne, where all Labor's supporting institutions remain firmly ensconced - the compulsorily-funded National Union of Students, the Australian Council of Trade Unions, scores of leftist factional chiefs, and, of course, all the associated Labor-oriented law firms.

But there's been one crucial difference.

When Ms Gillard emerged as Labor's deputy in 2007 she opted to become labour relations spokesperson, not shadow treasurer.

In other words she knew her longest and strongest suit, since she'd been a lawyer with Slater & Gordon, working on labour relations issues.

That's why, despite Ms Gillard being Mr Rudd's deputy, the treasury post went to Wayne Swan.

Not so with Ms Bishop who, after Dr Nelson's replacement by one-time Goldman Sachs investment banker Mr Turnbull, no longer wanted to be labour relations spokesperson but instead sought and gained the far more prestigious but markedly more difficult and challenging opposition treasury role.

Rather than staying with one of her stronger suits - labour relations legislation is packed with legalistic jargon that's easily understandable to lawyers - she moved herself into the unfamiliar and complex world of economics.

Ambition, hastiness, impatience; call it what you will.

Unlike Ms Gillard, Ms Bishop had over-reached herself in her climb to the top, and quickly stumbled.

However, a sadder aspect is not the fact that she fell as shadow treasurer but rather her claim on the day she resigned that her handling of those duties was "competently" done.

As true as it is that she was connivingly undermined from within Liberal ranks, that's politics. The undermining of leaders and non-performing shadow ministers and ministers is integral to Canberra political life.

If Ms Bishop still hasn't grasped that she's further confirming what the conspirators who brought her down had concluded months ago.

And that must surely mean that her retention of the deputy leadership is also in peril.

That, however, may matter less than her critics suspect, since the deal she'd done with those wanting to see her removed from treasury responsibilities means she's now foreign affairs spokesperson.

There appear to be some similarities here with failed Democratic Party presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, who now oversees America's foreign affairs duties as secretary of state.



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