Federal Politics


Crafty Bishop crashes Carr's travelling 'party'

While addressing a party room meeting earlier this week Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop told her Coalition colleagues that Foreign Minister Bob Carr was conducting himself on the world stage similar to the way Peter Sellers' bumbling character acted in the 1968 comedy classic The Party.

In the movie, Sellers' character, a terrible B-rate Indian actor named Hrundi V. Bakshi, is accidentally invited to a swish, in-crowd Hollywood dinner party instead of being fired and placed on a producers' black list. The whole plot of the movie - if plot is the right word - has Bakshi as a complete fish out of water unable to comprehend the cultural differences between himself and his Western hosts.

In reality, The Party was more of an opportunity for director Blake Edwards to allow Sellers to be at his improvisational best. Being made in the '60s, director and actor could get away with Sellers having an artificially browned face to make him look Indian, even if farcically so.

That aspect would be too offensive these days. But overall the movie was an outstanding chaotic feast and full of laughs. Which is why Bishop's reference to it on Tuesday was also quite clever.

A Foreign Minister travels the world, mingles with governments and diplomats from around the globe and is cognisant of cultural differences. To paint Australia's Foreign Minister as little more than an insensitive gatecrasher who is out of his depth was rather unfair to Carr.

But it was good political gamesmanship and somewhat of a masterstroke by Bishop. Hers was such a good line that the Libs made sure journalists were briefed on it so that it could be part of that day's news. And it was. The strategy worked.


Bishop secured a media interview or two on the back of it, during which she was able to explain that her comment, while lighthearted, went to how Australia's new Foreign Minister was conducting himself.

It gave Bishop the opportunity to highlight a few of Carr's gaffes since he took up the office in March. Over the past few months there has been his ill-advised threat to impose sanctions against Papua New Guinea; overstating Australia's troop commitment to Afghanistan; and offering condolences to the parents of a Brazilian man killed by a NSW police taser - not knowing that the man's parents were already dead themselves.

Bishop said Carr had also been indiscrete about some of his conversations with the Chinese and she even suggested he was being unorthodox by inserting himself into negotiations aimed at releasing Australian lawyer Melinda Taylor from detention in Libya.

If we set aside the tragic taser incident and the Taylor detention case - where neither should be politicised by the Opposition - Bishop has a point about Carr and his stumbles.

Some politicians have been known to have what we might call seniors' moments (Kim Beazley in 2006 jumps straight to mind, when he inadvertently offered condolences to White House strategist Karl Rove at the loss of his wife when it was actually Australian TV host Rove McManus who was the one grieving).

But in Carr's case, thanks to Bishop's little dig this week, we should refer to them as Birdie Num Num moments. Birdie Num Num was the bird food Sellers' character in The Party tried to feed a macaw but instead ended up spilling all over the place. One of the funniest and most memorable scenes from the movie is when Bakshi, unaware that he had turned the house's intercom system on, squeaked and squawked into it and repeated ad nauseam ''birdie num num'' for all to hear.

Carr can't really in all seriousness be compared to Sellers' goose of a character Bakshi. The Foreign Minister has a formidable intellect and knows his world politics. It just so happens that he is also a little prone to the occasional misspeak.

In the grand scheme of things all of Carr's public fumbles to date are forgivable. And he appears to be ably getting on with the job. But Bishop has sneakily planted a seed of doubt in the minds of some Australians by linking Carr with the ridiculous Sellers' character.

Not that Bishop is gaffe-free. She has had a few birdie num num moments of her own that she would no doubt like to forget - and would like everyone else to forget too.

In 2010 she outright accused Australia's security agencies of engaging in passport forgery. That came as a result of the government, led then by Kevin Rudd, expelling an Israeli diplomat after fake Australian passports were used to help in the murder of a top Hamas arms dealer in Dubai.

Bishop was accused at the time of breaching trust after talking about the incident the way she did following a briefing from ASIO and the Australian Federal Police.

And let's not forget that in 2008 Bishop was embroiled in two plagiarism scandals within a month.

But moving on and today we find a shadow foreign minister who appears across her portfolio.

Shadow foreign minister is one of the hardest gigs in Parliament because the shadow is not privy to anywhere near the information the minister gets from around the world.

The opposition is briefed on the things that matter, but the government is briefed every day from its diplomatic missions and the army of public servants in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Despite this more than justifiable imbalance (the government is the government after all), the shadow minister is still expected to be able to provide coherent and informed comment on global affairs and how they relate to Australia.

Bishop appeared very much on trainer wheels when she first got the job in 2009, but she has morphed into a competent global watcher. Busy on the speaking circuit to universities, diplomatic and business gatherings, Bishop is delivering well-crafted and informed speeches on foreign policy. Carr's speeches are outstanding, mostly because he can inject so much context from his own experiences and his vast grasp of history.

In parliament, Bishop is the feisty, take-no-prisoners champion for the Coalition. She can't go head-to-head with Carr because he's in the Senate, so Bishop never hesitates to tackle Prime Minister Julia Gillard head on during question time. Bishop more often than not comes off second best in those contests, but the theatre of it all is riveting.

It must be said that Australia has, in its recent history at least, been served well by its foreign ministers of both political persuasions. Peter Sellers aside, diplomacy so far remains in safe hands under the guidance of Carr.

Bishop may or may not become foreign minister if Tony Abbott wins government for the Coalition next year. Indications are that if she does, she will continue in the competent manner of her predecessors.

But while Bishop has had a political win this week holding Carr up to a little bit of ridicule, she would be wise not to keep the reference to The Party alive. She shouldn't forget that the movie has a cult following, its central character played by Sellers is a hero to many the world over. And like all movie heroes he won the day and drove off with the girl.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political Correspondent