Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop in her office at Parliament House. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
Above Julie Bishop’s desk, in pride of place, is a picture of Barack Obama holding a West Coast Eagles jumper. Next is a picture of the CIA headquarters, where the Australian Foreign Minister is standing on the great black-and-white logo that adorns the agency’s marble floor. There’s another one of her standing at No.10 Downing Street, with David Cameron, and then four photographs with Hugh Jackman.
“That’s obviously Ban Ki,” she says, gesturing to a photograph of her with the United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon. “That’s Laos. This is in Mexico. That’s my niece, who has volunteered to work for Buk Bilong Picaniny in Goroko. These are my sisters. Madeleine Albright. My pen pal in PNG when I was 14 years old. And Hugh Jackman, which every girl’s got to have.”
Mostly, however, the wall above the minister’s desk is a collage of pictures from developing nations, both small and large, which have never enjoyed the sustained focus of an Australian foreign minister before.
Julie Bishop's photos in her office at Parliament House. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
There was relief among the world’s emissaries in Canberra when they found they would be dealing with a foreign minister who, to put it diplomatically, could manage her ego while being well-informed and serious about her job. But when it came to big tests of policy, instinctively, they looked to Prime Minister Abbott’s national security adviser, Andrew Shearer. It was only after several circumnavigations of the globe, at some point between being publicly excoriated in China and secretly poring over maps of Syria with the King of Jordan, that the cables began reporting that Bishop was not only competent, but in control.
In Opposition, Bishop had been duchessed by the Chinese Communist Party’s International Liaison Department. They had told her about the “democratic” parties represented in one of the quasi-legislative bodies, without saying that leaders of those parties are appointed and managed by the Communist Party. Like most foreign leaders, she had some things to learn.
Perhaps the biggest test of her portfolio took place in November, two months into the job, when China declared an Air Defence Identification Zone over disputed waters in November. Most close observers assumed it was Shearer who proposed the strikingly tough press release that went out in Bishop’s name - and they may have been right.
It was Bishop, however, who stood, unflinchingly, while a scowling Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, delivered what one seasoned diplomat described as the “rudest” performance he had witnessed in his career.
In hindsight, the way she stood firm and delivered her lines, in the most trying of circumstances, enabled her to begin earning the authority that can but doesn’t always come with her position.
“I was prepared for the conversation but I hadn’t expected it to be in front of the Chinese media and I also hadn’t expected him to order the Australian media to be kicked out as I responded,” says Bishop. “But subsequently we have seen each other, on a number of occasions, and we have got on exceedingly well.”
But Bishop waited until this week, it seems, to distil the lessons she had learnt on the biggest questions of our era and step forward on the public stage.
“China does not respect weakness,” said Bishop. “We know that the optimum is deeper engagement [with China],” she said. “But we’re also clear-eyed about what could go wrong. So you have to hope for the best but manage for the worst.”
Since that China trip, Bishop has been everywhere. She found time to bump into Prabowo Subianto, the “colourful” candidate who has probably lost the presidential election in Indonesia this week. He was “charming”, says Bishop, avoiding any risks. “I think we could do business with him."
In April she was in France, for Anzac Day, but on the way she was studying the problem of foreign fighters in Syria with leaders and officials all across the developing world: Mexico, Indonesia, Turkey and a handful of other countries. She ensured she was informed but that doesn’t mean that the world does not constantly throw up surprises.
“I met with the King Abdullah in Jordan,” she says. “He’s impressive, he’s former special forces, and he had his maps out saying ‘these are the vulnerabilities, this is what will happen’, and then I went on to Lebanon and met the prime minister, the foreign minister and the head of intelligence.
“Of course both Lebanon and Jordan are bearing the burden of refugees coming out of Syria. We talked in the context of Iraq and what was happening. And they weren’t predicting what would happen in Iraq – and that was April 24.”
Now, after extremists have broken out of Syria and occupied north-western Iraq, she is working on the response.
Gradually, Bishop’s colleagues in the government’s most professional body, the National Security Committee, began to look to her lead. One bureaucrat, who has watched several foreign ministers in that role, says she is the one of the three most influential leaders after Abbott and alongside Scott Morrison, despite their very different styles.
It helps, perhaps, that many of her cabinet ministers are not performing well.
“She is the most impressive foreign minister we’ve had since Gareth, with the difference being that she’s a better manager than he was,” says the official, referring to Gareth Evans, who served until 1996.
From the start she has been clear - unlike any foreign minister since Andrew Peacock - that her responsibilities are not all glamorous and that they begin in Australia’s backyard.
The policy Bishop is most proud of is her Colombo Plan, which is adapting the Menzies-era policy by sending Australian students into the neighbourhood. She’s just returned from signing up participants in unlikely partners such as Myanmar and Laos, which only has one university. “They had ministers who were saying, ‘so you really want Australian students to come here?’ I said ‘Absolutely’. Australian students studying in Vientiane - I can’t think of anything more broadening for them and they’ll love it. It also shows a humility on Australia’s part.''
Humility is not a word often associated with Australian foreign minsters but it’s an asset that plays well in Melanesia, too. And this, increasingly, is where her giddying schedule will be headed, as Papua New Guinea in particular teeters under the weight of corruption.
Would Australia ever let PNG become a failed state? “Never,” says Bishop, becoming more animated than at any time in our conversation. “It would never happen.
"We have a responsibility to PNG. It’s the only country on earth that’s been a colony of Australia. We have a unique relationship with PNG and a very deep affection for its people. I love the place, I love it.”
A raft of policies are coming, she says, to ensure that democracy in PNG will “stay the course”.
I’d learnt, from the Carr Diaries, that keeping a foreign minister’s body in balance can be an all-consuming operation. So I asked whether she took pills or had found some other trick to convince herself to sleep each night.
“I keep fit,” she said. “And no, I’m not keeping a diary. No I’m not obsessed about my body, my weight, my face, my abs, my...” Her minders corralled her out the door to catch another plane.