"Dream job": Julie Bishop. Photo: Michelle Smith
In 1981, a bright young law student from a dynasty of fruit-growers in the Adelaide Hills took a tip from her mother and dropped in on a family friend for advice. The friend was Alexander Downer, then a junior officer in the Department of Foreign Affairs. The student was Julie Bishop and she wanted to know about a career in diplomacy.
''She was very charming,'' recalls Downer. ''All the [three] Bishop girls were very charming''. Downer, who'd already enjoyed his first posting overseas, did not try to put her off, but his ''sales job'', he jokes now, was '' obviously inadequate''.
The talented Miss Julie, former champion debater and head prefect of Adelaide's most prestigious girls' academy, St Peter's, opted to stick with the law, going on to become partner in one of the city's best law firms before she'd reached the age of 30. It would be three decades more before she'd take charge of the department she once aspired to join. This week, sworn in as Australia's first female foreign minister, she relished the irony.
''Who would have thought that he would end up as foreign minster and I as one of his successors,'' she says, juggling a phone interview between airport security and the departure lounge.
Already one of the nation's most frequent flyers - with regular commutes between Perth and Canberra, overseas commitments and tireless visits to electorates all around the country (key to her popularity with the Liberal backbench) - Bishop's travel diary is about to go into overdrive. This Sunday she heads to New York for the United Nations General Assembly and a chance to catch up with dozens of world leaders.
A dedicated runner, she's put the department on notice that she'll be taking morning lopes through Central Park. '''If I go a few days without, I feel like something is missing from my life,'' she says. ''I have broken the news to them that I'll need someone from the mission to go running with me - you could see the collective eye-roll'' .
While the 57-year-old is presenting Australia's fresh face abroad, at home her appointment has highlighted the jarring asymmetry in Tony Abbott's new government. She is the sole female member of the cabinet, or inner ministry, and some are muttering she should have used her influence to rectify this.
It's a charge Bishop fends off, faithfully reiterating the party line. Abbott, she says, did exactly as he said he was going to do - keep the team that slogged with him through opposition. Pushed, she names several women MPs she will be ''particularly supportive'' of in the future, including Victorian Kelly O'Dwyer and Queenslander Jane Prentice. '' I support women, I promote women, and if there is any advice I can give my colleagues, I give it. I don't jealously guard my position and pull up the trapdoor,'' she insists.
Bishop's willingness to become the attack dog for Abbott against Julia Gillard over the AWU slush-fund affair alienated many Labor women in Parliament, who view her Armani suits, trademark polish, mannered debating style and mildly flirtatious manner with suspicion.
Former state and Liberal MP Bruce Baird, a close friend, concedes that Bishop ''knows how to use her feminine wiles when she needs to'' though he adds hastily, ''the interesting thing is the blokes like her and the girls like her.''
A harsher judgment comes from one of the senior Labor women. ''There is still a lot of the head girl about her,'' this source says. ''I think she has worked out that to be successful in the Liberal Party, you can only be a particular type of woman. And she is going to the best example of that she can possibly be - it's about flirting a little bit, about personal presentation, about willingness to attack Labor. It's this perfectionist, approval-seeking kind of persona with a very particular desire for approval from men.''
The claim outrages Bishop. '' I don't defer to anyone in the party, male or female,'' she shoots back. ''The idea that I defer to men is clearly coming from someone who has not sat in our cabinet meetings, or our leadership phone hook-ups.''
She points out that as managing partner of Perth law firm Clayton Utz in the early '90s, she presided over business meetings of her 27 male partners. ''And there is no stereotype for women to get ahead in the Liberal Party - Amanda Vanstone is a very different type of parliamentarian to Helen Coonan, I'm very different to Sophie Mirabella, I can't see any foundation for that.''
Certainly Bishop had to show serious grit when she first stood for Parliament in 1998. Downer and another key backer, Peter Costello, defied John Howard's wishes and campaigned for her that year in the seat of Curtin, where Howard was instead supporting his old friend and former numbers man, Allan Rocher, who had fallen out with the WA Liberals and was sitting as an independent.
''When she came in she was frozen out by Howard because she had beaten his candidate,'' Costello recalled this week.
Bishop languished on the backbench for five years before becoming minister for ageing in late 2003, later moving to education before the Coalition lost office in 2007.
Bishop was ''devastated'' when Costello decided to leave Parliament. ''I think he was one of the most talented parliamentarians I will ever come across,'' she said this week. He urged her to run for the deputy's post, which he'd vacated. She beat Andrew Robb and Christopher Pyne, and has remained unchallenged since, despite the leader's baton passing in that time from Brendan Nelson to Malcolm Turnbull and ultimately to Abbott.
Her decision to continue as deputy under Abbott particularly stung Turnbull, with whom she'd had a longstanding friendship.
In a searing email which was leaked in late 2009, he asked how she could have stayed in the post given ''what you were saying to us [Turnbull and his wife Lucy] in our apartment … your scathing attacks on him and his character.''
Bishop had to retrieve her ballot papers to prove to Turnbull (with whom she's since mended fences) that she hadn't voted for Abbott.
She later tried to brush off the episode telling ABC radio ''we did laugh about Tony in his budgie smugglers but I'm afraid that was a topic of conversation amongst all my colleagues that day.''
Some sneered at her ability to slip seamlessly into the deputy's role with each leadership change (''cockroach'' was one epithet bandied about) but others see it as evidence of her political virtues. '' I don't think she is a person who arouses the ire of her colleagues'' Downer muses. ''She has a good easy relationship with people, she is not seen as confrontational. She essentially didn't get herself caught up in personality politics and factional warfare.''
Former Liberal MP Judi Moylan talks of Bishop as an ''outstanding performer'' whose ''wit and humour'' often lifts the mood of the party room. Yet her ability to serve leaders of different philosophical bents without skipping a beat has led some to wonder what it is that she really stands for.
Baird insists that ''underneath there beats the heart of a moderate … I know that when I was one of the stirrers [for a more benign stand] on asylum seekers, she was very sympathetic''.
Costello prefers to describe her as a Liberal ''modern'' , who is ''pro- free market, pro responsible economics, but willing to embrace change … in foreign affairs she will be firmly focused on Asia and the region.''
Bishop says if she had to pin a label on herself it would be ''Menzian Liberal'', after party hero Robert Menzies. She defines that as being ''an economic dry and a social wet. In our party, if you say you are a Menzian Liberal it does send a message that perhaps you are more moderate on social issues.''
Bishop grew up amid her family's orchards in the Adelaide Hills, surrounded by siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles. ''We were fifth generation from the land on both sides of the family … ours was the first generation not to come home on the land,'' older sister Patricia, an Adelaide doctor, said this week.
The family sent the girls to private school but were ''by no means wealthy'', Patricia says. She takes ''some credit'' for getting Julie interested in foreign affairs by encouraging her to come along on early uni trips through south-east Asia. The girls worked as barmaids at Football Park to earn money for those trips.
Bishop's parents were active in their community, her mother Isabel (whom she once described as her best friend) becoming the mayor and father Doug heavily involved in what the family called ''apple politics'', the many local growers' and farmers' associations.
The Bishop girls excelled academically and socially. Bishop married property developer Neil Gillon in the early 1980s and followed him to Perth but the marriage broke up when he headed overseas while she stayed put to pursue a legal career.
A later romance with controversial Liberal senator Ross Lightfoot ended amid acrimony.
Her most recent, public relationship has been with former Perth lord mayor and prominent obstetrician Dr Peter Nattrass, her senior by some 15 years. They never lived together, and they are said to be no longer romantically linked, though they remain close. Bishop will not discuss this area of her life.
Says a close friend, ''with Julie, there is a level to which you get let in and then there is the level below that she does not share. It's all part of her discipline, you don't let your guard down.''
Bishop is an unashamed lover of fashion and the finer things in life, telling one recent interviewer that ''clothes are a part of who I am''. Baird says ''I think she likes five-star living, she has got a lot of rich and powerful friends. She is often out on [media mogul] Kerry Stokes' yacht and she loves all that. She is part of the WA establishment, and to a certain extent it's where she belongs, in that milieu - successful high achievers, good connections, motivated, professional. But I have never found her to be a snob''
Perth friend John Poynton says: ''She has been an awesome networker, she pretty much knows everybody.''
Among her closest confidantes is WA-based federal Liberal vice-president Danielle Blain. Bishop is very close to and misses her own sisters, who live in other cities. For this reason, she calls Blain her ''Perth sister''.
Yet even when out with friends, the tireless Bishop is often working at the same time.
''My electorate is where my friends are,'' says Bishop, a West Coast Eagles board member. '' If I go out to have coffee with girlfriends on a Saturday morning, constituents will come up, I'm out and about, its no hardship for me to be working while I am socialising.''
Baird says: ''I sometimes wonder what that woman is made of. She never says she is tired, never looks tired, never complains of feeling off. She is like the Energizer Bunny.''
Does Bishop harbour dreams of leadership? She insists she already has her ''dream job''. Moylan says she's ''not the sort of person who is constantly casting around to see if there is another opportunity; but I'm sure she thinks about it, you look up at the mountain and set a goal, perhaps out of sight but not out of reach.''
Peter Costello, more enigmatically, recalls what he said at her campaign launch in 1998. '' I said, not just a bishop - certainly a cardinal. Perhaps even a pope.''