The meeting in Joe Hockey's Parliament House office was supposedly about Liberal Party strategy, but it soon turned to conspiracy of the most thrilling variety – plotting against the leader.
It was November 2009 and Malcolm Turnbull was leader of the opposition, Hockey his shadow treasurer. Turnbull's remaining tenure was being counted in days and hours. He had had the temerity to negotiate a carbon emissions trading scheme with the Labor government, and his party had risen up in fury against him. The pretext for the meeting, party strategy, quickly gave way to the real business. In the room with Hockey were Tony Abbott, Peter Dutton, Andrew Robb, Julie Bishop, Liberal Party federal director Brian Loughnane and a handful of others. Abbott, not yet a candidate for the leadership, kept his counsel while Hockey held court.
An ebullient Hockey announced to his colleagues that he was going to challenge Turnbull. And not only Turnbull. "We're going to spill the deputy," declared Hockey, meaning that his backers would call a party room motion to declare the deputy Liberal leader's job vacant. "Dutts will be my deputy."
Julie Bishop spoke up: "You're going to spill the deputy?" "That's right," Hockey replied. "I'm the deputy," Bishop rejoined. Stunned silence followed. The men around the table were not stunned to learn that Bishop was deputy; the party room had elected her to the post two years earlier. They were shocked at their own blunder. How could they have overlooked her? It was not a smart way to run a covert plot. Bishop left the room.
Over the years she's regaled quite a few of her colleagues with the story, a story confirmed by two of the people in the room at the time. Hockey's leadership ambitions were soon dashed by bigger blunders. The Liberal party room instead elected Abbott leader and Bishop deputy. She has now been deputy leader for a decade. She has outlasted three leaders – Brendan Nelson, Malcolm Turnbull 1.0 and Tony Abbott. When she was most recently re-elected deputy to Turnbull 2.0, she won an emphatic 70 party room votes to 30 for her rival, Kevin Andrews.
And she is an outstandingly successful foreign affairs minister. Her death stare is strong enough to explode garden gnomes, as The Chaser famously demonstrated. Her powers of persuasion moved Russia's Vladimir Putin to allow Australia access to the Ukraine crash site of the downed flight MH17. The most recent US ambassador to Australia, Barack Obama's man, John Berry, says that there is "none finer" among the world's foreign affairs ministers.
Berry, now president of the New York-based American Australian Association, has watched her in many settings over the past four years. "She is always the best-prepared in the room, never wavers from her objective, and cool no matter how hot the issue.
"The best people I know in career foreign affairs service hold her in respect, which is the highest compliment."
Bishop is diamond hard and always polished. The people have noticed. When pollsters ask voters to choose their preferred leader of the Liberal Party, they consistently rate Bishop as the top choice after Turnbull. In the most recent such poll, an Essential survey on August 1, Turnbull won 25 per cent of voters' support and Bishop 20. All the others were a long way behind – Tony Abbott with 10 per cent, Peter Dutton with 3, Christopher Pyne 3 and Scott Morrison 2.
In recent focus groups of undecided voters commissioned by Fairfax Media, Bishop wasn't much mentioned but there were no negative references to her, only positives. "Julie Bishop has fire in her," said a young Melbourne man in a recent focus group. "Julie should go for the Liberal leadership," said another.
It seems obvious to members of the public, so why is she overlooked? Her name rarely features in media speculation about potential future Liberal leaders. Scott Morrison's name is mentioned less often since he took the Treasury portfolio while Peter Dutton's has become de rigueur. In one of the most recent efforts, a News Corporation press gallery journalist touted a new leadership ticket of Dutton and Greg Hunt, combining one each from the party's conservative faction and the moderate.
Hunt says that no living soul – including the journalist who propounded the ticket – had ever raised any such idea with him before the piece ran and "it has such little credibility" that only one reporter had called him to check afterwards. His one-word response: "Balderdash."
But the obvious candidate is not mentioned. Why? Her critics in the Liberal Party have a charge sheet against her. It runs like this: one, she was busted committing the sin of plagiarism in reading out a statement to Parliament; two, she was a "hopeless" shadow treasurer; three, she was a disloyal deputy to Abbott when he was prime minister and connived in his downfall, and this is the one that Abbott loyalists cannot get past.
Do these charges stack up? Her act of plagiarism was, in the early days as shadow treasurer under Turnbull as opposition leader, to read out an answer given to her in a brief from the leader's office. Unbeknown to her, it was lifted from a Wall Street Journal article. Guilty, but only on a technicality. She sank as shadow treasurer, it's true, after just five months. The global financial crisis was wreaking havoc, the Rudd government was rampant in response. Bishop, taunted endlessly for plagiarism, was an ineffectual critic. She chose to resign to allow her party to try to go on the offensive. All of this happened eight years ago.
Was she a disloyal deputy to Abbott? Bishop was party to some Turnbull-Morrison plotting for a post-Abbott leadership. There was an understanding that she'd serve as Turnbull's deputy. But she otherwise did her job and, when a challenge to Abbott's leadership hardened from general dissent to imminent strike, she gave him warning.
It's a thin set of complaints against the consistent standout of the federal ministry. She hasn't put a foot wrong in eight years. And, on the other side of the ledger, she's done an exceptional job as foreign affairs minister. The great geopolitical challenge of our time is managing Australia's relations with the US and China. Bishop has been firm in the face of Chinese political bluster and threats, while taking the overall relationship to new heights.
Undaunted by the need to deal with an incoming Trump administration, she quickly established close ties with the key officials around the president, including a back channel through Vice-President Mike Pence. "If you ever have any issues with the boss, give me a call," he told her.
The North Korean threat will supply a new test. Bishop is engaged in regional diplomacy as governments frantically try to find ways other than war. She was careful this week to avoid endorsing Donald Trump's inflammatory "fire and fury" rhetoric, yet she kept faith with the US alliance by embracing US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's call for dialogue with Pyongyang. Australia is a party to the unfinished war between the two Koreas and it's a high-stakes challenge for Bishop to see if she can make a difference.
Bishop has a long string of lesser policy achievements to her credit, including her New Colombo plan that has sent 17,000 bright, young Australians to do high-level study and work in 40 countries of the Indo-Pacific, an initiative in soft power with long-run national benefits. She has elevated Australia's relations with the 10 South-East Asian nations of ASEAN. This has made possible the first ASEAN leaders' summit to be held in Australia, due next year, at a time of rising regional anxiety about China's intentions.
She works as hard as she runs; she is spending this weekend, for instance, at the Pacific Islands Forum foreign ministers' meeting, her 21st trip to small Pacific Island states as foreign affairs minister. And Bishop has been generous in lending her star power to fundraising and campaigning events for a great many of her Coalition colleagues.
So, with such a feeble list of complaints and such a substantial list of achievements, why is she overlooked? We are left with two conclusions. One is a factional explanation. The incessant media gossip about leadership challenges is fed by a handful of conservatives. Bishop, like Turnbull, is a member of the rival wing of the party, the moderates. So the conservatives who once protected Abbott as leader and then promoted Morrison now push for Dutton in conspiratorial whispers. They are desperately keen to prevent Bishop from assuming the leadership, at any cost.
Second is a factor that Bishop herself does not ever point out or plead, yet is plain to any reasonably objective observer – simple sexism. That's why the plotters around Hockey's table overlooked her years ago, and it's a key reason that many overlook her still. Not that she's interested in plotting against Turnbull. In fact, despite all the dire anonymously sourced threats against Turnbull's leadership, no one is. Abbott would have scant few votes in a showdown. Dutton, far from challenging his leader, is at the head of his praetorian guard. That's why Dutton engineered the compromise on same-sex marriage that held the government together this week. Dutton has leadership ambitions, but, like Bishop, he's playing a long game. The two of them, future leadership contenders both, eye each other warily. In the meantime, North Korea and other crises will keep Bishop running hard and fully engaged. But it'd be unwise to overlook her.
Peter Hartcher is political editor
Peter Hartcher is the political editor and international editor of The Sydney Morning Herald. He is a Gold Walkley award winner, a former foreign correspondent in Tokyo and Washington, and a visiting fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy.
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