Julie Bishop is one hell of a survivor

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Julie Bishop was always going to end her career about now, but on her own terms. I have no doubt she set the terms a long, long time ago.

Liberal MP Julie Bishop and Prime Minister Scott Morrison walk into Question Time in the House of Representatives (Photo by Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images)We don't know what promises have been hinted at, what 'connections' (rather than friendships) refreshed, what options planned for her return to the world of commerce and positions of influence, of the most prestigious opportunities for her well-honed tact and steely purpose.

I am sure there have been many since her courageous and ultimately humiliating decision to stand as a 'moderate' candidate against a wealthy Queensland former copper and hard man of the right, who had out-bluffed her (obviously comfortably amiable relationship with) second Prime Minister of this century, the wilting, fed-up, wealthy Malcolm Turnbull, last September.

I knew of her, but didn't have much at all to do with her, when I was running my own legal practice in Perth in the 70s and 80s, and she was being a corporate lawyer. A successful corporate lawyer, too, running litigation for asbestos producers and other (now unpopular ) corporate clients. I knew and recognised the way that she was climbing the professional and political ladders of that labyrinthine society in the land of the Lotus Eaters, with steely resolve and the self-belief that has characterised her entire career.

Hell, I once thought the only way to practise law in Perth was to play the game the way it was: to accept not being considered for appointment to the corporate firms that did the kind of work I would have loved; to defer and ultimately decide that having children was not consistent with the expectations of the favoured few; that I could expect to be well rewarded for being twice as hardworking, competitive, experienced and well-qualified as, and perhaps more adventurous than, the men I worked beside in law school, in the soliciting profession, at the bar and in the courts.

Only I learned, and perhaps she did too, that some expectations are not going to be met for women who practise law in the same way that men lawyers do. Or for women who practise law differently. Or for those who play 'the game', and are overlooked because of it. Why, then, did she move on from her managing partnership in the big Perth law firm and go into politics?

Julie Bishop is one hell of a survivor, and she is exactly where she planned to be. Why, is her story. But, back in the 20th century, she once visited Sir Charles Court, before she threw her hat in the ring for a go at federal politics, and asked for his guidance. I cannot imagine her being so tactless as to ask for his favour, though he was a very grand old man and the long-term former premier of WA who helped it become the massively dry and dusty forecourt to the great cathedral of the mining industry in the booms and busts of the decades of the 60s, 70s and 80s. Which continue in the 21st century.

 

"Let us watch where those steely red heels and athletic lats will take her. Up, I predict: where she always wanted to be. Never admit a defeat. Up."

 

I imagine Sir Charles being slightly flummoxed at the presentation of a very attractive young woman in apparent search of good will and access to networks and the old-fashioned good word that dominated the Liberal Party of those days; who didn't really trouble to claim that she, as he certainly did, had a grand vision for a better world to be achieved through her part in it.

Perhaps because she didn't share Sir Charles' Salvation Army upbringing which had a troubling social justice cast, though his economic decisions were far from welfare-oriented. His christianity always seemed to me, and I did not ever speak to him in person, like Wagner's vision in Parsifal (which I saw on Sunday). It was described by reviewer Richard Brody (in 'Parsing Parsifal' in the New Yorker on 24 February) as 'a grim cult of chastity, obedience, order, and war, a Spartan vision of a master race of true believers — a death cult that gains its legitimacy from its possession of relics'.

Perhaps this was not her mentor's religiosity at all, but one that sounds close to the vision of those on the authoritarian right wing of the Liberal Party in Western Australia, and in the federal parliament, too. I do not attribute it to the former foreign minister who was, until their betrayal in September 2018, the Liberal Party's moderate faction's best hope of a moderate Liberal PM. Possibly, of a Liberal PM of any kind. What would she have done, had Dutton succeeded in his coup, or she had won the popular choice? We'll never know, and I'm rather glad of that.

Julie Bishop has achieved what she wanted: steady rise through the tribal ranks of the Western Australian legal profession to become — at least in name — the managing partner of a national law firm, and she achieved it by deciding to hold her tongue and temper the expression of her opinions.

Clearly, Bishop was formed, or predestined (though I think she is no Calvinist) for the particular kind of diplomacy that she quickly adopted, after a fumble or two, in the foreign ministry she always wanted, that would end before she was quite ready, because of her embrace of the petering out of her parliamentary career.

After five or so years as a better-than-most foreign minister, and a serial turner-up at branch fundraisers and social events, she has been almost mourned as 'the prime minister we never had,' and someone who was never fully or adequately appreciated. I think this was inevitable, given how she survived and thrived in the hostile environment of parliament and the treacherous world of international foreign affairs.

A feature of her early climb to Olympus (to become the serially monogamous deputy leader of the federal parliamentary Liberal Party) was Bishop's forming non-threatening relationships with powerful men; eschewing feminism and those who sought to challenge the domination of mediocre men to attain winnable seats and lose them.

This is less obvious now, since there are so many meanings of that term. Virginia Woolf said once, and I've relished it often, that, 'Women have served all these centuries possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.' I have often reflected on the double entendre of that masculine noun in her words. Rebecca West, rather more pointedly, once said that, 'I myself have never been able to find out what feminism is; I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute.'

Bishop has never called herself a feminist, and still does not, though the catastrophic exclusion of smart and original-thinking women from the Liberal Party has predictably caused Babel to totter. Yet in her elegant speech of farewell, in the presence of her latest Prime Mover, she pointedly identified the many able women who had expressed an interest, despite the lamentable attitude of their preselection panels, in becoming candidates for her (now very 'safe' seat) seat in that holy oasis on the Western side of the Australian continent.

As Bishop selected her partners with care, and moved on from them without controversy, she planned and carried her course well. Mud has not stuck, even over the apparently forgiven public critique of the considerable costs of the company of her federally funded 'partner'. Her fashionable presentations and his modestly well-turned-out, inoffensive presence at camera-ready occasions (polo, grand finals, fashion parades, the spring racing season) and on other smart dates, including wearing headphones at her side in the United Nations, caused some hackles to stiffen. It was most unusual to observe her apparent need for reassurance in nominating the date or commitments they made to become an 'item'. It made me uneasy.

Bishop's political career has been much better managed than most of her clumsy colleagues', with the possible exception of Josh Freydenburg, who has had the misfortune to find his talent spent in a political party led in many directions at once by morons, whom I do not name because you know who they are.

To the ever-lasting failure of the infantry, Julie Bishop MP was not appreciated by the men she marched among. When she walked in with 'Scomo' to signify her departure, he could only mouth with bathos:

'We share many things in common, not just thinking that Tina Arena is the best Australian female singer! ... there is the passion that she has always brought to her role; the dignity and grace that she has always demonstrated in every single role that she has held. She is an incredibly classy individual,' he said, and by then she had skipped out of the chamber, showing a shapely set of well toned arms.

Let us watch where those steely red heels and athletic lats will take her. Up, I predict: where she always wanted to be. Never admit a defeat. Up.

 

 

Moira RaynerMoira Rayner is a barrister and writer.

Main image: Liberal MP Julie Bishop and Prime Minister Scott Morrison walk into Question Time in the House of Representatives (Photo by Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Moira Rayner, Julie Bishop

 

 

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Existing comments

If Ms Bishop really was a "better than most" Foreign Minister, then it can only be because so few of them [Gareth Evans being the pre-eminent exception] were very good. Perhaps her apparent success in that role is because Australian papers pay little attention to the rest of the world or her performance in it: we simply don't know whether she did the job well or not. Perhaps her strength was following the brief of her Department. Ms Bishop was a conspicuous failure as Shadow Treasurer in Opposition and showed that she simply didn't have [any more, it must be conceded, than a couple of her Liberal simulacra] the intellectual capacity to be Prime Minister. Enough,please,of this "De mortuis nil nisi bonum"; especially until we see what well-paid "bones" this failing Government throws to her
John Carmody | 26 February 2019


Not for Julie Bishop the hair shirt of the party hack. Julie is a South Australian girl who travelled west to make her fortune. I would agree that Foreign Minister was her favoured role and I liked the way she went after the Russians about the downing of Flight MH17. In the back-stabbing, white-anting world of politics Julie wore her red heels with gusto.
Pam | 26 February 2019


As you said, Moira, you were in WA contemporaneous with the political rise of Julie Bishop, but you chose a different pathway to her. Who is to say she was more truly 'successful' than you or any other woman who rises to the level she is capable of? Comparisons are indeed odious and rising to the top in politics can be a very hollow crown: just look at Messrs Abbott and Turnbull. What would have been Ms Bishop's fate if, against all chances and manipulation, she had become PM? I doubt she would have avoided political assassination: it has become almost a habit with us. There is indeed something rotten in the state of the current Liberal Party. To be a successful woman PM in contemporary Australia you would need the ruthless character of Queen Elizabeth 1. In my opinion the Liberal Party has gone downhill since the time of Sir Robert Menzies: he could control things, but was very much a small 'l' Liberal. We now have a Conservative Party badged as 'Liberal'. Andrew Peacock and John Hewson are also among 'the best Prime Ministers we never had'. Like Julie Bishop they realized it wasn't worth staying on and left parliament at a time of their own choice. I wish her all success in whatever she does now.
Edward Fido | 26 February 2019


Very disappointing article. Moira, you failed to mentioned how Ms Bishop failed to comment on the toxic commentary that rained on Julia Gillard when she was PM or how she stabbed multiple leaders in the back. I am not sure Bernie Banton would appreciate Ms Bishop's defence of those asbestos mongrels. Ms Bishop embraced the 'sisterhood' after her leadership crash and spoke up for the ordinary treatment of women in the LNP, but only after her loss. You also neglected to mention her abandonment of our Pacific friends in the Abbott/Hockey budget. Moira, if you are going to make a cake you need to include all the ingredients.
Barry C Cronly | 26 February 2019


Loved this. Moira, i suspect you have had much glee in writing this piece. Praise, spice and truth - a fulsome mix. And that not to take away from the seriousness of our society still not recognising that we need all of us to be fully alive and functioning. Jorie Ryan
Jorie Ryan | 27 February 2019


She was in parliament for every human rights abuse of refugees since Howard and the TAMPA, every illegal bombing of another nation, she was there when Hicks and Habib were allowed to rot in Gitmo, when the US drone murdered Australian kids in Syria and when the Nettleton kids were denied the right to come home after being orphaned. She achieved precisely nothing anyone will remember except to tell the court that asbestos victims should not be allowed to jump the queue just because they were dying. Sorry Moira, she's a monster.
Marilyn | 28 February 2019


No, no, no Marilyn, not a monster, just another garden variety Tory doing what Tories are born to do: defend the rich and propertied against the not rich and unpropertied.
Paul | 01 March 2019


"in the foreign ministry she always wanted, " Actually, she wanted to be Treasurer but that did not work out too well. That was 2007 - no one remembers.
Stephen Lusher | 03 March 2019


Ms. Julie Bishop MP is one of the best members of Parliament. She may have made an excellent Prim-Minister, but she got upset at not being chosen in the recent coo. Unlike Tony she is running out. Her come back if she is all that sincere would be to put her had into the ring after the party loses the next election and I think it will, not that I am voting for Labor either. Any government can build bridges, but this government has and is taking our country further in the principles of socialism. The latest reading reveals once again a minister, David Coleman by-passing parliament through a ministerial directive to remove residents from the country. The country badly needs a Federal bill of rights in order to stop the removal of so many civil Liberties. Edward
edward | 03 March 2019


Julie Bishop is simply good at what she does, whether it is a corporate lawyer defending the asbestos industry, or Minister for Foreign Affairs, or Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party. She knows how to get the job done and is efficient in going about it. She seems to have a good eye for detail and also for cutting through the detail to get to the core issues. She was also not backwards in taking on challenges that other politicians might have watered down, such as her diplomatic dealings with Putin and the Chinese. I’m not really a fan but I’m sure she would have brought these qualities to the leadership of the Liberal Party if she’d been given the chance. There was probably an element of misogyny in the way the party overlooked her leadership bid last year but she would have known the score about that and in any case she was never one to support other women MPs under unfair attack. I’m sure she will be just as effective in her post-political career, whether as an Ambassador or in some other capacity.
Brett | 04 March 2019


There’ll always be a high-paying job waiting for her in the private sector, which is why the time to resign from Parliament would be in the next parliamentary term, should the Coalition lose the coming election and the opposition Liberal caucus rebuffs the chance to swing the party in a so-called moderate, small-L liberal direction by electing her, as standard bearer of so-called moderate Liberalism, as leader, or if the Coalition wins and she cannot persuade Morrison to change current party practices. Her commitment to equity for Liberal Party women is in words only when she might soon have the opportunity to initiate the renovation of her party to their benefit.
roy chen yee | 04 March 2019


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