Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Julie Bishop's pall of duty


Julie Bishop smiling in front of a microphoneLate last year Liberal Party Deputy Leader Julie Bishop complained in Online Opinion that Foreign Minister Bob Carr had undermined the Prime Minister's authority on the UN vote on Palestine . He had 'run a guerrilla campaign' among the backbench to 'get his way' in Caucus, so as to 'roll her' in Cabinet. Such treachery must be condemned because 'a prime minister without authority cannot function ... for very long'.

As a politician and lawyer she knew Carr infringed no constitutional rule or convention; it was, in fact, common or garden Westminster politics, with members free to discuss proposals and compete for support. She was, it seems, committed to a view which goes further than doctrines of party unity and joint cabinet responsibility — ministers must support a prime minister's views even before Cabinet addresses them.

This view of politics helps explain why there has been so little controversy in the Liberal Party on issues such as the Iraq War, the Apology, refugees, same-sex marriage, gambling reform etc. which divide the nation. It explains why there were only five 'conscience votes' during Howard's reign and why 'crossing the floor' is so rare.

But this impressive record of loyalty is also a history of moral self-subordination and, contrary to the Deputy Leader's views, a matter for shame rather than pride. She is, in effect, taking to extremes a doctrine of unity which is responsible for much of what is wrong in politics.

To understand why, consider reconciliation. The Liberal Party denied an apology during the years of the Howard administration, but changed its policy as soon as a new leader made it expedient. No one sought a 'conscience' vote when the policy began or was rejected but all members, with the exception of Howard, joined in the celebratory sitting in Parliament House.

Likewise with Labor, whose members sign a pledge of loyalty. It seems astonishing now that, despite opposition to the Iraq War, no member would support a formal inquiry into the evidence said to justify it, including claims now known to have been fabricated by Rafid al-Janabi, known as 'curveball' by US intelligence officials.

It is hard to dismiss the conjecture that this was because Labor leaders were wedded to the alliance and back-benchers were sworn to unity. They were against the war, but an inquiry might offend US sensibilities.

On the present issue — should Australia support a higher UN status for Palestine — it is clear that Bishop sees herself and fellow shadow ministers as obliged to accept Tony Abbott's opinions, regardless of the nation's interests, much less those of Israel and Palestine. It gives his views priority over principles of international law as well as a need to defuse tensions and secure a lasting Middle-East peace.

In Bishop's political world these matters are not determinative; whether they play any role at all will depend on Abbott's wishes.

This is why her theory of duty must be rejected as profoundly irrational. When people take a stand on a matter of principle, to oppose a war or racial discrimination, or to support reform of gambling or election finance laws, they do so for reasons of fairness, humanity, justice etc. that they believe are important, and see themselves as sharing with the community.

But their case rests on a judgment of these values and how they apply. The fact that it is their opinion is no part of it; even less is it relevant that someone they admire — be it Mahatma Ghandi or the leader of the Liberal Party — has a view. To cite this as a reason is to misunderstand the logic of argument — it treats opinions as values when it is the opinion itself which must be justified.

To put this in general terms, a moral system based on values is inherently personal in that no one can justify a judgment on a matter of principle by citing someone else's opinion. When politicians do this under a doctrine of party unity they abdicate their duty to defend community values — they violate, to use Edmund Burke's language, a sacred trust 'for the abuse of which they are deeply answerable'. 

Someone whose politics is guided by values will assess opinions in light of principles of humanity, justice, benevolence, fairness, human dignity etc., and respond accordingly. In considering the apology he will look to the merit of Howard's arguments that past officials did what they thought best, and that a government is not responsible for the wrongs of its predecessors. He will judge these claims for himself, not defer to Howard's view.

This leaves a puzzle: how can an accomplished politician and lawyer, indeed a prospective prime minister, criticise Carr for doing what anyone who cares about the substance of politics — to serve the interests of the community while respecting its values — takes for granted?

The only explanation which comes to mind is a deep and abiding scepticism about values. It suggests the greater danger is not the growing religious and political fundamentalism, but a deep conviction that there is no such thing as moral truth, only the shifting sands of opinions. 

Max Atkinson headshotMax Atkinson is a former senior lecturer of the Law School, University of Tasmania. His main areas of interest are in legal and moral philosophy, especially issues to do with rights, values, justice and punishment. 

Topic tags: Max Atkinson, Julie Bishop, Liberal Party, Australian Labor Party, Israel, Palestine, UN



submit a comment

Existing comments

Thanks Max for a very insightful article. I must admit that once you began to unpack the notion of an extreme doctrine of unity, I began to think immediately of the Catholic Church, and how similar extreme doctrines of unity apply there. You argue that a moral system based on values is inherently personal. It is not dependent on someone's opinion of how those values are or should be applied. Acting on a matter of principle requires great thought and courage on behalf of an individual. When a Catholic chooses to act on principle and is guided by his/her conscience, such actions can potentially lead to outcomes that don't contribute to or support prevailing views of unity. One is forced to ask the question: " Is achieving unity always the supreme value or goal? Or put another way: " Is fostering independence of thought and action always inimical to unity? I like your thinking and style!

Garry | 23 January 2013  

A beautifully written and argued piece. Politicians of all persuasions should read it. Thank you.

Winsome Thomas | 23 January 2013  

Atkinson is quite right. The power of the leader in all Australian parties has become too strong. In Queensland just about every LNP candidate promised prior to the election to vote to repeal the CIvil Unions legislation But on Newman's orders to a man they defied the promises they had made prior to the election. They knew that defiance of Newman would be the end of their political career. It is time for the Back bench in every party to put all parliamentary leaders in their place. That is answerable to Parliament. Start by bringing down the regime of Newman. No decent MLA would support closing hospitals and nursing homes they all oppose it in private but lack the guts to come out and overthrow authoritarian leadership.

Andrew Jackson | 23 January 2013  

There is no mystery surrounding the deeply shallow Julie Bishop and her pretend outrage. It was simply a chance to undermine Gillard's 'authority' by casting doubt over her being stood over by her Foreign Minister, thereby painting her as a pushover and unsuited to The Lodge. We all know Bishop would be as pliable as plasticine in government, after all, how else could she have served so many Liberal leaders? I like this article though because it is one of very few to attempt to prick the Bishop Bubble and question her carefully constructed but largely content free persona.

janice wallace | 23 January 2013  

Gosh, it sounds like the RCC. Only one question: Why is it alright for the Israelis to do to the Palestinians what it wasn't OK for the Germans to do to the Jews?????????/

hilary | 23 January 2013  

I wonder why we have to pander to Israel in the first place? It was the Palestinians who helped us in 2 world wars and have been tending our war graves since 1917,

Marilyn | 23 January 2013  

In my experience when organisations want you to do the right thing the narrative is about integrity. When they want to prepare you to do the wrong thing it's always about loyalty.

Michael Elphick | 23 January 2013  

So when you join a political party you need to retire your conscience. How many values or morals based arguments have you heard in parliament lately? A politician met the devil. "In exchange for your immortal soul, I'll give you totally unlimited power" says Nick. "Em sounds good; but where's the catch" says the poli.

Michael D. Breen | 24 January 2013  

Ms Bishop's latest attempt to confirm her qualification as Bob Carr's shadow, further convinces everybody else that she's really not up to the job. Even the Coalition faithfuls know this. What should be of grave concern to all, is the prospect of Ms. Bishop as th next Foreign Minister in a Coalition government.

Notwithstanding the prevailing consensus that the end of a Labor government is looming large on the political horizon, let us all ponder this: the Coalition's talentless front bench (Hockey as Treasurer? Bishop as Foreign Affairs minister? Abbott as PM?) sans policy ? And, they have the weight of a right-wing media (the Oz cousin of the phone hacking NoTW) behind them., bent on turning this country to a single print/electronic media domination.

The Coalition's mission is to win government at all cost, even though it may not be in the national interest. The people of Queensland, NSW and Victoria are now regretting the return to Conservative governments in their respective states. The states' based reduction in public service will be repeated at Federal level. It has always been the Conservatives' economic formula; reduce government expenditure by outsourcing essential services by privatisation.

Alex Njoo | 27 January 2013  

I still recall with nausea the image of Julie Bishop endorsing the Iraq war - citing the weapons of mass destruction which even then were openly under challenge.The picture hasn't changed.

Peter Griffin | 29 January 2013  

Recently she returned from Sri Lanka and told the press in Canberra things that are contrary to what national, regional and international organisations have been reporting. For example she said everything is OK with the Tamils in the North contradicting: ''Conflict-affected areas remain highly militarised, which has made progress towards achieving durable solutions more difficult. The military has become an important economic player and a key competitor of local people including returnees in the areas of agriculture, fishing, trade, and tourism. It has also been involved in areas that would normally come under civilian administration. It continues to occupy private land, thereby impeding IDPs’ return. The government has failed to make durable solutions a priority, and humanitarian organisations have faced funding shortages and restrictions on programming and access'' – Sri Lanka: A hidden displacement crisis, Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, 31 October 2012

eureka | 11 February 2013  

She had said Sri Lankans must be stopped from coming in boats. OK. Will she raed the reports by AI, HRW, ICG, ICJ, IBA, MRG, ICRC, AHRC, etc and see the atrocious human rights violations going on in Sri Lanka. The ethnic minorities have been oppressed politically, economically, socially and culturally from the time of independence in 1948 till today. Ethnic majority SinhaleseThe have been saying international pressure will only change the behaviour of this govt. The only way is to deny Sri Lanka the chance to hold CHOGM 2013. Canadian Prime Minister has said that he would not attend if Sri Lanka doesn't improve its HR record. UK Foreign Affairs Committee has asked the British Prime Minister to Canadian stand. Australia also must say that it would not attend CHOGM2013 in Sri Lanka if there is no improvement in its HR practice. If there is improvement in HR, there will be fall in the number of boats coming here from Sri Lanka. Australian intelligence officers have found the trafficking linked to the President's close allies. Australia should persuade this case to solve its problems as well as get the oppressed people justice.

eureka | 11 February 2013  

Sri Lanka: Most of the IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) driven out from coastal areas by aerial bombing and intense shelling have been pushed inland and forcibly settled in cleared jungles and their coastal villages are either given to Sinhalese fishermen or tourism businessmen from the South. If Australia wishes to stop Sri Lankan boats it needs to fulfil its obligation to raise its voice at intergovernmental organisations to get justice for the oppressed. Even if there is no boat problem, it has an obligation as fellow member of the UN and the Commonwealth to do so.

eureka | 11 February 2013  

Similar Articles

How to fix anti discrimination law

  • Moira Rayner
  • 25 January 2013

Anti-discrimination acts are meant to protect vulnerable people, not corporations or dominant ideologies. The employers I represent reap the benefits of understanding that diversity and inclusion are brilliant for business and productivity. The Government's new human rights consolidation bill has missed simple opportunities for real improvement.


Not judging Ned Kelly and Lance Armstrong

  • Michael Mullins
  • 21 January 2013

Discussion of whether Ned Kelly and Lance Armstrong are heroes or villains is a distraction from the more important big picture reality such as crime and justice in 19th century Victoria, and performance enhancing drugs in sport today. If we are preoccupied with judging behaviour, we will miss the opportunity to promote better laws that will make our society fairer for all.