RICHARD BUTLER. Has Bishop’s time come?

The publication by a leading journalist of an extraordinary puff piece on Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and her leadership skills, is bound to set political hares running. But, where to?

A week ago, the Canberra Times and other Fairfax papers published a comment/opinion piece by its political editor, Peter Hartcher, which proclaimed, in some detail, the extraordinary achievements and virtues of Julie Bishop as Foreign Minister.

A couple of days ago, John Menadue’s June 2016 analysis of her record as Foreign Minister was reposted in Pearls and Irritations.  His blog described how, on her watch, DFAT had been marginalized from any serious foreign policy determination within the government and Australia’s contribution to development assistance had suffered an unprecedented decline.  She seems satisfied to play the role of chief consular officer, because of the media exposure it affords her.  His analysis, although over a year old, remains pertinent.

In my comment on PM Turnbull’s “joined at the hip” proclamation – that Australia would support the US in any military action it took against DPRK (Pearls and Irritations, 14 August) – I noted, for subsequent reflection, that Bishop had taken the unusual step of publically disagreeing with, or at least seeking to clarify, Turnbull’s position.

This confluence of events, it turns out, appears to be noteworthy for three reasons:

First, Hartcher’s piece is remarkable for its determination to puff-up Bishop.  I won’t repeat its hyperbolic language or its decision to air-brush uncomfortable events in her career, which at the least call into question Hartcher’s view of her excellence.  Perhaps of necessity, Hartcher’s narrative is light on policy substance and heavy on impressions, style, anecdotal approval of her. It is for the reader of the piece to judge its credibility.

Secondly, Bishop has been given an extraordinarily uncritical treatment in Australian media.  There has been an indulgence of her, including of her celebritist ventures to which she seems attached, whether in Melbourne at Flemington or the Polo, or in Hollywood with the Aussie stars, and no serious questioning of her role in forming and guiding Australian foreign policy.  Hartcher is a serious journalist, yet in this instance he too has  conformed to this model.  Why?

Thirdly, precisely because of Hartcher’s standing in the Canberra Press Gallery, his plainly exaggerated puff-piece will trigger possibly frenetic activity amongst others from the Gallery, to find out more: what has Hartcher heard, is there talk in the Party about moving her up into Turnbull’s job; is she the solution to the ideological  dispute within the Liberal Party, to the Dutton problem etc. ?

I can’t pretend to have any good understanding of the Liberals’ tea leaves, but I do believe that Hartcher’s comments on Bishop, which are virtually hagiographical, are not made lightly unless, of course, they are an elaborate counter-suggestive mischief designed to, indeed, set all sorts of hares running, but back towards a chastened Turnbull.

If past experience is a guide, the next sign will be when one of Hartcher’s journalistic competitors door-stops Bishop on the issue.

Richard Butler AC   former Ambassador to the United Nations

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