Julie Bishop’s travels along the Gold Brick Road. Part 2

Mar 1, 2021

In this second of a three-part examination of the employment of former senior Coalition ministers, we investigate former Foreign Minister Julie (“Duchess”) Bishop’s post-politics employment with the international aid group Palladium. 

All three situations reveal common ground. The blatant opportunism displayed by the actors involved (the ex-ministers and their new corporate paymasters) stands out like the proverbial. Second, the luscious cash contracts would not be possible without a seriously weakened public sector.

Almost 40 years ago another virus, with the over-glamorised name “neo-liberalism”, hit Australia and it debilitated the old Keynesian coda that governments have a moral responsibility to directly intervene to secure our social and economic welfare. It all started in March 1983 when the Hawke-Keating power duo did a jiujitsu move on Whitlamesque socialism and started hacking at the public service, using the destructive tools of corporatisation, privatisation, public-private partnerships, and contracting out. Government decisions taken since that time to retract or abandon a public service have been met with the private sector lifting its nose and smelling profit.

That is how Palladium came about and that’s how ex-minister Bishop got her lucrative contract with them.

Julie Bishop’s political career ran from her election in 1998 for the Perth seat of Curtin to her sudden resignation from politics on 26 August 2018. Bishop always had prime ministerial ambitions, not shared by many of her dry colleagues. These aspirations were tested on the blood-soaked floor of the Liberal Party Room when Turnbull hating right wing conspirators engineered a spill. The “Duchess” threw her crown into the ring and was knocked out in the first ballot.

Two and a half months before she resigned following the ballot defeat, Bishop was approached by Kim Bredhauer, the executive chairman of Palladium, with an invitation to join the board as a non-executive director. Palladium is a for-profit commercial aid consultancy with an international reach.

Palladium had extensive dealings with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade  during the time Bishop was minister. It benefitted from her decision to recalibrate Australia’s aid program to increase the role of the private sector. Austender searches reveal that during the time Bishop was Foreign Minister, Palladium and their associated companies received more than $600 million in DFAT contracts. While she was Foreign Minister, the “Duchess” also appeared in a promotional video for one of Palladium’s programs funded by DFAT which was shared on their Facebook site. Before she left the Foreign Ministry, Bishop and Palladium were grooming each other for future prospects.

Bredhauer said at the time of approaching Bishop:

We’ve long admired her work as a minister toward revolutionising the sector, and we’re delighted to be her first private sector directorship. Her commitment to tapping into private sector expertise mirrors our own, as we develop new and innovative ways to tackle problems of social and economic inequality. (emphasis added).

I wonder what “revolutionary” work Bredhauer was referring to? Was it Bishop’s abolition of the internationally respected Australian foreign aid agency, AusAID? Or was it the extensive expenditure cuts to the foreign aid budget that she engineered? On his first day in office, 18 September 2013, Tony Abbott announced, with barely repressed glee, that the foreign aid budget was to be scissored. He handed the sharp instrument to Bishop. She exceeded expectations. She presided over an aid budget that, having peaked in 2013, has been falling ever since to our international shame. At its peak, the aid budget was equivalent to $247 per Australian (2020-21 prices). In 2020-21 we only spent $164 per Australian on foreign aid. The must be what Bradhauer calls “revolutionary”.

The “Duchess” also redesigned the field, giving greater opportunities for her beloved private sector to feast on government contracts and partnerships.

“Working with Palladium is a continuation of my long-standing interest in [private] economic development. Palladium has a focus on private sector engagement to deliver effective, sustainable development and I hope to provide further support to the company’s efforts,” says Bishop, singing ever so sweetly from the neo-liberal songbook.

The Palladium board confirmed Bishop’s appointment on 28 June 2019, well outside the 18 months no-contact zone laid out in the Standard. Following concerns raised in public and in Parliament about Bishops appointment, the Prime Minister asked his Departmental Secretary, the well-regarded Dr Michael Parkinson, to advise him as to whether Julie Bishop had contravened his Ministerial Standard on post-politics employment for ex-ministers.

This was one of Parkinson’s last jobs before he retired. It shows in his tardy report. Parkinson interviewed Bishop but not Palladium. In explaining his role Parkinson said:

“What am I meant to do? Am I meant to assume that any member of this chamber or the other chamber is going to lie to me?”

Well, wouldn’t that have been a better cause of action? He might have got to the truth that way.

He reported back to Scotty “…there are no specific actions that can be taken by you [the Prime Minister] in relation to former Ministers once they have left the Parliament”. What he meant to say was that the Prime Minister’s Standard was just a container of air. Bishop can do whatever she wants short of stealing Cabinet papers and handing them over to the Palladium Board.

Parkinson told Morrison: “Ms Bishop’s knowledge about Australian government policies regarding aid and development, and her contacts with international leaders, will be utilised by and benefit, Palladium”.

Of course it will but that activity is clearly in breach of the Ministerial Standard. Clause 2.25 prohibits former ministers from taking advantage of information to which they have had access as a Minister where that information is not generally available to the public.

Ex-ministers who abuse public office for private ends should expect to find themselves facing consequences under the law. Problem is, who is going to take this issue seriously and write it into law?

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