MUNGO MacCALLUM. Julie Bishop

So that was the great female hope of the Liberal Party that was. Julie Bishop, the only conservative who ever got to a bull’s roar of the Lodge, ( the ambitions of her namesake Bronwyn were nevermore than megalomaniac fantasy) has decided to retire her shoes – which most of the media thought was by far her most important attribute — home to Perth.  

Her early career was unimpressive. Under John Howard she served as Minister for the Ageing, for Education and Science, and, inevitably for Women, without notable distinction. When the coalition went into opposition, as shadow Treasurer she was clearly out of her depth.

But she hit her straps as Foreign Minister, which will be her lasting legacy.. Bishop was always a safe pair of hands, and occasionally a formidable one; her measured and powerful response to the downing of MH17 was far more effective than Tony Abbott’s vain bluster about shirt-fronting the Russian president Vladimir Putin. For that alone she should be remembered.

She also inaugurated the new Colombo Plan to bring Asian student to Australia, an initiative which was widely applauded. She avoided the gaffes and blunders which beset so many of her colleagues and although she had her setbacks – particularly the failure to reprieve drug dealers Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran from execution in Indonesia – they were never held against her.

But in spite of her long tenure as deputy under three Liberal leaders (four if you count Malcolm Turnbull twice) she must be accounted a failure in that vital role. The tradition in all parties is that the deputy must be the leader’s loyal backstop, the eyes and ears to ward off potential threats from within the party room.

The gold standard was Gough Whitlam’s deputy Lance Barnard, who once had the numbers to topple his leader but declined the opportunity, knowing that Whitlam was the better choice for his party. The nadir was the long-standing rivalry of Andrew Peacock and John Howard, when the Liberal Party successively installed each as leader under the other, a disastrous combination. As a result, Bob Hawke had a dream run as Australia’s longest serving Labor prime minister.

Bishop was never into such deliberate sabotage, but she insisted on being her own woman, keeping her options open. And in that position she was never really suited. She more or less stuck with Turnbull, in his both his incarnations, but she dropped both Brendan Nelson and Tony Abbott when she decided their time was up.

This may have been realpolitik, but from a deputy it was unseemly; she should at least have warned them when trouble was brewing. And in the end, it put a stop to her own long-cherished advancement Her defection from Abbott to Turnbull was never forgiven by the right wing rump, which is the main reason that although she had been deputy leader for eleven years and was by far the most popular candidate for the public, the party unceremoniously spat her out when last year’s leadership ballot was held.

Would she have been a good leader, a good prime minister? We shall never know. But at least she deserved the chance.

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Mungo MacCallum is a veteran political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy.

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