HOW did Julie Bishop, the epitome of political polish and today the most powerful woman in Australian politics, wind up skulling beers from the bottle to wash down a $3 curry on the rickety wooden veranda of a bar in the Tamil badlands of Sri Lanka?
As a lawyer, she always needed to get to the bottom of her brief, reluctant to accept even a client’s claims at face value. As a politician, she is not all cat-miming, death stares and Armani suits. She doesn’t mind getting down and dirty, and so when large numbers of Tamil Sri Lankans began arriving in Australia by boat seeking asylum, the then Opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman decided to check out for herself how hellish life had been since the Tamil Tigers lost the 26-year civil war there.
Bishop was no stranger to dangerous and confronting predicaments – she’d already seen the horrific impact of internecine violence during a Zimbabwe election, as an observer alongside Kevin Rudd. But she believed that the gaps between different accounts of life in Sri Lanka yawned so wide that she had to see things for herself. Earlier this year, with immigration spokesman Scott Morrison and customs and border protection spokesman Michael Keenan, she spurned all government and high commission offers of guides and escorts and placed her team in the hands of local Tamils; the Australians were picked up in an old minibus at Jaffna airport and checked in to a $17-a-night hotel with cold showers only.
They stayed in Kilinochchi, a town at the heart of the failed Tamil rebellion, which had seen little development for decades. For two and a half days they were taken to meet people whose lives were scarcely vibrant, but who could provide no evidence, Bishop says, of continuing persecution from Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority.
Bishop relayed her findings – which were later hotly contested by some in the Tamil community – to British foreign secretary William Hague and Commonwealth secretary-general Kamalesh Sharma, and the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting will now, partly as a result, be held in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo in November with an almost complete turnout expected. Another result is that many Sri Lankan asylum seekers are continuing to be sent straight back home. Bishop said it was clear that if people genuinely needed to flee for safety they could easily reach India, a short boat ride away, “where there is very, very good support for Tamils”.
It’s typical of a no-nonsense style that will become more evident as Bishop settles into the role of Australia’s first female foreign minister with a powerful voice in every key Cabinet debate – indeed, hers is the only female voice in Tony Abbott’s cabinet. Bishop holds the most senior position of any woman in the Liberal party’s history. She has been deputy leader of the party in her own right – not as a member of any leadership slate – since beating Andrew Robb and Christopher Pyne in a caucus ballot almost six years ago. Since then, she has survived under three leaders.
But if anyone expects Bishop to take up where former PM Julia Gillard left off, railing against sexism and misogyny, they will be disappointed.
“She [Gillard] was in the most powerful and privileged position in the country, able to set the tone of political debate,” Bishop says now. “There was so much potential for Australia’s first woman prime minister to rise to the occasion. There was an enormous level of goodwill for her, but she squandered that through her own misjudgements and incompetence.”
Bishop hopes that women of all ages will still be attracted to politics – “because to be part of national debates is exceedingly rewarding” but she stands behind Abbott’s decision to appoint only one woman to Cabinet. “I encourage female candidates and colleagues. But our party appoints and promotes on merit, not gender. That’s what women are looking for recognition of their talents, not of their chromosomes,” she says.
We have not seen for some time her “death stare” that transfixed Q&A and Chaser viewers, or the cat claws gesture she directed at Gillard in Question Time, but Bishop, an unmarried woman who, like Gillard, doesn’t have children, attracts more than her share of hate-mail and personal attacks. She was initially dismissed as a lightweight and for being “distant” – tags often applied to professional women – but has slowly won some, but not all, critics around. Last year then Labor backbencher Steve Gibbons was forced to apologise after calling her a “narcissistic bimbo”. In recent weeks she was described as the “token woman” in Cabinet. Kirsten Barker, Bishop’s personal assistant for five years, is usually the one to intercept the hate mail: “People write awful letters to her saying she is hard, and much worse but I wouldn’t want to work for anyone else.”
Bishop entered politics after a successful career in law, where her final role was as managing partner of Clayton Utz in Perth in the four years to 1998. She’d moved from Adelaide to Western Australia in 1983 with her then husband, developer Neil Gillion, but they divorced five years later. Her partner of many years is retired doctor Peter Nattrass, who was lord mayor of Perth for 12 years. They have separate apartments near each other.
Bishop, now 57, says she was “very restless” in her final years at Clayton Utz so she went to see business leader Michael Chaney for career advice. She was impressed when he told her that he had taken an advanced management course at Harvard Business School, so she enrolled in the course too. A friend from those days, John Poynton, chairman of Azure Capital, recalls: “I remember when she returned from Harvard, she described being struck by a question from a lecturer – ‘How many of you have planned to do public service of some sort?’ She noticed that all the Americans and none of the Australians in the group put their hands up. She came back fired up.”
Bishop says: “Harvard awakened in me a desire to serve my own country. It was life-changing because of the people I met there, and because of my decision to go into federal politics.” She was appointed as a delegate to the 1998 constitutional convention on the republic and met Abbott, Peter Costello and other leading Liberals there. “I had an incredibly interesting time. David Johnston, who was then president of the WA Libs, asked if I would be interested in standing for politics. Once I made up my mind to do so, opportunities arose.”
By 1998, the party machine had turned its back on the WA seat of Curtin, which had been held for 17 years by Liberal-turned-independent Allan Rocher, a close friend of John Howard who had lost the Liberals’ endorsement for the seat to Ken Court at the 1996 election. “Usually it would attract a Melbourne Cup field,” Bishop says of the seat, which covers Perth’s mostly affluent western suburbs, but in these awkward circumstances she was the only candidate at the pre-selection. “I had to fund my own team, including pollsters, and ran my own campaign.”
To the surprise of many in the party elite – who had abandoned Curtin and were prepared to let a comparative newcomer, and a woman, have a tilt – she won. “It was an interesting introduction to Liberal Party politics.”
Perth businessman Kerry Stokes has known Bishop for almost 30 years. “Politics is a tough game, much tougher for a woman,” he says.
“But there’s not been much written about what a good executive Julie was – responsible for administering and running a partnership, not just a lawyer. She took that background into politics. I’ve not been surprised by her rise. In the legal profession she was a very determined, reasoned person, and I expected her to do well in politics; if anything I was a little surprised her talents were not more fully recognised earlier.
That may be a WA thing – or a woman thing.”
It would be five years before Howard conceded Bishop a ministry – in part because of his loyalty to Rocher, in part also because he at first underestimated Bishop. Her elevation followed a campaign by her growing band of supporters in the party, led by Alexander Downer, who has long family links with Bishop.
Her first appointment was as Minister for Ageing, then in 2006 she entered the Cabinet as Minister for Education, Science and Training. Following the election defeat to Labor the following year she was elected deputy leader of the party – holding on to that position, remarkably, under Brendan Nelson, Malcolm Turnbull and now Abbott. Despite a brief and gaffe-prone stint as shadow treasurer she took on the senior portfolio of foreign affairs.
Downer, who was Australia’s longest-serving foreign minister, says that Bishop grew into the role of shadow foreign minister. “Some foreign ministers seem just to be interested in media coverage and become international ambulance-chasers,” Downer says. “She understands that tragic though the situation in Syria is, for example, Australia is not going to be a player in resolving that. But where we are a player, and a considerable one, is in South-East Asia and the South Pacific. And she has been giving a great deal of emphasis to building relationships there, especially in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.
It’s not very fashionable for the political class in Australia, but this is hugely important. She has given real priority to those relationships.
I went to China with her in March, to the Boao Forum. She was networking busily there too.”
Bishop says she was surprised by Gillard’s speech launching the “Asian Century” white paper last year, “as if Australia had only just discovered Asia. Working with Western Australian companies throughout my career, and living in WA, I appreciate the deep connection already there with Asia,” she says.
Stokes adds: “There is no question that she understands the importance of our relationship with China, and of our security relationship with the US, and the delicacy of making sure we balance those interests to our own benefit.”
Bishop is an admirer of the work of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and in an interview before the election said she would like to see DFAT skew its efforts towards economic diplomacy. “There has been an emphasis on its consular role over what might be called policy development. I suspect there will be a number of public servants who will take the opportunity to move on [after the Coalition victory]. That will give us an opportunity to make some strategic changes.”
But Bishop insists that DFAT staff don’t need to fear her at the helm. “In fact, they need to be restored to their rightful position within the government, coordinating our soft power in a way that promotes our national interest, in which DFAT is no longer seen as pivotal. We have to ensure that AusAID” – which administers Australia’s $5 billion overseas aid program “is aligned with our foreign policy. Sometimes I fear they are pursuing their own, which can be contrary to the national interest Australia must pursue. I will certainly have a very, very close look at what it is doing.” That examination will happen as AusAID is re-integrated into DFAT, one of the first decisions of the Abbott government – one that was greeted with initial alarm by the rapidly expanding aid sector, but which underlines Bishop’s resolve.
Bishop says Abbott is happy for her to “take the running” in the foreign affairs portfolio. And although she is a staunch defender of the PM, she is not nervous about fighting for policies she backs on her own turf. When Abbott thought aloud about saving money by curtailing Australia’s $76 million aid spending on Indonesian schools last year, she responded that this was just how Australia should be using its aid.
Senior Liberal frontbencher Malcolm Turnbull, a friend who first met Bishop in the 1980s when she was still in law, says she has a formidable mind. “She has a good lawyer’s ability to master a brief very quickly – a handy skill for politics and for foreign policy in particular.
She also has a quality of inestimable value in politics, and especially in diplomacy: charm.
She’s done very well as shadow, reorienting our focus towards our near neighbours.”
Bishop runs 6km every day and keeps a punishing work routine, but at the centre of her life is her family, still largely based in Adelaide:
her father Doug, older sisters Patricia and Mary Lou, respectively a doctor and a businesswoman, and younger brother Douglas, a partner in Clayton Utz in Sydney. Her mother Isabel, with whom she was very close, died eight years ago.
“Classic Menzies Liberals,” Bishop says of her family history. Doug served in the war and returned to the family orchards. Her mother’s side were sheep and wheat farmers. “They wanted to live in a country that provided the greatest opportunity for themselves and children,” she says. “They were hard-working people who asked for no handouts and believed in work as an ethic and were always promoting ideas of self-reliance, enterprise and freedom, urging us to do and be whatever we wanted to be.
“We were steeped in small government, in lower taxes. I don’t believe government should be at the heart of the economy, as Rudd said – or at the heart of society. I think it’s a facilitator, and of course a safety net. That’s where we differ so strongly with our Labor counterparts who see it as an answer to all ills.
“Someone wrote that I came from a privileged background. But I know about adversity because I have seen it within my own family.
The property was wiped out by bushfires on Black Sunday the year before I was born. My childhood [in the Adelaide Hills] was lived with that in the background, as the family tried to rebuild literally from the ashes. It took 25 years to turn a profit. There were many sacrifices to send us to private school. My mother was a Methodist, my father an Anglican, they had strong Christian values.”
Bishop went to a primary school that her great-grandfather founded in the 1890s, and recalls high school – St Peter’s Girls’, also attended by Amanda Vanstone, and Rudd’s wife Therese Rein – as “a wonderful time in my life”.
Her brother Douglas says it’s a tight-knit family, and she’s an “integral” part of it; it’s a refuge of sorts, too. “The family is the one true respite available to her where she can really relax,” he says. Seven or eight years ago, Mary Lou and Patricia went to Canberra to see what their sister’s life was like. “She was boarding in a bedsit where she had to pack everything up each Thursday because the son of the owners came back for the weekends,” says Mary Lou.
“She went back to Perth, then moved back on Sunday nights during sitting weeks. We sisters decided she needed a base, to make life easier for her. So her apartment in Canberra is owned by the three of us.”
Patricia says that the family had always thought Julie, “the beautiful blonde”, would be the one who married successfully. “Julie has missed out on the tradition of marriage and children by accident rather than design, but she doesn’t see it as a negative. It’s just as life works out,” says Patricia. “And I don’t think any husband would keep up with her, honestly.”
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