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Julie Bishop's lawyerly approach

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COMMENTS

20 August 2013 11:06

Andrew Pickford is a Perth-based security and energy analyst.

The former Mediterranean Restaurant in the leafy Perth suburb of Subiaco, a corporate deal-making hub during the 1980s, is now home to the electoral office of Julie Bishop and thus could soon become the Perth base of Australia's foreign minister. Instead of WA Inc era entrepreneurs such as Alan Bond and the late Laurie Connell, the premises may well become the venue of high-stakes agreements and decisions on international treaties and diplomacy.

Just as the landscape of Perth has evolved since the heady 1980s, so has Julie Bishop, the Liberal Party's federal deputy leader and foreign affairs spokesperson. The onetime South Australian corporate lawyer now represents the lower house seat of Curtin — once held by Menzies Government foreign minister Paul Hasluck — and is on track to become Australia's next foreign minister.

Looking beyond the election fog, what does Bishop's background tell us about what Australia's foreign affairs might look like under her direction?

Growing up in the Adelaide hills, the Bishop family had links to the main South Australian conservative dynasties, especially the Downers and also the Playfords. After studying law, she briefly practiced in her home town of Adelaide before moving to Perth with her then husband, property developer Neil Gillon. This westward move began a rapid climb up the corporate law ladder and Bishop became a partner at Clayton Utz in 1985.

It was during the period when Bishop was defending Burswood Casino and its founder Dallas Dempster that she gained attention among Perth's small political and commercial elite. Also helping her rise through the Perth legal fraternity was her ability to generate new business for Clayton Utz, which created a ready-made corporate and political network. This was crucial in helping her ascent into federal politics.

Bishop's skill for navigating the upper echelons of the state's elite has particular bearing if she soon becomes foreign minister. This group is notoriously difficult for outsiders to penetrate, let alone flourish within to the extent that Bishop has managed. In the words of one local commentator, Bishop has a history of 'always being well connected'.

Along with her movement up the corporate ladder came a series of appointments to various institutions that allowed her to shift from legal practice and account acquisition to broader decision-making roles. This included time on the Murdoch University Senate, the SBS board and as Chair of the Western Australian Town Planning Appeal Tribunal. In a similar way, as Foreign Minister Bishop should quickly assimilate into international diplomacy circles and become seen as one of their own.

Bishop's time in the legal profession has given her an ability to forensically study a brief and an excellent memory for essential facts. This will probably translate into a stable and linear approach to foreign policy. Among those who have spoken about Bishop's skill-set, it was commonly claimed that she is capable of getting a brief, but will be unlikely initiate radical change. In other words, Bishop will be best arguing a position as opposed to crafting or developing new policies.

A follow-up post will examine Bishop's Western Australian perspective on world affairs.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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