Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Testing times ahead for Julie Bishop, the celebrity foreign minister

Testing times ahead for Julie Bishop, the celebrity foreign minister
Published 7 Jun 2016 

In an election campaign in which foreign policy barely rates a mention, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop is playing a high profile and politically important role.

Regular viewers of morning television programs will have become well accustomed to her appearances. Voters in key marginal seats will have had a very good chance of bumping into her. When trouble has struck the coalition campaign, the first face in the media putting the coalition’s case is often Julie Bishop’s. The most high profile coalition figure facing the greatest risk of losing his seat, National Party leader and deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, has been keen to have Bishop at his side on the campaign trail.

Bishop is what campaign strategists refer to as 'campaign gold'. She is the government’s most popular minister and her busy campaign itinerary is being planned by Liberal Party campaign strategists to maximise the political impact of her good standing with voters.

In the event of the unthinkable for the Liberal Party — an outright loss to the Labor Party — Bishop would be a good chance to become the next leader of the Liberal Party. In the more likely event of a narrow victory, her standing within the government would be enhanced by what will be seen as her substantial contribution to the government’s re-election.

The remarkable thing about this is that it will owe surprisingly little to her actual portfolio work and it will have little relevance to the assessments that are made about her role in foreign policy. [fold]

The celebrity foreign minister

In the popular media, reports and analysis of Bishop’s performance as foreign minister are mostly superficial and unrelated to policy matters. Bishop is a 'celebrity' foreign minister, with at least as much media devoted to her personal style and appearance as to her policy substance.

Yet to interpret this as meaning that she is 'a lightweight' would be to sell her short.

Bishop has proven herself to be skilled and nimble-footed in domestic politics. The fact that she has maintained a stranglehold on the deputy leadership while three leaders have been torn down is quite remarkable and testimony to diplomatic skills in the internal affairs of the Liberal Party.

But in international affairs, judgments about her work and the impact she is having on shaping Australia’s place in the world are not so clear cut. Conversations with people from the foreign policy 'community' produce mixed reviews of Bishop’s performance.

Of course, assessments are subjective, depending on the view of the observer about the state of Australia’s most important relationships and what might need change to enhance Australian security and its place in the global order.

In summary, though, the consensus view seems to be that Bishop is competent, conscientious and cautious but neither especially imaginative nor creative.

Bishop gets high marks for her work in the Abbott government’s response to the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH 17, especially her diplomatic lobbying to bring about a unanimous vote in the UN for the establishment of an international tribunal to investigate the bringing down of the plane.

Her visit to Tehran last year and the opening of a dialogue with Iran were also seen as important foreign policy breakthroughs.

Mixed reviews on Indonesia and China

More mixed are reviews of Bishop’s work on Australia’s critical relationships with Indonesia and China. 

Some say the problems in the Indonesian relationship have only been smoothed over for public presentation but that fundamental problems remain.

Critics also argue that under Bishop policy makers are struggling to clearly define and defend Australia’s best interests in response to China’s increasing assertiveness.

But regardless of the criticisms, Bishop is in good standing with her department and is well regarded by the diplomatic community.

She manages her departmental briefs with a sure touch and presents her arguments both publicly and in private clearly and convincingly.  In dealing with consular matters where Australians have been involved in tragedies or crises abroad, Bishop is empathetic and reassuring. 

In diplomatic negotiations, she is not afraid to speak bluntly where she is persuaded that bluntness is required.

Government insiders regard her as 'a safe pair of hands' in the portfolio. Officials with inside knowledge credit her with toughness in holding a steadily pragmatic line in response to some of the not-well-thought-through ideas that come from political staff, especially during the period of the Abbott prime ministership.

Bishop is closer to Malcolm Turnbull than she was to Abbott, both politically and in terms of his view of the world, although foreign policy has taken a back seat in the period since he became prime minister and has been preoccupied with internal Liberal Party diplomacy.

The Abbott stamp on Australia’s international standing and relationships is still very visible, with no discernable shift since Turnbull took over on border protection and the treatment of asylum seekers, on Australia’s retreat from a leadership role on climate change action and the continuing withdrawal of funding for foreign aid programs.

Under Turnbull, the coalition government has also held firmly to the Abbott government’s line on relations with the US and China.

There have, however, been some hints of different approaches such as Turnbull’s rejection of a US request for an increase in Australia’s military commitment to the Middle East, his toning down of the Abbott government’s national security rhetoric, and the government’s decision to award the submarine construction contract to France instead of Abbott’s strongly preferred Japanese bid.

What lies ahead

A key question for Bishop and for foreign and strategic policy will be what happens after the election, assuming that the government is returned.

Foreign policy is one of the areas where there could be significant post-election change, if commentators are right and Turnbull asserts his authority more strongly once he has an election mandate.

Thus far into his prime ministership, there has been little that has compelled the attention of Turnbull to international affairs, apart from the obligatory visits to key foreign capitals to introduce himself.

But not too far into the term of the next government in Canberra this could change dramatically, especially if Donald Trump becomes the next US President.

A possible Trump presidency has been discussed only in passing in the election campaign. Opposition leader Bill Shorten (who has said hardly a word about foreign policy under a Labor government) commented that a Trump presidency could be 'very difficult for Australia’, an observation that prompted a rebuke from Julie Bishop, who said that Australia would have to respect whomever American democracy anointed as the next US president.

It is unlikely that the potential implications of a Trump presidency will be further discussed in the election campaign, given that the parties are focused on the domestic issues that will decide outcomes in the key marginal seats.

But prior to becoming Prime Minister, Turnbull consistently argued that the evolution of US-China relationship was the prime issue for Australian foreign policy. He has warned of the danger of what he has called 'reflexive antagonism' by the US to the growing assertiveness of China, which he argued could end in conflict.

The steadily increasing tensions in the US-China relationship are already sure to impose themselves more pressingly upon Australia’s strategic interests, but this will be especially so with Donald Trump in the White House and regardless of who wins the Australian election.

Bishop’s response to Shorten – that we should await and respect the result of the US election — is a sustainable position only until the Australian election campaign is over. In a newly elected Turnbull government, she would have to immediately turn her attention to how Australia should prepare for and respond to the outcome of the US presidential election and its fallout in the US-China relationship.

What Julie Bishop thinks and how she works with Turnbull to manage Australia’s interests in an increasingly difficult relationship between our most important ally and our most important trading partner will be of much greater relevance than what she wears and well she performs on morning TV.

Then we will find out who is the real Julie Bishop.

Next week Geoff Kitney will examine ShadowMinister for Foreign Affairs Tanya Plibersek's approach to the  portfolio 

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