Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Tag: Bishop

Not a good day for Bishop

Politics done Sesame Street style:

From the Liberal Party’s Question Time Brief 15th September 2009.

What Bishop doesn’t mention is that just an hour or two before recording this, she asked to put a quote from Paul Keatings 1969 maiden speech into Hansard. Where did she find this quote ? Hansard.

While the press always focused on Beazley, Crean and Latham, a common factor dragging them down was the poor performance of their deputy, Jenny Macklin, who clearly wasn’t up to the job. Conversely Costello* and Gillard helped their respective leaders appear stronger and more capable. Turnbull is clearly being hampered by having a weak deputy and should demote her early in the new year. It’s time for you to go now Julie. You’re scaring the children.

* Yes, Fisher, Anderson and Vaile were technically Deputy to Howard, but in action and image it was Costello from 1996-2007.

Do the Liberals have a China Problem?

In 1983, soon after the election, the Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang visited Australia. Like all good officials, he attended a number of dinners in his honour. Protocol dictates that the Speaker of the House sits to the right of the main guest during parliamentary functions, and as no new speaker had yet been elected, the outgoing speaker, & former leader of the Liberal Party, Billy Snedden, took that place. As Bob Hawke recounts in his memoirs, some time well into the meal, Hawke invited Snedden to continue the conversation with the Premier. Bill did so for a while “and then leant over Zhao and to my horror said to me “Prime Minister, I think we should congratulate the Premier on his use of the knife and fork”‘. (page 343) An interpreter apparently saved the day in that instance, but what then is Julie Bishops excuse for this similar moment of boneheadedness: -> “the Rudd Government failed to work constructively with China regarding the visit to Australia of Uighur activist Rebiya Kadeer.”
Ms Bishop said the Rudd Government has failed to establish a relationship based on mutual respect, which has led to the breakdown in relations between the Governments of China and Australia.

Bishop didn’t misspeak, she repeated the same concerns the following day.This demand we back down in the face of Chinese urging, comes after some months of claiming (if not since Rudd became leader of the Labor Party) that he is too close to and submissive to the Chinese, as Bejing’s ‘Roving Ambassador‘.

Worse, the Opposition cant seem to make up its mind how to describe china, verging from great unknown bogeyman style rhetoric, through to Turnbull’s (quickly retracted) claim that China was an ally early on in his time as Leader of the Opposition. Even little things about china seem to unsettle the Opposition, with one of the more interesting spectacles of the recent parliamentary fortnight being a walkout during Question Time by some WA MP’s in response to the Governments boasting about the Gorgon deal.

Clearly some Liberals, such as John Howard knew how to handle the regime, (though Howard took a few years to find his feet), and when I ask if the Liberals have China problem, I am not alleging underlying racism, but rather an inability to think clearly about the country and its place in the world, in the way the Labor Party sometimes has an America problem.

Whilst not a vote winner, if the Coalition want to ensure they have the confidence of those who watch foreign policy, and those who know the importance of China to our markets, then they need to sort out a coherent message on the issue. Where they should have been gaining points off the current governments troubles in recent weeks, they have managed only to send themselves backwards.

Clearly there is some division between the governments of China and Australia. My guess is that its a short term and inevitable issue, as China works out how far it can ‘persuade’ Rudd to fall into line, and once rebuffed will make only symbolic protests long term (expect another bout in December when the Dali Lama visits). China wont risk the long term relationship and its economy for these issues, but it will clearly try and exploit any disunity or weakness it can, meaning the Oppositions attacks (which Labor indulged in sometimes under Howard) end up making the governments job harder.

Working out how to think and speak about China is where Bishop should be primarily focused. Her boss clearly doesn’t have the time, or the background (though to be fair neither does she), but when the leader of the party is domestically focused, it falls to the Foreign Minister to set the tone for the parties view of international affairs and how each country fits into that overall pattern. Right now it seems the Coalition can’t decide if an emerging China is a good thing (for the wealth it brings), an unsettling challenge (that it is a authoritarian if not totalitarian regime), or an existential threat to the West and Australia’s cozy 200 year history within that hegemony. In truth, China is all these things and more, but Australia requires a governing party that is capable of handling this relationship. Even though Rudd is a china expert who has lived and worked in the country both as a diplomat and businessman his government is still finding it hard going. Until the Liberals, especially Julie Bishop on down work out how to ride the dragon without being eaten they can not be considered fit for government.

The soft bigotry of Australian politics

This sentence caught my attention over the morning coffee:

Queensland Premier Anna Bligh will be become the first female elected to the position of state premier in Australia if she retains office in an election to be held on March 21.

This is apparently thought significant by our unnamed correspondent, despite the fact that Rosemary Follett (ACT), Kate Carnell (ACT) and Clare Martin (NT) have all won elections from opposition over the last 18 years.

This reflects two of the soft bigotries that exist in Australian politics: That Territories dont count, and Women are something new in politics.

First the states: Newspapers and politicians seem the only ones who actually think in terms of their own state, or the states as apart from the territories. Everyone feels the need to belong somewhere, but Australia’s states occupy a no-mans land these days between our townships (witness the Sydney-Melbourne rivalry) and our united allegiance as Australians. I can understand a NSW premier trying to talk up the advantages of their own state over others; but that is a show for the media, and doesn’t reflect the country and way australians view the country. Its bad enough territories get less senate representation, weird HOR seat allocations and are irrelevant at referendums, lets drop the pretense that leading a state is somehow a greater honour or tougher gig than leading a territory.

Now to my main point: The election of Bligh (looking a certainty, abet with a reduced majority), will not be a milestone in Australian politics or gender relations in this country. It will tell us nothing about the publics willingness to elect women, nor give renewed hope to those like Gillard or Bishop who long to be the first female PM.
Australian’s already elect women aplenty, it is now a question of timing, luck and talent for who rises and falls. To suggest otherwise, seems to me more evidence of a private worry about the weakness of women as politicians, than a concern about male misogyny. Women undoubtedly do it tougher in politics, but they already win and take on leadership positions, and reducing every individuals setback to wider causes is its own form of soft bigotry. The main problems seem to lie more in the media’s superficial approach to female politicians (can they be mothers & politicians -or why didn’t they have kids- is their make up on right every single second of the day, what kind of clothes are they wearing) than the actual political parties which have women throughout and don’t change their behavior in attacking/defending other politicians on the basis of gender.

Thus, while the Academic research shows that the ALP’s quota for female candidates in winnable seats has been relatively successful and encouraged other parties to select more women for seats, I would argue that it is nearing the end of its usefulness. (On principle I think all affirmative action should have sunset clauses, but it is to be judged on a case by case basis)

As adopted in 1981, and last updated in 2007 the ALP’s National Constitution requires that:

Public Office Preselection
(c) Preselections for public office positions at a State and federal level shall comply with the
affirmative action model in this rule 10(c). PRINCIPLES
(i) The intention of this rule is to produce an outcome where not less than 40% of
seats held by Labor will be filled by women
, and not less than 40% by men (“the
minimum target”).
(iii)The remaining 20% of the seats held by Labor may be filled by candidates of
either gender.

The problem I have with this approach is that Legislatures are supposed to represent the people, not be representative of them. This is why we don’t simply hand over seats on the basis of gender, age, race, religion levels within the community. Instead we seek to elect the best and most capable, who can understand the full range of issues faced within the community. Whilst a situation of no female representatives (or the currently appalling situation of no Indigenous MP’s/Senators) is unacceptable, Affirmative action should only be used to ensure that the path is open, not that it is well trod. Women currently hold in Government the positions of Deputy PM, Health minister, Climate Change minister, Age Care, Youth & Sport, and in opposition those of Foreign Affairs, Finance, and Immigration (Plus Parliamentary Secretaries on both sides). No young girl who is serious about a political career could fail to notice the many women now in top positions in parliament and the possibility of they too ascending to the very top. They don’t need quota’s to get there, and such systems having done their job need to be retired.

A vacating sacrifice

In chess terminology, when a player abandons or sacrifices a piece so another of theirs can occupy the same space its called a “Vacating Sacrifice”. It’s typically not regarded as a very wise move, and usually reserved for abandoning mere pawns so your queen can steamroll through. It’s hard not to regard the news of Bishop’s fall from treasury as the Coalitions own attempt at the same strategy.

In return for stepping aside voluntarily, Ms Bishop will remain as the Liberal Party’s deputy leader.
“The focus on my performance, on my role was a distraction from the scrutiny that ought to be applied to the Rudd Government,” she told reporters at a Perth press conference at 11.45am AEDT.The finance spokesman Joe Hockey will be elevated to the treasury job while Senator Helen Coonan will move from foreign affairs to finance.
Ms Bishop said she chose foreign affairs to “ensure that Australia’s international standing and reputation was maintained”.

This move probably doesn’t surprise anyone who has been watching Australian politics, but that same group must also be wondering how it strengthen’s the Coalition position. For a start, Bishop has been seriously undermined, perhaps for a full electoral cycle. You cant take one of the top jobs, fail and expect to be taken seriously in another equally demanding role. Howard’s team had much on Keatings in 1996, but in Foreign Affairs led by Downer they never got close during the election cycle, in large part because of Downers tattered reputation (and one he never really changed in office). Bishop may be saying she wants to maintain our international standing, yet if anything her sideways movement shows how un-serious the coalition is about it. (Though had anyone even heard from Coonan in the position?) Labor on the other hand has not only the benefit of incumbency, but a Foreign Minister rapidly gaining experience, and a PM who’s a former diplomat & Shadow Foreign Affairs minister.

What’s more, whilst Bishop had stumbled, these were not too significant considering the timing (the public have forgotten/don’t care about the plagurism, and it is only her opponents bringing it up these days), as the Government was always going to get the upper hand economically during the downturn. They are the one’s with a plan, they are the ones with a bank account, and an “impartial” treasury and public service to model and support their every claim. Bishop hasn’t been outstanding, but as the Government has gone from surplus to deficit and now used up/outlined most of their responses to the crisis (both policy & political), now was the time for a Shadow Treasurer to get seriously to work showing the flaws. One also cant help but feel there’s a little bit of the boy’s club at work here too, a woman being seen by some Conservatives as too weak to manage the economy in tough times (havn’t these people heard of Margaret Thatcher!).

The choice of Hockey as Treasurer seems about the only possible choice, given the lack of depth (or wilderness period of previous good performers ala Abbott or Costello), and lack of media ability for people such as Robb, or relative youth for those like Dutton. But whilst a popular figure, it should not be forgotten (and Labor will be quick to remind everyone) that it was Hockey who presided over the WorkChoices ministry. He didn’t do his homework for that, was especially bad at selling the economic implications for the idea, and largely had Howard step in to cover for him at the end. Whats more, what could better serve Labors desire to re-run the workchoices campaign, than putting the man responsible for it in charge of finances.

Q: How will Malcolm Turnbull reform the Australian Economy to avoid the recession
A: Re-institute Workchoices – Just look at his treasurer!

(Or so Labor will be hoping people come to think.)

Finally, this all raises a number of issues again about Turnbull & his standing in the party. I hope he had the good political sense to help push Bishop when it became clear the party was against her, but on Saturday he was giving her his “total confidence” in the role of treasurer.

“She is doing a great job as shadow treasurer and she is taking the fight up to Labor and exposing Wayne Swan and Kevin Rudd for their Gough Whitlam-like exercise in taking Australia deeper and deeper into debt.” Mr Turnbull Said

I cant imagine he wanted this change, and yet he has had to embarrass his Deputy Leader, submit to the will of the party for his main policy colleague, and given the liberals their third treasurer since the last election. He may be leader of the party, but more and more I am wondering if he is in charge. He needs to take action now to cement his leadership, else bad polling closer to the election is sure to create destabilizing outbreaks & leaks.

Everyone understands the need for a revival of the Coalitions economic credentials, but this seems more the sacrifice of one piece for another of potentially equal or lesser value. Every chess player, upon seeing a possible route to victory is tempted to simply throw away their unneeded pieces and go straight for the goal. But come the late game, they may be ruing such a sacrifice as their opponents shut down attacks and open new flanks. Hockey will initially do better than Bishop – the media will see to that- but it wont fundamentally change the public’s view of the better team to manage the Australian Economy in these times, and costs the Coalition an otherwise strong player.