Bishop in Waiting

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Some of us in the political journalism and commentary game were a tad worried last year that the ascendancy of Kevin07 would leave us with nothing exciting to write about. There was a feeling that a lot of the colour, light and movement characteristic of the declining years of the Howard era would fade to managerialist grey.

How wrong we were.

While the second week of the new Parliament’s sitting offered nothing as exciting as the national apology to the Stolen Generations, it has not been without drama. Significant in themselves have been the dynamics of the new House. Those of us lucky enough to be natural night people have been entertained in the wee hours by Question Time on Aunty. One wonders what Matt Price would have made of it all; the new Speaker, Harry Jenkins, dubbed proceedings "comedy hour" on Tuesday.

Many tales could be told about the week in Parliament – the laudable novelty of a Speaker acting like he might be a bit independent, and the Wayne Swan wobbles – but the one I’ll be telling epitomises much of the bigger political picture: the clash between Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop.

Gillard has been enjoying herself immensely with her WorkChoices-stunt-of-the-day routine – brochures to be pulped on Monday, mousepads to be brandished from the dispatch box on Tuesday, fridge magnets on Wednesday. The Opposition’s backdown on AWAs has made her life a lot easier, enabling her to display her gifts as both a communicator and a wielder of the political knife. On the other hand, conventional wisdom has it that her opposite number, Bishop, was comprehensively routed this week.

The real picture is more interesting, however. While Nelson has been somewhat subdued in the House after a very flimsy attack on Rudd about the Brian Burke emails at the beginning of the week, and Turnbull has been reading up on his economics textbooks to demonstrate his superiority over Swan, Bishop has refused to take a backward step in the face of a formidable assault from Gillard.

Rather cleverly, Bishop avoided putting her recommendation on the Libs’ options on the WorkChoices repeal in writing, enabling her to argue that she’d presented a number of options to Shadow Cabinet, one of which was accepted. So in a sense, the claim that she was rolled on the issue is untrue – and she’s also shown up Nelson by displaying some consistency in position. (Although that may not be an altogether good thing for the Libs: Bishop’s continued advocacy of some form of statutory individual contract is a red rag for an ALP scare campaign to be reactivated at will.)

But the politics of the Opposition appear much more about positioning the next leader – or the next sacrificial lamb who’ll offer themselves up to the slaughter after Nelson’s inevitable political demise – and Bishop has avoided the total indiscipline that descended on the Liberals after the restraining hand of Howard faded into history.

She has well and truly repaid her debt to the Liberal right on WorkChoices – to a much greater degree than Nelson, who is struggling to escape the perception that he is Nick Minchin’s puppet. During the Howard years, Bishop also avoided the culture wars quagmire in Education better than Nelson did with his flags and Simpson’s donkey. In fact, Bishop’s advocacy of a merit pay plan for teachers and her smoothing off the hard edges of Howard’s curricular obsessions won her some kudos outside the ranks of the usual conservative suspects. She may be covering more bases in the deeply divided Liberal Party than Nelson has been able to do with his much vaunted "consultation".

This week, Bishop demonstrated that there are more than two ways to respond to Rudd’s bipartisan snares, branding Rudd’s 2020 summit elitist (as I argued last week on newmatilda.com, there’s a good case to support this), and calling for alternative electorate-level gatherings. It’s not rocket science, and it’s a bit of an attempt to out-Kevin Labor’s Community Cabinets, but Nelson didn’t come up with it.

Although Bishop had a messy press conference defending the AWA back
flip, and needs to tone down the head prefect persona, she appears to
be attempting to provide the leadership so sorely lacking from Dr 9 per
cent.

The real tests for Bishop lie ahead. It shouldn’t be impossible, when the detail of the next tranche of workplace legislation is released, to find angles of attack outside of the predictable ideological line. Her ability to put a dent in Gillard’s armour will be key. It’s a big ask, but she may be right that the Deputy PM’s super portfolio will prove too unwieldy for even one of Labor’s best performers.

The smart money would be on Gillard – but Bishop may be staking in a different game entirely. It looks very much like there’s another contender in the running for the poisoned chalice.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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