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Damaged deputy

By Peter Van Onselen - posted Wednesday, 18 February 2009

In November last year I wrote that Julie Bishop had "the stench of political death about her" and that she should step down from her shadow treasury portfolio in the best interests of the Liberal Party. Her thin-skinned response to the criticisms was to label me a "political stalker". But she didn't stop there. The Australian's political editor Dennis Shanahan also said she was a poor performer, so she bizarrely implied his editor-in-chief was doing Kevin Rudd's bidding.

Shortly afterwards she completely lost the plot in parliament when Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard targeted her for criticism, responding with cat-clawing gestures and glaring back across the chamber. Rather than using the summer to reflect on where she went wrong, Bishop has gone on believing the media was treating her unfairly and it was everyone else who had the problem, not her.

Her decision to step down yesterday was the only move she had left. Humiliated and sapped of confidence, she has clung on to her political career by retaining the deputy leadership while moving into the more manageable portfolio of foreign affairs.


But how long can Bishop last now that the rot has set in on her political career? The Liberal Party needs a deputy who can value-add to Malcolm Turnbull's leadership, not detract from it. Yesterday, when she resigned as shadow treasurer, Bishop claimed she had done a good job in the portfolio, but the negative media attention was becoming a distraction for the Coalition. She suggested she had performed "diligently and competently" as shadow treasurer.

The level of self-denial over her failings has been staggering and won't instil much confidence in her colleagues that she can credibly go on.

Throughout the plagiarism scandal she faced over her unattributed borrowing of words and thoughts of others for my edited collection on the future of the Liberal Party, Bishop continually tried to downplay what she had done rather than admitting her error. She couldn't even see that a deputy leader of a party not bothering to write her own ideas piece on her party's future was a problem. She is still deputy leader and it will remain a problem.

The old adage "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" could have been applied to Bishop's career had she shown more self-reflection. But the saying only works when the person in question admits their mistakes.

John Howard admitted his mistake over his anti-Asian immigration remarks in 1989 that led to him being dumped as party leader. He came back stronger than ever. Alexander Downer admitted he had performed poorly as Liberal leader in 1995 when he stepped down. He came back as Australia's longest serving foreign affairs minister.

When Rudd was outed for having visited Scores nightclub while in New York before assuming the Labor leadership, he admitted his wrongdoing.


Bishop, by not admitting to her poor performance or her plagiarism of ideas, has consigned herself to the dustbin of political history.

She may go on serving as deputy leader and foreign affairs spokeswoman, but she is damaged goods and will be forced out sooner or later.

In the short term, Bishop's colleagues will give her credit for taking the humiliating decision to step down without a bloody coup. But that doesn't change the fact a deputy leader without credibility is a long-term liability.

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First published in The Australian on February 17, 2009.

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About the Author

Dr Peter van Onselen is Associate Professor of Politics and Government School of Communications and Arts at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Western Australia.

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