Today’s party room vote on the International Criminal Court will be an important showdown between the increasingly brazen moderates and the uglies on the right, as Molly Moderate explains.

Both Vanstone and Hill are uncharacteristically displaying their oats. Until now, Hill has displayed great discipline since Howard abolished the Liberal Senate party room’s right to elect its own leadership and effectively every other significant Senate appointment. In doing so, Howard made Hill reliant on him for both his Senate leadership and portfolio.

Hill has had his heart set on the Foreign Affairs portfolio since entering the parliament, however the circumstances of Howard’s elevation to the Leadership and Downer’s demise, put paid to that. Downer agreed to graciously step down and anoint Howard on the condition that he be made Foreign Minister upon the Liberal Party obtaining government.

Hill was given the relatively minor portfolio of Environment which dealt him out of mainstream government decision making. It took Reith’s misjudgment of his own prospects of re-election and those of the government for Hill to obtain his second best choice of Defence. Hill’s strong interest in industrial relations was never going to appeal to Howard.

In spite of being part of the senior leadership team, Hill has never been a part of Howard’s inner group. Abundantly ambitious, having seriously contemplated standing for a House of Representatives seat, he is a very skillful politician who with forbearance has waited for his opportunities.

Hill has patiently endured Howard and is looking forward to Howard’s departure as keenly as anybody else. While claiming to be reflecting Cabinet policy when arguing in favour of the International Criminal Court, he well knows where Howard stands on the issue and where he is heading. Prior to the last election, Hill would never in these circumstances have openly expressed such a view on the issue.

Hill’s fellow South Australian Senate colleague, Amanda Vanstone on the other hand has always been indiscreet and inclined privately to express her own views about a whole range of issues when among friends, particularly after a glass or two of red. For a number of years, as the head of her little faction, Vanstone openly campaigned for Reith’s elevation into the leadership. He was for a time, the left’s candidate for Prime Minister.

Vanstone is not particularly highly regarded as a Minister and it remains an unspoken but widely accepted view that her original appointment to the Ministry and subsequent elevation to Cabinet were much more to do with gender than ability. Her self indulgence and preoccupation with self promoting gimmickry which has long irritated her colleagues, is seen as a substitute for substance.

Howard was quick to demote Vanstone from Cabinet when the chance to replace her with Jocelyn Newman became available. Her reappointment came with the retirement and departure through ill health of Newman, the only woman then in Cabinet.

Vanstone’s recent foray into the International Criminal Court debate, an issue which she well knows has deeply divided the party room, is a reflection of her indiscretion which at one level is her poor political judgment, but more particularly, her new found self confidence that she no longer fears Howard or his views. Vanstone either believes she is out of Howard’s reach or more likely, he will soon be gone.

Other than Alexander Downer who is already drafting a compromise retreat in the hope that he is able to salvage something from Cabinet, the member for Curtin, Julie Bishop is another who is placing much store in a victory on this issue. There is no excuse for Downer’s blunder in lurching head long into the mire which was always waiting for him the moment Foreign Affairs bureaucrats enticed him into the notion that Australia’s sovereignty is incidental to the grand plan of the internationalists.

Downer of all people, knows of Howard’s general view on international treaties of the nature of the International Criminal Court.

Bishop on the other hand as Chairman of the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties has no experience in the history of the Liberal Party’s stand on United Nations Conventions or similar treaties and agreements. Obviously she has neither researched nor understood the great struggles of her Party over the use of external affairs powers in the Tasmanian dams case and the Mabo legislation.

It is unlikely that Bishop knows even so much as the history of the very Committee that she now chairs, albeit a matter of public record. In the early 1990s the Senate’s committee system was restructured at which time, the Liberal Party and Senator Rod Kemp in particular, argued in favour of the formation of a Senate Standing Committee on Treaties.

The Labor Party refused to entertain the idea because of the obvious political inconvenience and difficulties it would cause to have the parliament monitoring and reporting on conventions and treaties that the government proposed to sign and ratify.

The present committee is the end product of a long campaign by Senator Rod Kemp, a strong opponent of the internationalisation of Australian’s sovereignty and laws, to provide the parliament with a mechanism for monitoring and reporting on Conventions and Treaties that the government proposes to ratify and sign. It was created only after the election of the Howard government in 1996.

The Treaties Committee was created as a bulwark against governments signing and ratifying the ever increasing proliferation of International Conventions, not as a facilitator.

There had been an increasing practice by successive Labor governments of unilaterally signing international treaties. They invariably offered nothing to Australia and imposed no discipline or constraint upon those nations whose conduct they are intended to address.

More particularly, these treaties and conventions had became nothing more than an avenue for successive federal governments to subjugate and subsume the powers of the States through the abuse of the external affairs powers of the Australian constitution.

The Treaties Committee provided that the parliament may at least monitor the conduct of the government in signing international treaties and so allow the parliament to expose the purpose and effect of the Treaties.

Previous chairmen have kept the government out of difficult and unnecessary controversy. Upon the departure from parliament of the last chairman, Andrew Thompson, in a rare ideological aberration Howard, who has been fastidious during his Prime Ministership in appointing ‘politically suitable’ members to sensitive political positions, allowed Ms Bishop to chair the Treaties Committee.

Bishop apparently imagines her role as Chairman of the Treaties Committee is to find virtue in the various Treaties and Conventions that the rest of the world would impose on Australia and to encourage their adoption by the government. There has for some time, been considerable doubt about Bishop’s political instincts and her chairmanship of the Treaties Committee invites further speculation about her political savvy.

There is a view amongst Bishop’s close supporters from the left that she has been overlooked for promotion because of Howard’s ongoing bitterness at his close supporter Alan Rocher being dumped from Curtin for which Bishop has been the beneficiary. There is however, a less conspiratorial and more pragmatic view abroad which explains Bishop’s failure to progress through the parliamentary ranks. It is a view which is shared by at least one very senior moderate in the Leadership group.

Howard did not view Julie Bishop’s temporary moment of madness when she accepted an offer to transfer from the federal seat of Curtin to the Western Australian State seat being vacated by Richard Court, following the defeat of the Western Australian State liberal government, as an aberration. He viewed it rather as a symptom of her political immaturity, naivete51 and irreparable misjudgment.

Court had convinced Bishop that she should take his seat and he would deliver her the State parliamentary party leadership. Bishop clearly believed that the Howard government was facing certain defeat and that her career path would better be served as leader of the opposition in the State parliament.

Bishop’s judgment in accepting the offer was matched by her conduct when the proposal did not receive universal acclamation from her future colleagues and from some sections of the media. Bishop promptly went to ground, and within twenty four hours had changed her mind, then claimed in the face of an unequivocal commitment to Court and his father, that she had entered no such agreement. The Prime Minister’s office believes that Bishop’s conduct on that occasion was symptomatic of a deeper problem of terminally poor political judgment.

Bishop’s previous colleagues in the law claim that she craves approval and is incapable of dealing with criticism. Richard Court’s offer obviously appealed to her considerable vanity and pride and the level of criticism that followed disclosure of the deal, equally deeply offended her fragile security.

Howard’s office was known to be angered by Bishop’s naive blunder during the federal election when she apparently thought she could appeal to the left in her electorate without the rest of the world knowing, by confiding to her local newspaper that she believed Australia should increase its migrant intake. This was of course contrary to Liberal Party policy and followed the lesson of others who had already fallen into the trap of compromising on the illegal immigrants issue. Bishop blamed the newspaper for misrepresenting her position, which then published the full interview confirming the accuracy of the original article.

More recently Bishop demonstrated her fragility in political combat when confronted by brash new comer Sophie Panopoulos who took offence to Bishop attempting to placate the Labor Party members of the Legal and Constitutional Committee. The Liberal members had, as is the way of doing business on these Committees when in government with the numbers, collectively settled on terms of reference.

Predictably and in keeping with the role of opposition, the Labor members swore and cursed accordingly, at which Bishop felt compelled to placate them with a compromise proposal, which besides startling the Labor members, enraged her Liberal colleagues.

Panopoulos turned on Bishop in full hearing of the rest of the committee, for what she apparently described as Bishop’s unprofessionalism. Mortified for days, Bishop, sought reassurance from her factional friends.

This was not the only recent occasion that Julie Bishop has had reason to feel unloved. During the last party meeting at which the ICC was debated, while seven of her colleagues supported her stand, sixteen spoke strongly against it. Bishop now claims privately that she courageously took the stand she has because she thought she was supporting party policy. She did not have to be able to read tea leaves to get that right.

These various incidents have both raised and reinforced the concern that Bishop may not have the elementary personal qualities necessary for the Ministry. Ms Bishop has always comforted herself that she will remain on the back bench only so long as Howard is Prime Minister and upon Costello’s elevation, a senior Ministry for her is assured. It may be that Ms Bishop’s wait may yet be longer rather than shorter.

Peter Fray

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