What began as a genuine effort to stimulate a much-needed debate about the future direction of the Liberal Party has become a debacle about plagiarism and the capacity for intellectual engagement of senior Liberals.

Last night Lateline revealed that Roger Kerr, the source for the lifted material in the piece ostensibly prepared by Julie Bishop for Peter van Onselen’s Liberals & Power: The Road Ahead said that Bishop had given him the impression the publisher was at fault in failing to include footnotes sourcing the material. Bishop insists she merely explained the publisher couldn’t include the footnotes because it was too late, and she wasn’t blaming the publisher at all.

Someone’s got the wrong end of the stick. Maybe Kerr has. Either way, it has at least partially undone the efforts of Murray Hansen in Bishop’s office to take full responsibility for what happened.

Van Onselen says he doesn’t have a problem with senior politicians not writing every word of their material, as long as they have set the overall direction for the piece and then carefully worked through the final draft to ensure it fully reflects their views. Hansen initially told van Onselen when providing the original draft that he would provide footnotes, but did not do so in the time he indicated he would. Footnotes don’t necessarily obviate the charge of plagiarism — the fact that material from elsewhere has been directly quoted needs to be acknowledged, but let’s leave that aside. But subsequently, van Onselen provided a draft of Bishop’s chapter back to Hansen and asked him to confirm Bishop was happy with it. Again, no footnotes were provided. It was only in the aftermath of Bishop’s previous plagiarism escapade — which was on about her second day as shadow Treasurer — that footnotes were finally provided. But by that stage the book was being printed and it was too late to include them.

The book originated as van Onselen’s effort to prompt a debate about where the Liberal Party goes from here. “Some conservatives have accused me of mischief-making in all this,” van Onselen said, “but if there was any mischief, it was in wanting a genuine debate.”

Only six of the book’s 16 chapters are from politicians — Bishop, George Brandis, who contributed a very strong piece, Tony Abbott, then-leader Brendan Nelson (probably written by staffer Tom Switzer, Michael Keenan and Brett Mason). The other ten are from commentators of various stripes, including Robert Manne, Crikey’s popular occasional contributor David Flint and the co-authors of previous van Onselen works, Wayne Errington and Phillip Senior. Malcolm Turnbull was asked to contribute and was undecided for an extended period — possibly due to the leadership problems in which the party found itself mired for much of the year — until he finally opted not to. By then the cover had been selected, although van Onselen preferred to keep it given Turnbull was now leader.

Van Onselen says he commissioned and rejected chapters from other Liberals, because they weren’t sufficiently high quality. Bishop’s piece felt “perfunctory”, as well, although as Deputy Leader she couldn’t be omitted from a debate on her party’s direction.

No wonder, as Gerard Henderson has repeatedly lamented, the Liberals have struggled to muscle up in the battle of ideas. The direction of the Liberals, particularly given the financial meltdown, should be one of the key features of Australian political debate. It’s an issue George Brandis and Tony Abbott took seriously, but one Julie Bishop — who is leading the party’s internal policy review — seems to have ducked. And while the ability to write a book doesn’t suggest any great political nous — cases in point, Barry Jones and Mark Latham — the ALP appears to produce more articulate thinkers interested in trying to influence debate. The Liberals’ dependence on lawyers (like Bishop) and business people seems to be counting against it when it comes to articulating a vision.

Alan Jones launches the book next Friday in Sydney. Ms Bishop probably has a prior engagement.

Peter Fray

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