The focus will again be on Julie Bishop in Question Time today after she failed ask a single question yesterday.

The budget deficit was also missing yesterday. Not a single question about that.

Interest rates dominated proceedings, making Bishop’s silence even more notable. In contrast, Wayne Swan was giving a free plug to the Commonwealth Bank, which emailed its press release about passing on all of the 1% RBA cut to his office moments after the RBA announcement. Swan was handed the announcement as he talked about the RBA cut and included it in his answer.

Nice advertising, and it didn’t cost the Commonwealth a cent.

Bishop finally rose to the Dispatch Box after the twentieth question — the usual end of Question Time — but the Prime Minister, who remains stricken with whatever lurgy he acquired in Peru, called a halt to proceedings without seeing her, despite howls of protest from his own MPs who wanted to hear her. If Bishop’s belated bobbing up was meant to cover up the fact that she hadn’t stirred for the entirety of Question Time, it only drew attention to it.

It would be handy if, during this period of unprecedented financial crisis and economic turbulence, when the Australian economy faces its most serious crisis in generations, that we had a functioning shadow Treasurer to engage in debate and challenge the Government.

Bishop did hold a doorstop press conference after Question Time, at 4.40pm. The ostensible reason was to argue that Lindsay Tanner had used a different form of words from that of Wayne Swan and the Prime Minister, and therefore the Government was “sending a mixed message”. One suspects that the real purpose was to avoid the impression she was hiding. Bishop would’ve known full well she was going to be set upon by journalists, but that’s one of the commendable things about many politicians, or perhaps just eloquent testimony to their egocentrism – a willingness to front up even when they know they’re going to cop it.

The initial banter about interest rates didn’t last long. “Are you a shadow Treasurer or a shadow?” she was asked. Ouch. She pointed out that she’d asked more questions of Wayne Swan than Swan had asked Peter Costello. The obvious rejoinder of course is that Costello didn’t have a global financial crisis and recession to deal with. And Costello probably wouldn’t have enjoyed his successor being placed on equal terms with him. Never mind.

Bishop only has today and tomorrow and then she’s in the clear, barring some other self-inflicted stuff-up, which can’t apparently be ruled out with her. Parliament rises for the year on Thursday evening, although the Government continues to threaten that it will keep everyone in after school until the Senate passes its legislation, including the schools bill held up over the national curriculum issue.

Bishop has another role in addition to the Shadow Treasurership and Deputy Leadership. She is also chairing the Liberal Party’s post-election policy review process, which has received considerable energy since Malcolm Turnbull took over as leader. Shadow ministers have been met with and asked for issues papers. Kevin Andrews, chair of the Party’s Federalism Taskforce and a member of Bishop’s review committee, has been heavily involved as well. And Turnbull set up his own tax review earlier in the year, run by right-wing economist Henry Ergas.

Turnbull told the joint party room yesterday he would not be adopting a “small target” strategy but instead promised “innovative” policies.

There are undoubtedly plenty of people whose idea of “innovative” Liberal Party policies amount to a significant shift to the left. It would be more realistic to expect “innovative” to mean an appropriate mix of liberal and conservative policies, reflecting the nature of the partyroom and the fact that a moderate is now leading the party, compared to the long reign of the hardliners since the 1980s. There’s also the need, where appropriate, to distance the party from the Howard years (although presumably not in relation to mandatory detention, where Turnbull said he’ll be closely hewing to the Howard line).

The problem the Liberals have is similar to the one Kevin Rudd now has: the fiscal resources available for a policy agenda, whether it’s nation-building or handing out tax cuts, have vanished since the policy review process got underway. In formulating policies to take to the next election, the Coalition is in the same situation Labor was in prior to the last election –needing to identify savings for any new programs rather than dip into the surplus – although now it’s because there’s no surplus any more. And the Coalition didn’t get much practice at finding savings in its last term in office.

Bishop will need to be innovative indeed to resolve this dilemma as she leads the process to conclusion in 2009.

Peter Fray

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