For a lawyer of 20 years’ standing, as she claimed yesterday, Julie Bishop has a real problem with what should be the basic tool of the lawyer’s trade, words.

Never mind that one of the highlights of Bishop’s legal career was enthusiastic participation in what some have characterised as CSR’s “litigate until they die” asbestos strategy. That merely denotes the sort of cynicism and amorality that doesn’t exactly distinguish Bishop from many of her former colleagues in that profession. This is about her problem with how she uses words.

Recall why Bishop is in her current role as shadow foreign minister: she lost the shadow treasurer’s role after just a few months in the job following two separate plagiarism incidents and a number of blunders on economic basics.

Now, having been delegated the task of prosecuting the case against the Prime Minister by a leader too scared of accusations of negativity and s-xism to touch the issue, she’s shown once again that words are her enemy, on three separate matters.

First, and most egregiously, was the accusation about Gillard that “she and Wilson and Blewitt wanted to hide from the AWU the fact that an unauthorised entity was being set up to siphon funds through it for their benefit, and not for the benefit of the AWU,” an accusation so wild and unsubstantiated that not even The Australian has dared make it. This meant Bishop had to backtrack in her post-question time media conference — conveniently cut short when she was under sustained pressure from journalists by a division — insisting she had been misinterpreted, and that her words “their benefit” didn’t mean Gillard.

Well, arguably not. As a lawyer, you’d expect Bishop to be careful about the wording of the accusations she makes. So either she was peculiarly lax in her phrasing or it was deliberate. If it was deliberate, it was a bad idea, because it meant most of the evening news coverage was about her having to backtrack.

Second, Bishop and Abbott’s senior staff managed to botch several of their questions yesterday, with two ruled out of order entirely and another partly ruled out. Given the Prime Minister was hitherto under no pressure whatsoever from the “grilling” she was receiving, it didn’t matter a great deal, but it was the opposition that built this week up as some sort of key political moment, and they couldn’t even get their questions right.

And third was the saga of Bishop’s meetings with Ralph Blewitt, which is still developing today with revelations Bishop took a phone call from him last week but professed to not know who it was (Blewitt has been accused of many things in this matter, but this is the first time making prank phone calls has been one of them).

This follows Bishop yesterday describing her meeting last Friday with the Jolly Bagman as a “chance meeting”. A “chance meeting” would suggest she bumped into Blewitt while out for a morning stroll, or at a function, but in this instance “chance meeting” extends to Bishop agreeing to go and meet Blewitt at the request of Michael Smith, Dante to Blewitt’s Virgil in this dodgy amateur production of Inferno. Or perhaps another cultural touchstone, Princess Bride, is more appropriate here: I don’t think “chance meeting” means what Bishop thinks it means.

The net result of all of which is that, peculiarly, it’s now Bishop under pressure over the AWU “scandal”.

“You can say anything you like to the media and it has no consequences,” insisted Bronwyn Bishop yesterday in question time.

She should ask Bishop how that “no consequences” thing is going.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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