While Bronwyn Bishop has long been a figure of mockery even within her own party, it shouldn’t be forgotten that, a quarter century ago, people seriously spoke of her as Australia’s first female prime minister.
It was a very, very different political era. There were just 10 women out of 150 MPs in the House of Representatives after the 1990 election. Margaret Thatcher had only recently been ousted by her party in the UK, but she was still seen as a model for aggressive neoliberalism, even though she’d torn Britain’s social fabric apart. Australia had plunged into recession, with unemployment surging over 11%, banks collapsing and incompetent Labor governments being dumped. Many in Australia despaired of politics and thought we needed an Iron Lady of our own, that Bishop could take the country in hand with the same discipline as Thatcher had displayed in the UK. Journalists had begun to notice that Bishop resonated in the community, particularly among women. As 10 years in opposition turned into 13 for the Liberal Party, the idea of Bishop as leader began to circulate.
That analysis, however, was based on a misjudgement of both Bishop and the political era. In retrospect, neoliberal reform reached its apogee in the early 1990s. The Hawke government’s response to the recession was, in a feat of extraordinary political bravery, to push further ahead on reform, not back, despite knowing the end of protectionism would smash the heavily unionised manufacturing sector. Liberal leader John Hewson assembled a comprehensive program of even more aggressive reform, condemning Labor as wishy-washy and captive to the unions. After Keating seized the prime ministership from Hawke, the 1993 election became a clash of wonk heavyweights, the feral abacus versus the author of the recession we had to have, over the nuances of taxation. And after he’d won, Keating kept up the reform pace, tackling historic labor market deregulation and national competition policy while trying to stimulate the economy out of recession, forge a regional architecture via APEC and establish stronger links within our region.
The resentment in the electorate — resentment that John Howard and Pauline Hanson would later exploit — was about too much reform, too fast, not the need for a hardline disciplinarian to do a Thatcher on us, as Bishop’s fans fantasised.
And, problematically, Bishop had zero policy substance. She had come to prominence savaging public servants at Estimates hearings in the 1980s, as soft a target as a politician is ever likely to get. Unable to answer back and often having to front at 2 and 3 in the morning, bureaucrats would be bullied and berated by then-Senator Bishop. Occasionally she met her match: one Estimates, she set herself to go after the ABC, but then-MD David Hill was more than ready for her and Bishop ended up having to lament that other public servants weren’t as prepared as he was in dealing with her questions.
She was also — to use a word she used as a self-descriptor — a Liberal warrior. Bishop’s favourite movie, she told a newspaper in the 1990s, was Seven Samurai. Her most prominent public service target was tax commissioner Trevor Boucher. In the 1980s Boucher had transformed the ATO, via computerisation and PAYG initiatives like the Tax Pack. But when he set his sights on widespread use of offshore tax schemes by big business (sound familiar?), the business community was outraged and launched a series of attacks on him. When he began targeting politicians as well, the Liberals went after him as well, led by Bishop. That led to, inter alia, the famous screaming match between Bishop and Labor’s Gary Punch in front of Boucher at a committee hearing.
And it was all motivated by a determination to punish a public servant who had the temerity to subject companies and politicians to the same scrutiny as ordinary taxpayers.
Bishop’s other problem was that her appetite for publicity alienated her colleagues. “Is the answer Bronwyn Bishop?” former senator Chris Puplick was asked after the 1993 election had been lost. “If the answer’s Bronwyn Bishop, it’s a pretty stupid question,” he replied. Puplick had motive, of course — Bishop had taken his NSW senate ticket spot — but he summed up the attitude of many Liberals. A cartoon at the time showed Bishop holding forth about yet another phone call urging her to the leadership, with the wire leading to a bunch of Labor MPs in a phone booth trying to stifle their laughter. John Howard was an excellent judge of political talent (which is why he kept duds like Christopher Pyne and George Brandis on the backbench for so long) and when he became prime minister he tried to keep Bishop in a portfolio where she wouldn’t cause too much damage. She was initially tucked away in a junior defence ministry but then he near-fatally allowed her into a portfolio with actual real-world consequenes. The crisis that erupted in aged care in the government’s second term seriously damaged it — people forget that Howard entered the election year of 2001 badly trailing Labor.
After the aged care crisis, Bishop became synonymous with kerosene baths, and she wasn’t allowed near another ministry, even when Tony Abbott returned the Liberals to power in 2013. Suspecting she’d never see real power again, Bishop tried to remodel herself as a parliamentary procedure guru, marching to the dispatch box to take points of order, inevitably citing the relevant page number “of the Practice”, to sell her wares as a candidate for speaker. When Abbott gave her that job to make sure she didn’t stuff up another ministry, she proved a disaster in that as well — hyper-partisan, often blatantly taking direction from Leader of the House Christopher Pyne, offering entirely inconsistent rulings. Even in a government led by a man who viewed the job of leading the nation as being entirely about attacking his political opponents, Bishop was too much the warrior.
In the end it was that warrior instinct that brought her down. She clung on grimly to the speakership as she became an object of national derision for her travel indulgences, profoundly damaging Tony Abbott — who famously styled himself the love child of Howard and Bishop — along the way. When Abbott belatedly decided that she had to go, she turned on him as well, backing Malcolm Turnbull in the September coup. Abbott, in turn, withdrew his support for her preselection and his own federal conference president in Warringah, Walter Villatora, stood against her; after the right-wing Villatora was knocked out on Saturday, his numbers shifted to moderate Jason Falinski rather than Bishop, ensuring her defeat.
At the end of Seven Samurai, most of the warriors are dead and the ones left alive depart in disillusionment and grief. Or, as Paul Keating more earthily put it to Julia Gillard the night she was ousted, “we all get taken out in a box, love”. Like her now alienated “love child”, if Bishop had been less of a warrior, perhaps she might have seen more victories on the political battlefield. Now she merely numbers among the fallen.