As Australia’s diplomats traipse back home this week for meetings with our Southeast Asian neighbours on business and counter-terrorism at the weekend’s Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Sydney, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop must be wondering — in what’s meant to be a moment of some triumph — how it has all gone so wrong for her.
It was less than a year ago that Bishop was widely seen as the only person in parliament capable of taking the reins from Malcolm Turnbull as Prime Minister amid open criticism of him from within the Liberal Party.
Now the talk in Liberal Party circles is of Bishop being “retired” after the next election, perhaps to make way for Mathias Cormann, the government’s most consistently good performer, and moving to the lower house. Whether that’s possible or not, it’s certainly true that she has been frozen out of the PM’s inner circle.
Liberal Party insiders have told Crikey that there are two main reasons for this: she is “poison with the right wing of the party”, who will not forgive her for switching her support from Tony Abbott to Turnbull in 2015. And as Turnbull has continued to embrace the right, Bishop has become a casualty.
Bishop pushed hard with Turnbull to get the recent Foreign Policy White Paper delivered by DFAT. When it landed, the biggest critiques were that it had failed to cogently map how Australia can balance its relationship with China — its largest trading partner and the potential regional hegemon. There has not been a peep from Canberra about the disturbing move by Chinese leader Xi Jinping to set himself up as leader for life and one who has already compromised ASEAN by effectively buying the votes of Cambodia and Laos.
DFAT, already weakened by funding cuts over the years, is looking increasingly uneven with bizarre policy moves, such as its upgraded relationship with Cambodia. Criticism of the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya has been muted, and it will be interesting to see if it’s raised while Aung San Suu Kyi — whose fall from international grace has been spectacular — is in Australia this week.
At a time when the international global order is being roiled, at a bureaucratic level the Department of Foreign Affairs is being led by the incredibly risk-averse Frances Adamson who is treated with suspicion in Liberal Party circles due to her time in Stephen Smith’s office when he was Kevin Rudd’s Foreign Minister and Julia Gillard’s Defence Minister. Her star continues to wane amid the growing power of the Department of Home Affairs, due to the heft and breadth of the super department’s remit. And while Home Affairs has not taken any part of DFAT, its “security” role will necessarily see it creep into DFAT territory, underscoring the DFAT/Bishop weakness.
In the Trade section, Minister Steve Ciobo is widely seen in the diplomatic corps as the Minster for Tourism (well, he is from the Gold Coast) and was described by a former diplomat as “perhaps the worst Trade Minister in living memory”. As the big fish he wants to land — the highly protectionist economies of Indonesia and India — are proving very hard to catch, Australian taxpayers are seeing their hard-earned money being frittered on free trade agreements with the likes of Peru and Hong Kong. As he fiddles, Austrade continues to bump along the middle, being outplayed by pretty much all of its Western peers.
Bishop meanwhile, will be playing second fiddle, as Turnbull plays host to a group of nations among which there is now only one properly functioning democracy, Indonesia. The rest are mainly one-party states at various levels of repression.
Sure, Bishop will be there, smiling for the cameras, but her jaw may be clenched tighter than usual, knowing that her chance to lead her nation has passed her by. Unless Turnbull can pull off an unlikely victory next year, the Liberals, as it stands now, will be led by a combination of Peter Dutton and cabinet’s quiet achiever Greg Hunt.