It didn’t take long after Liberal cabinet minister Kelly O’Dwyer’s bombshell retirement announcement for people to start wondering whether the country’s most prominent Liberal woman, Julie Bishop, would follow suit. She won’t, at least not yet.
It was undoubtedly a tough decision for Ms O’Dwyer, who can be credited with several important achievements for Liberal women during her time in office. She was the federal parliament’s youngest female cabinet member and the first serving cabinet minister to give birth. She also joined the small number of Liberal women who have held Treasury portfolios.
It was also a bittersweet moment for many of the Australian women who empathised with the trailblazing politician. We were torn between celebrating Ms O’Dwyer’s previous determination to juggle the demands of parenthood with a high-pressure political career and the minister’s subsequent decision to put her young family first.
It’s also regrettable that her departure will mean the loss of a young mother’s perspective at the nation’s highest decision-making level, the cabinet, if the Morrison government is returned at the upcoming election.
Of course, this isn’t the government’s only loss of female talent in recent times. Due to the resistance of Liberal men to putting women in winnable seats, the number of Liberal women dropped from 16 to 12 at the last election. Of those 12, Julia Banks left the party, Jane Prentice lost preselection to a man, and the retiring Anne Sudmalis was replaced by Grant Schulz and then Warren Mundine.
With the next general election mere months away, only six Liberal women have been preselected for safe (or winnable) seats. Along with a few female senators, these could be the only Liberal women left standing if there is a strong swing to Labor on polling day.
The safest of all those seats is Curtin, with a margin of 20.7 per cent, which is currently held by the former deputy Liberal leader and Australia’s first female Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop. Considering the electoral tsunami that threatens to wipe out Liberals with much lower margins, Curtin is being eyed hungrily by Ms Bishop’s Western Australian Liberal colleagues.
These are reported to include Attorney-General Christian Porter, whose margin in the seat of Pearce is a paltry 3.6 per cent. Curtin must also look mighty tempting to any senators from that state, such as Mathias Cormann, who could be thinking about switching to the lower house.
Given this keen interest in her possible departure, there are three reasons why Julie Bishop won’t do so yet.
- She is resisting being succeeded by a man. Ms Bishop has been vocal in recent times about the lack of women in the Liberal Party and she won’t want to be responsible for reducing that number even further. If and when she leaves, it will be for a female candidate.
- Ms Bishop is part of the ‘moderate’ or progressive faction within the Liberal Party, while the men who are interested in taking over her electorate are factional rivals from the right-wing or conservative faction. Additionally, these are also the men whose plot to tear down the former prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, simultaneously brought an end to her time in the leadership team.
- If the Victorian state election is any indication, Liberal voters may be ready to demand more moderate/progressive policies from the party. That would require a different type of Liberal leader to the right-wing Scott Morrison (or even more right-wing Tony Abbott) in the post-election environment.
A popular and experienced moderate leader such as Julie Bishop could be just what an outdated, rejected and depleted Liberal Party would need to make it relevant again to the majority of Australian voters.
While it might have looked different when she first resigned from the Cabinet, Julie Bishop’s leadership aspirations aren’t dead – they’re just sleeping. The outcome of the May election will determine whether her time in the Liberal Party has ended, or awakened to whole new future.
- Paula explores this topic and more in her first book, On Merit, which will be published by MUP in February 2019. You can pre-order the book or eBook here.