The retirement announcement of Julie Bishop, late on Thursday afternoon, was a signature Bishop move. Stylish, timed for maximum impact, and full of coded messages.
The backbencher who was once the most powerful woman in the Australian government has kept the nation guessing since she stepped down as Foreign Minister after the conservative leadership coup against Malcolm Turnbull in August.
While there were claims that it was only a matter of time until she followed other moderate Liberal women, such as Julia Banks and Kelly O’Dwyer, out the door, Ms Bishop claimed it was ‘her intention’ to run again in her safe Perth-based seat of Curtin.
That intention had clearly changed when Ms Bishop, this time resplendent in white, not red, rose in Parliament to announce this chapter of her professional life was about to close.
Having closely considered the performance of the Morrison government and the Labor Opposition, Ms Bishop told Parliament that she had concluded “the government will be returned to office because it is focusing on the matter to the Australian people”.
On that basis, Ms Bishop had reconsidered her position and decided not to re-contest the seat of Curtin, which she had held for almost two decades, at the upcoming May election.
Today I announced that I will not re-contest the seat of #Curtin at the next election. It’s been an honour to serve as the member for Curtin, Foreign Minister of Australia & Deputy Leader of @LiberalAus pic.twitter.com/Vqai7ht03K
— Julie Bishop (@JulieBishopMP) 21 February 2019
Whether that is the real reason for Ms Bishop’s decision is anyone’s guess. The former lawyer’s language can sometimes be cuttingly precise, or couched in the coded diplomatese favoured by those in the former foreign minister’s portfolio.
Had the Coalition been smashed at the upcoming election as a result of its conservative rhetoric being widely repudiated by voters, there may have been an opening for a moderate Liberal leader like Ms Bishop to rebuild a modern, centrist Liberal Party from the wreckage.
Her upbeat take on the prospects of the Morrison government may therefore be a concession the conservative rhetoric and border-scare campaign will instead be embraced by voters, leaving no immediate prospect for a renaissance of moderate Liberals.
Perhaps the more likely notion is the outgoing Member for Curtin has finally achieved her last objective before heading for the door. This is to ensure that a high-quality female candidate will be preselected by the conservative West Australian Liberal Party to replace her.
As Ms Bishop noted in her statement to Parliament, “I have been contacted by a number of talented, indeed extraordinary, people, including women, who have indicated to me that should I not re-contest the seat of Curtin, they would seek preselection from the Curtin division of the Liberal Party for that seat”.
There have been reports that one of those extraordinary people is Erin Watson-Lynn, a foreign affairs specialist who moved back to her home town of Perth from Melbourne in mid-January.
That timing makes it possible for Ms Watson-Lynn to meet the West Australian Liberal Party’s requirement for her to be a member of the state division for 30 days before qualifying for preselection.
Whether it’s Ms Watson-Lynn or another Liberal ‘woman of merit’ who prevails, Ms Bishop has ensured that a woman will be chosen by turning the eyes of the nation onto the Curtin preselection and dialling the expectations for a female candidate up to 11.
In so doing, Ms Bishop will have not only led by example in bringing a high-quality woman into Parliament but also thwarted the ambitions of conservative male powerbrokers in the WA Liberals who wanted to shift one of their own, the Attorney-General Christian Porter, from his marginal seat into the very safe seat of Curtin.
It has been a belated effort on her part, but in addition to her many achievements as Australia’s first female foreign minister, Ms Bishop will be remembered for instigating a fightback by Liberal women; women who are alarmed at the toxic culture that has been created within the Liberal Party by the growing dominance of conservative men.
Sadly, that resistance will be weakened by her departure from the Australian Parliament.
Let’s hope that whatever the next chapter of her professional life involves, be it as an ambassador, the Governor-General, or something else, Julie Bishop will still find time to campaign for the Liberal Party to genuinely address its women problem, which, as we all know, is really its man problem.