Tony Abbott is “fed up” with Julie Bishop’s latter-day conversion to feminism, according to colleagues, and does not recall her ever raising concerns about him holding responsibility for the women’s portfolio at the time.
The former prime minister has told friends he can’t be bothered defending himself against Ms Bishop’s increasingly public complaints about the plight of women in the Liberal Party because he fears it will simply give her more publicity.
Liberal ministers have also backed him in, describing the suggestion that only Ms Bishop could beat Bill Shorten at the election as “laughable”.
Ms Bishop hit the headlines again this week, ridiculing Mr Abbott’s decision to hold the women’s portfolio when she was the only woman in cabinet.
“Back in 2006 I was appointed to cabinet as the minister for education, science and training and as the minister for women’s issues. I was asked constantly by men, only men, why isn’t there a minister for men’s issues?” Ms Bishop said.
“I thought the answer so self-evident that it didn’t require a response. Fast forward to 2013 when I was back in cabinet as the deputy leader of the Liberal Party and the Minister for Foreign Affairs. I was the only woman in that 19-member cabinet, so prime minister Tony Abbott appointed himself the Minister for Women’s Issues.”
But Liberal insiders insist that Ms Bishop never raised concerns about Mr Abbott retaining responsibility for women’s policies in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
“Never. Not once. Not a single time,” said a senior Liberal.
In fact, it was standard practice for a long line of prime ministers, including Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and John Howard to hold the women’s affairs portfolio because it was part of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
It was only Labor’s Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard – and John Howard for one term in 1996 – who had a woman in the job. The other periods there was a junior “Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on the Status of Women”.
“Can you imagine the backlash if Tony Abbott removed the portfolio from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet,” said a Liberal.
The original plan was to make former Liberal MP Sophie Mirabella the Minister for Women, but her political career was terminated in the 2013 election by the voters of Indi.
That left Mr Abbott with just one woman in cabinet – Julie Bishop – a situation he took his time addressing.
Speaking at the Frankly Women Leadership Forum in Hobart to mark International Women’s Day, Ms Bishop warned female representation was going backwards.
“Australia started so well. Twenty years ago we were ranked 15th in the world in terms of female representation in our national parliament. Today we’re ranked 50th and numbers haven’t changed, it’s about 30 per cent, but so many other nations have increased their female representation in their parliaments,” she said.
“The issue of quotas versus targets is one that will continue for some time. The point is this, you need a critical mass of women to ensure that they can fulfil their ambitions.
“The talent is there. You might have to dig a little deeper, for women notoriously don’t put themselves forward, and women often think that somebody might be better in the role than they would be, under-selling their achievements in a way that men invariably do not do.”
But Independent Senator Cory Bernardi told The New Daily it was a joke that Ms Bishop was now claiming to be a champion for women.
“It’s a pity that most politicians only have the strength to say what they think after the leave,” he said. “Makes you wonder why they are there.
“I don’t think any Liberal women have genuinely pushed for more women for advancement. It only encourages their competition.”
The New Daily has contacted Ms Bishop for comment.
Asked if he would commit to even a 30 per cent target for female candidates, the Prime Minister dodged the question on Tuesday insisting he was simply “getting on with it.”
“A record number of women now sitting in my cabinet, the highest of all time. They are actually firm results,” he said.
“But my point is this. We’re just getting on with it. I think people have a clear steer for me about where I place these issues. I have been moving very quickly on these issues since becoming Prime Minister, and the results speak for themselves.”