Julie Bishop finds herself in a unique position: pointedly wedged between two rivals and ready to decide the future of both. By Sophie Morris.

Julie Bishop’s long play moves to old mate Malcolm Turnbull

Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop in parliament, Monday.
Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop in parliament, Monday.

When Julie Bishop cast her vote in the secret ballot on the Liberal leadership spill, she took a precaution to protect herself against any challenge to her loyalty.

The party’s perennial deputy leader made a note of the number inscribed on her ballot paper, so she could retrieve it, if necessary, to prove she had voted as promised. In the climate of distrust that surrounded the spill motion on Monday morning, it was a smart move.

Bishop played a starring role in the charade preceding the vote. Not for her the second billing of the best supporting actress. This time she wrote her own carefully worded script, treading a fine line between doing her duty to the leader, while also acknowledging backbench concerns and manoeuvring to preserve her position, whatever the outcome. 

Bishop took the same precaution with her ballot when Abbott became opposition leader in December 2009. 

Following that vote, she requested the whip dig out her ballot paper to prove to an aggrieved Malcolm Turnbull that she had stuck by him until the end of his leadership.

Her caution is understandable, given that her loyalty was questioned in the days leading up to Monday’s vote. She found this deeply insulting.

“I shouldn’t have to do this,” she reportedly told Abbott when he probed her loyalty in a private conversation, revealed by The Sydney Morning Herald’s political editor Peter Hartcher. “I’m not your problem. You’re your own worst enemy.” 

If it is shocking that such a conversation occurred, it is equally fascinating that it was relayed to a journalist. Particularly at a time when the prime minister was publicly insisting they were united against a leadership spill, in what was only the third ever challenge to a sitting Liberal PM, albeit one without a declared challenger. 

After defeating the spill motion 61 votes to 39, with one informal vote and one MP absent, a “chastened” Abbott conceded he had survived a “near-death experience” and would heed the concerns raised by his colleagues. He urged MPs to let him get back to fighting Labor, rather than Liberals.

Bishop seemed buoyed by the experience, not diminished.

As Abbott struggled to find a new script in the aftermath, settling on the slogan that “good government begins today”, it was his deputy who delivered stark messages in a blitz of media interviews the next morning.

Shortly before declaring in the Coalition party room on Tuesday that “leadership spills are so yesterday” and that it was time to move on, she directed some volleys squarely at the Prime Minister’s Office.

Her target was Peta Credlin, the PM’s chief of staff. Her attack was carefully couched but its intent was clear.

“Peta Credlin is a very powerful figure in the sense that she’s strong, she has a lot of opinions and she is very protective of the prime minister,” Bishop told the ABC’s AM program.

Asked about concerns raised by backbenchers that the Prime Minister’s Office had created a “climate of fear and intimidation”, she replied: “The prime minister must respond to those concerns if they are valid.”

Pointedly, she observed that the PM’s staffing matters were an issue for him. “And I’m not going to start giving the prime minister advice on how he should run his office; nor do I expect him to give me advice on how I should run my office,” she said, in a thinly veiled rebuke to Credlin, who had reportedly sought to remove Bishop’s longstanding chief-of-staff, Murray Hansen.

Both women know what it’s like to work with consecutive Liberal leaders. While Bishop has been deputy since 2007 to Brendan Nelson, Turnbull and Abbott, Credlin has headed up, or held senior roles, in each of their offices. Now the two most powerful women in the government are at loggerheads, though Bishop publicly professes they have a “very good working relationship”. 

Their relationship was already strained by Credlin’s attempt last year to block Bishop’s attendance at a climate summit in Lima and then insist that trade minister and climate sceptic Andrew Robb “chaperone” her. When asked about this in question time on Wednesday, Bishop deftly deflected it without denying it, declaring the question “so yesterday”.

1 . Budget confusion

So yesterday. It’s a catchy way to dismiss the leadership drama that has dominated the first parliamentary sitting week of 2015, distracting from distressing reports on Indigenous health and education and on children in immigration detention. The backbench putsch on the PM has also fuelled confusion about the future of unpopular budget measures, such as the GP co-payment and deregulation of university fees. 

In the aftermath, Abbott conceded the budget may have been “too bold and ambitious” and that “we will not buy fights with the senate that we can’t win, unless we are absolutely determined that they are the fights that we really, really do need to have”. But Treasurer Joe Hockey still insisted the savings were necessary to return the budget to surplus. And then there was the debacle over submarines and whether Abbott had sought to win support from South Australian backbenchers by promising to revise the process for awarding the $20 billion contract. This was only trumped by his accusation on Thursday of a “holocaust of jobs” in the defence industry under Labor, on the same day that unemployment climbed to a 12-year high of 6.4 per cent.

But has the government really put the tensions behind it? As a contrite Abbott promised yet again to be more consultative, even to “socialise” decisions, a report in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph the day after the spill motion, alleging certain unnamed frontbenchers were known to have deserted the prime minister, raised concerns about payback.

Credlin has been conspicuously absent from her usual spot in the advisers’ box during question time and Abbott has urged disgruntled MPs to call him directly. Bishop, who is a frequent and popular visitor to backbenchers’ electorates, has told MPs her role is to convey their concerns to the prime minister. In question time, both she and Turnbull ensured they were photographed in close and collegial conversation with Abbott, presenting a facade of unity.

It could be argued that tensions between the leader and his deputy will further cripple a government that is already struggling. After all, Abbott is also dealing with an assumed but undeclared rival in his communications minister, Turnbull, who indulged in some amusing oratorical frolics in question time, including warning MPs not to be bullied by broadcaster Alan Jones. And Hockey is digging in following reports some ministers want him replaced as treasurer by Turnbull. A bolshie deputy leader only adds to the tension in cabinet.

However, plenty of backbenchers think it’s a good thing to have a deputy leader who will stand up to the Prime Minister’s Office. In recent times, Bishop has shown she is prepared to do this.

2 . Private machinations

It is tempting to write that the tensions that had been brewing for months between Bishop and Abbott erupted in the lead-up to the vote. Yet it was not so much a volcanic blast as a subterranean rumble, forcing fissures in underground rock formations, while on the surface life went on with little apparent disruption.

Such are leadership challenges, especially without a declared challenger. What occurs on the surface, in front of the cameras, is at odds with what is said in private. 

Let’s rewind to last Friday, when West Australian Liberal MPs Luke Simpkins and Don Randall formally called for a leadership spill. 

Abbott responded in a brief statement that afternoon, vowing that he and Bishop would “stand together” against the spill motion. But the perception of a joint ticket was soon quashed.

Within hours, Hartcher and Laurie Oakes, two of the press gallery’s most senior and respected scribes, filed stories with remarkable anecdotes illustrating the deterioration in the relationship between Abbott and Bishop.

“When Julie Bishop returned to Australia from visiting Afghanistan last week, she could see that Tony Abbott’s prime ministership was in serious difficulty,” began Hartcher’s inside story.

Oakes told of a meeting in Abbott’s Canberra office on budget night last year, attended by the foreign minister, where the PM reportedly shouted and swore, demanding that Bishop’s friend, Danielle Blain, refrain from contesting the party’s presidency.

Both stories were written with the certainty of being impeccably, albeit anonymously, sourced. 

It was reminiscent of the acrimony revealed in leaks back in 2009, when Abbott beat Turnbull by one vote for the leadership. Within days of that ballot, emails were leaked to Annabel Crabb at the ABC, in which Turnbull wrote to Bishop that he and his wife were unable to reconcile Bishop’s public declarations of admiration for and loyalty to Abbott with “what you were saying to us last night in our apartment … your scathing attacks on him and his character”.

“You would have been far better advised not to accept that role,” Turnbull wrote at the time. “Too many people know what you think of him, and what he thinks of you.” 

Bishop, for her part, denied to the ABC that she had said “anything the least bit vicious” about Abbott to the Turnbulls, conceding only that she had laughed about his budgie smugglers and was “saddened by these false allegations of disloyalty”.

Leadership spills have a habit of revealing the tensions that simmer beneath the surface.

The morning that the stories by Hartcher and Oakes hit the newsstands, there they were, the PM and his deputy, side-by-side at Townsville Airport, playing nice for the cameras, while making some obscure announcement about international flights to the region. 

Abbott vowed the Coalition would never replicate the “Game of Thrones circus, which the Labor Party gave us”, referring to the blood-soaked television saga.

“I’m not someone who runs around demanding pledges of loyalty,” said Abbott. “Loyalty is what people in this Coalition naturally deliver to each other.”

An unflinching Bishop again pledged her support, in comments that managed to be both unequivocal and unenthusiastic. “I support the leader,” she said. “That is the role of the deputy and I’ve proven since 2007 that that’s the role I will play.”

She had already, on Tuesday, vowed, “I will not challenge the leader”, after being publicly goaded by frontbencher Ian Macfarlane to rule that out. Strictly speaking, her comments would not have stopped her running if another MP brought on a spill.

By Saturday, the expectation was that Turnbull would stand for the leadership, should the spill motion succeed. The assumption was Bishop would remain deputy and foreign minister, with Scott Morrison as treasurer.

On Sunday morning, Bishop was photographed leaving Sydney Airport with her partner, David Panton. Arriving at a fundraising event for NSW Liberals in Turnbull’s electorate, she stopped outside, to allow the cameras to capture her greeting Turnbull with a kiss. No words were needed.

By that time, Turnbull had already been stirring the pot during a 6am chat with reporters camped outside his home.

He praised his good friend the prime minister for allowing a secret ballot and not bringing it forward from Tuesday. Abbott changed tack shortly thereafter, expediting it to Monday. Turnbull cheekily dubbed this a “captain’s call”.

Come Monday morning, Bishop walked into the crucial party room meeting with Abbott, but did not accompany him out. She has let it be known that she sees her role as separate to the leader, serving both him and the party.

As MPs discuss time frames for Abbott to prove he has changed, Bishop’s supporters consider she could one day do his job. “I think she has the ability and talent to be leader one day, there’s no question about it,” says Liberal MP Teresa Gambaro, who supported the spill motion and was publicly critical of Abbott’s leadership. “But I think at this stage she really enjoys being foreign minister.”

As for her ballot paper, Bishop does not intend to retrieve it to prove her loyalty this time. But she will hang on to the number, just in case. Leadership spills are so yesterday, yet all those troubles don’t seem so far away.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 14, 2015 as "Bishop’s long play moves to old mate ".

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Sophie Morris is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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