When Brendon Nelson unexpectedly pipped Malcolm Turnbull for leadership of the Coalition last year, even although the Liberal convention is to allow the Deputy Leader to choose a portfolio, it was expected that Nelson would offer Turnbull the post of Shadow Treasurer. That’s what happened. Julie Bishop was in no position to exercise her prerogative. But when the leadership position was reversed last month, the Shadow Treasurer position was up for grabs. The temptation for Julie Bishop to exercise her right proved irresistible. After all, it’s the most prestigious post after Leader of the Opposition. When she was questioned afterwards about her qualifications to fill this post, she pointed out that she was accustomed to carrying out a brief. And indeed she was.
She graduated Bachelor of Laws in 1978, and after practising in Adelaide joined Clayton Utz in Perth as a commercial litigation solicitor. She became managing partner of the firm, responsible for management of over 200 employees and a multi-million dollar budget. In 1996 she completed a Harvard Business School Advanced Management Program for Senior Managers, including subjects in global financial accounting and government, business and the international economy. She’s a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Management.
So does this qualify her to be an effective Shadow Treasurer?
She got off to an inauspicious start when, in a radio interview, she got wrong the base cash rate. It was a small error, a reflection of her minders’ inadequacies as much as her own, but it exposed her to media ridicule and a Lindsay Tanner ribbing in Question Time where cameras captured her stony countenance. Not a good look for a new Shadow Treasurer.
Her website said nothing of this, but reveals that in the two weeks since her appointment she has made eight comments on financial matters. First she accused Wayne Swan of “remarkable ignorance of the operation of the Australian Office of Financial Management and changes his Government had made to its investment mandate only a few months ago.” Subsequent revelations in the unfolding of the $4 billion package to buy triple A mortgages and improve the mortgage share of the non-bank lenders showed Swan knew full well what he was doing; it had all been carefully planned months before. Her next comment echoed the Coalition line on the luxury car tax. Then there was a brief comment on the IMF Report, to which she added a mention of ‘the Coalition legacy’ and took a sideswipe at the Government. Next there was her accusation of a Swan ‘back-flip’ on the mortgage market when he introduced his $4 billion package. Next came her Fairfax Business Blog. It began with the background to the sub-prime crisis. To what extent she wrote it is unknown; it was posted by ‘Ed’. There were over 30 comments, none from her. Her next comment briefly welcomed the Productivity Commission Report on paid maternal leave. Her last two comments were made in doorstops, the first in an extensive interview on the financial crisis, and the last on the prospect of an interest rate cut. She played the party line condemning Swan for not insisting that the banks pass on the full cut, although when he did that last time, he was castigated for telling the banks what to do. Now Bishop insists Swan “...should stop acting like the CEO of one of the big banks...” Take a look at her website's record of comments and judge for yourself.
Turnbull has continued to make statements on the financial situation, as he’s entitled to do to match or counter those made by Rudd. Some have been statesmanlike - others have been to score points. But Bishop has not matched Swan, as she should have. She has missed opportunities and has not yet landed a telling blow. Had she come to the Shadow Treasurer position at the same time Swan became Treasurer, when the Coalition insisted he still had his training wheels on, the contest might have been more even. But with ten months of experience behind him, his competence, authority and confidence have grown steadily, making him much harder to match. The question is whether she will be able to catch up. Her professional background seems to be too fragile for the portfolio, and her performance to date has been inconspicuous. The public is entitled to expect more. Unless she can improve substantially the Coalition will continue to look weak in this area. Turnbull and Andrew Robb, who would have loved the post, will need cover for her.
The old adage applies: ‘Be careful what you wish for.’