It captured the tragedy of Bishop’s political career. She was admired and appreciated by just about every constituency at home and abroad, but not her own party.
She had so much more to offer. Instead, after the failure of her leadership bid last August, she’s decided to quit politics after 20 years in Parliament to return to the private sector.
Even after her announcement to the House on Thursday that she would be retiring at the May election, Morrison seemed to struggle to think of any of her accomplishments. Because he didn’t name any. He did say: «We share many things in common, not just thinking that Tina Arena is the best Australian female singer! Apart from that, there is the passion that she has always brought to her role; the dignity and grace that she has always demonstrated in every single role that she has held. She is an incredibly classy individual.»
Whether Bishop would agree that these were attributes she shares with Morrison was hard to tell. She’d already stepped briskly out of the chamber after her announcement, uninterested in lingering for any of the tributes or emotional embraces that might follow.
Bill Shorten did better than her own leader had. He lauded her handling of the Russian-sponsored destruction of flight MH17 over Ukraine, the unprovoked murder of 298 civilians including 38 Australian citizens and residents.
«She really was a leader,» said Shorten. He praised her «steely determination in international forums to help pursue justice». He said: «If any of us were ever privileged to be in the position that she was in, dealing with the Russians and other people, I hope that we would show the same strength that she showed. That she did is to her everlasting credit.»
While Russia’s government initially stonewalled urgent Australian efforts to discuss the disaster, Bishop contrived to confront Vladimir Putin in person during an international summit. She persuaded him to agree to allow a UN resolution to provide for the safe retrieval of the dead and the wreckage from the midst of a battlefield.
Morrison’s office did acknowledge this and some of her other specific achievements – including her New Colombo Plan, which has supported tens of thousands of Australian students into internships across the nations of the Indo-Pacific – when he had a second crack at it, a written statement issued later.
Bishop was, by far, the people’s preferred choice as Liberal leader, according to every poll that asked the question over the past couple of years. She was also preferred among Coalition voters.
Liberal backbenchers acknowledged this by inviting her to their electorates to raise funds for them. She was widely acknowledged as a rock star, drawing crowds of paying fans to events for many of her colleagues over the years.
She was the first woman elected deputy leader of the Liberals, a post she held for 11 years. She was also Australia’s first female foreign minister, for a term of five years. Notably, she never played the «woman» card, never demanded special consideration by virtue of gender, never complained publicly of sexism.
Yet consider this proposition. The Liberal leadership is vacant. The party’s deputy leader of 11 years contests the leadership. He is a man. He’s served five years as a highly successful foreign affairs minister. He’s by far the most popular candidate. Could you imagine that he would not win the ballot? Of course you can’t.
It was another prominent Liberal woman, Kelly O’Dwyer, who said at a party meeting last year that the people saw the Liberals as «homophobic, women-hating climate deniers», comments she has never denied uttering.
So why was Bishop the first candidate dismissed in a three-way leadership contest, with a mere 11 votes out of a potential 85, outdone by Peter Dutton and Scott Morrison?
Within the party, the rationalisation is more factional than female. She was elected as deputy leader to Tony Abbott. When he was deposed by Malcolm Turnbull, Abbott accused her of conniving with Turnbull, of gross disloyalty. He has never forgiven her. Abbott’s grudge became his faction’s grudge. The conservative faction of the Liberals was implacably opposed to her.
Bishop was prepared to live with that. Her greatest disappointment was not the conservatives but her own faction, the moderates. The moderates decided during Turnbull’s last days that their overriding goal was not to elect one of their own. It was to block Peter Dutton, champion of the conservatives.
The moderates estimated that Bishop would struggle to win a ballot against Dutton, although they never actually did the numbers to test this proposition. It was, as one put it to me, a «paper test» only, a list of names compiled by guessing how MPs would vote.
Led by some of the most senior moderates – Christopher Pyne, Simon Birmingham, Marise Payne and Paul Fletcher – the faction decided to back Morrison as a compromise candidate. When the group met to make these decisions, Bishop was neither invited nor informed. Her bid for the leadership was stillborn but she did not know it.
If she had been involved? Bishop has since said that her proposition would have been that Dutton was not the main game. Her appeal would have been that she could beat Shorten.
On all indications, she was the party’s best chance. After she’d been dismissed from leadership contention, her Labor counterpart, Tanya Plibersek, sent her a commiseration message and said: «I just can’t understand the obvious self harm your colleagues seem bent on. You were so clearly their best chance of winning.»
Today, Plibersek adds: «I think it says a lot about the Liberal Party that she didn’t see a future in continuing in the party – and that the Liberals are so backward that they couldn’t see the benefit of putting their most popular person into the leadership.»
While Bishop’s handling of MH17 is her most celebrated moment, her greatest achievement was something bigger, more enduring and more consequential for Australia. The great challenge of the moment is the ambition and expansionism of a repressive dictatorship, the Chinese Communist Party. Beijing has demonstrated that it respects no international laws and no other nation’s sovereignty.
Bishop was never afraid to speak for Australia, to name China’s violations of international law in the South China Sea, to forthrightly defend the rights of freedom of navigation and overflight through the international waters of Australia’s main commercial lifeline. Beijing was frequently displeased; Bishop was never cowed.
Australia has not yet decided how it can manage the relentlessness of China’s assertion of power. The great problem of our time is how to maintain Australia’s sovereignty against Chinese intrusion while preserving as much as possible of the benefit of its economic dealings.
While Bishop did not solve the dilemma, she drew the line. She did what most business and other elites at the time said Australia could not – she said «no» to Beijing.
Bishop freed Australia from the self-imposed subservience of the pre-emptive kowtow. And despite Chinese theatrics, not a dollar of commercial benefit was lost. On the contrary, Chinese trade and investment in Australia boomed.
That balance grows harder each year as China grows more aggressive while the US grows more withdrawn and less reliable. This week’s frisson over coal demonstrates that Australia is fully expecting China to use raw economic coercion against it.
The motivation for the interruption to Australian coal exports to some Chinese ports is not yet clear. Is it temporary Chinese protectionism or calculated punishment of Australia for daring to ban its telecomms champion, Huawei, from our 5G network?
While the authorities tell us it’s just a normal trade fluctuation, China’s state-owned media is enjoying taunting Australia with the prospect of a trade embargo: «Can’t even sell coal to China», was the headline in one Chinese publication this week.
The larger point is that Australia is growing to expect a harsh economic penalty from its biggest trading partner yet has no idea what it would do about it. Whatever happens, Australia will have to confront it without its most capable and experienced diplomatic asset. She had so much more to offer.
Peter Hartcher is Political Editor and International Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.