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Plibersek would do well to emulate Bishop if she wants to become Labor leader

15 March 2014 651 views No Comment

WINNING a federal election from opposition was often described by Tony Abbott as a challenge akin to climbing Mount Everest.

While that may have seemed true for the man who is now Prime Minister, a greater challenge for many of his ministers is to deal with the sudden and massive workload that comes with the demands of government.

Some federal Coalition ministers have made the transition from opposition more successfully than others, most notably Joe Hockey, Attorney-General George Brandis and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. Others, including the Assistant Minister for Health and leader of the Nationals in the Senate, Fiona Nash, are struggling.

Those with past ministerial experience, unsurprisingly, are handling their portfolios more adroitly than those who lack ministerial experience, although new ministers such as Scott Morrison and Mathias Cormann are performing strongly.

The transition from government to opposition is also a challenge, particularly for former cabinet ministers who had grown used to the exercise of power and the glare of the media spotlight.

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Now shadow ministers suddenly feel isolated as they no longer have scores of bureaucrats to cater to their every whim. Advice on policy issues is provided by a handful of staff and it is often difficult to attract people with relevant policy experience.

There is comparatively little interest from the media in the comments of shadow ministers, which makes it much more difficult to make an impact. In frustration, some resort to offensive and inflammatory remarks to “cut through.

Former communications min­ister Stephen Conroy once boasted he was so powerful that he could order telecommunications executives to “wear red under­pants on their heads.

As opposition defence spokes­man he clearly feels so powerless and unwanted that he resorted to attacking the integrity of one of Australia’s most respected military officers, Lieutenant General Angus Campbell, the commander of Operation Sovereign Borders.

Bill Shorten is also struggling to find a narrative based on something other than cheap populism.

The Opposition Leader has recently made some strange decisions — like not pulling Conroy into line and initially not accepting an invit­ation to come to Darwin to welcome back our troops from Afghanistan.

Pushed From the Wings

His deputy, Tanya Plibersek, the opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman, has wisely kept a low profile, but on the occasions she does seek attention, she struggles to make a mark against Bishop.

For example, Plibersek seeks to link Indonesia’s concerns about the turn-back of asylum-seeker boats to the serious fracture in the relationship caused by fugitive US National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden’s allegations that Australia’s intelligence agencies attempted to tap the phone calls of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudho­yono and his wife.

Plibersek’s narrative seems to be that there was a golden age of co-operation with Indonesia under Labor, while relations have degraded badly under the Coalition.

This ignores the crucial fact the espionage took place under the previous Labor administration. Also, the truth is that the people-smuggling trade was reinvigorated because of Labor’s policies.

It is not difficult to feel some sympathy for Plibersek, as she is up against one of Abbott’s best-performing ministers.

Bishop, who is strongly backing sanctions against Russia for its incursions into Ukraine, used her time in opposition to develop networks in the foreign policy community and build relationships internationally.

One of Bishop’s most impressive achievements has been the development of her policy for sending to overseas universities Australian students, many of whom will undertake internships with businesses operating in the host nation.

Bishop’s “New Colombo Plan” is widely regarded as not only clever policy but one that was the subject of extensive development and consultation with the education, business and government sectors in Australia and internationally. It kicks off in the second half of this year with a pilot program into Japan, Indon­esia, Singapore and Hong Kong.

Bishop has brought a similar approach to the delivery of foreign aid. The Coalition’s pre-election commitment was to develop strict performance benchmarks to ensure funds flowed to the most effective and efficient means of delivery.

Again, Bishop is taking an approach where she is not overly prescriptive, including about which organisations are best equipped to deliver foreign aid.

She has also reset our relationship with Fiji.

Howard government foreign minister Alexander Downer imposed a range of sanctions against Fiji in the wake of the 2006 military coup led by Frank Bainimarama. Labor foreign ministers Stephen Smith, Kevin Rudd and Bob Carr all maintained these sanctions, along with relatively hostile rhetoric towards the military regime.

It would have been safer for Bishop to fall into line with this policy. However, she decided to take the significant risk of engaging with the regime.

Her meeting with Bainimarama was widely reported as a circuit-breaker and her approach lauded in Australia.

Another relationship Bishop has carefully cultivated is with Papua New Guinea. Her recent visit there was described by one analyst as the return of a well-known friend, rather than the arrival of a new Foreign Minister.

There are significant challenges ahead, most notably with Indonesia and China. Indon­esian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said recently that he was in daily contact with Bishop, although progress remains stalled by further revelations from Snowden.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi appears to have badly misjudged Bishop’s resolve while on a visit to Beijing, where he attempted a somewhat juvenile public humiliation of her. Bishop did not give an inch.

There are few who doubt that she is assiduously working behind the scenes to ensure that our international relations remain on a productive footing. This includes helping to negotiate a free trade agreement with China. Next month, she will be attending China’s Boao Economic Forum with Abbott.

As a future possible Labor leader, the talented Plibersek could do a lot worse than learn from Bishop’s performance — in government and in opposition.

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University. His memoir ‘My Name is Ross: An Acoholic’s Journey’ is available as an e-book.

The Weekend Australian, March 15-16, 2014, Inquirer p 22

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