View from The Hill

View from The Hill

If Bishop aspires to be leader, she can’t afford to make slips on economic issues

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has increased her public visibility in recent months. AAP/Mick Tsikas

Many Liberal eyes are already on Julie Bishop. And given she’s indicated that if there were to be a leadership contest she’d likely be in it, the Foreign Minister will come under increasing scrutiny in coming months.

As a contender she would have the advantage of not being Malcolm Turnbull, but the handicap of questions over her economic gravitas.

These days Bishop seems in the public eye all the time, put there often by events - most recently the Vanuatu cyclone and the air crash in the French alps - but also by her desire for a high profile.

Polling indicates the public has become increasingly aware of and impressed by Bishop.

But colleagues, when thinking about whether, if Tony Abbott can’t hold things together, they should turn to Turnbull or Bishop, both electorally popular, will apply tougher standards.

A scrappy few days have highlighted the hazards for Bishop if she doesn’t both pace herself and display the needed depth when talking outside her portfolio.

She returned from a Sunday flying visit to Vanuatu, a bit off colour and looking tired, to read on Monday that her foreign aid budget was expected to suffer a small cut in the budget. Given the report was in The Australian she’d have assumed this had likely been briefed out by the Prime Minister’s Office or Treasurer Joe Hockey.

She reacted tartly in her public comments, saying she’d be talking to Hockey about it.

This brought a quick result, with Hockey and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann assuring her the aid budget was safe.

Whether this very public muscling up was appreciated by colleagues might be another matter, although it did show she was willing to defend her patch. On the other hand, she had previously lost some $11 billion from aid. It is not clear whether the claim about the cut was a deliberate leak or looser speculation.

Bishop’s eye rolling incident in the House the same day was problematic for her. Sitting on the front bench, she looked exhausted and grim even before Hockey made what he obviously intended as a joke about Malcolm Fraser’s great achievement in setting up the expenditure review committee. It obviously came as salt in the Bishop wound, given the aid kerfuffle.

Bishop’s exaggerated gestures, including covering her face with her hand, made the news bulletins and led to unhelpful publicity about tensions among senior ministers. She’d have done better to appear to play along with the heavy-handed Hockey humour.

Much more serious, in terms of substance, was her reaction on Wednesday to Fortescue Metals Group chairman Andrew Forrest’s suggestion that iron ore producers should restrict production to drive up prices.

Forrest told a business dinner in Shanghai on Tuesday: “All of us should cap our production now and we’ll find the iron ore price will go straight back up to $70, $80, $90 and the tax revenues which that will generate will build more schools, more hospitals, more roads, more of everything which Australia needs — universities etc.”

His proposal has drawn a sharp reaction from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission; ACCC chairman Rod Sims said that he was “very concerned this has been said”, and the commission is investigating whether the comments breach competition law.

But Bishop, who like Forrest is from West Australia, was initially willing to countenance the idea. “That’s a matter for the iron ore industry,” she said. “I know that we’re challenged by falling commodity prices and the iron ore price does infiltrate the Australian economy. It’s an idea worth considering, it’s not one that I’m expert upon.”

Bishop has had a lot on her plate and mightn’t have thought about the implications of what she was saying; all the same, her economic instincts should have been better, or she should have avoided saying anything.

Her comment is damaging for her because some colleagues have doubts that if she became leader she could effectively carry the economic debate. Those with long memories haven’t forgotten that years ago she had to stand aside as shadow treasurer under criticism of her performance.

In question time Bishop, replying to the opposition, did a quick shuffle to economic orthodoxy.

“I do not know the detail of Andrew Forrest’s proposal, but I have since been discussing the matter with the Treasurer, and the Treasurer says the specifics of Mr Forrest’s proposal would not be acceptable. Of course I support the Treasurer on that basis.”

Bishop’s glitch was revealing and embarrassing for her. If it had been made by Bishop PM it would have been considered a major blunder.

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