Prime Minister Tony Abbott isn’t the only Government MP riding a wave of national security-inspired popular support at the moment. So is his Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, whose capable handling of Australia’s response to the MH17 disaster has seen her profile and popularity soar.
Bishop is the politician du jour, feted by political columnists and a coterie of personal supporters as the Liberal Party’s next big thing. This has emboldened her in recent days to put a cold spoon to the ambitions of Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, who was manoeuvring for a new Homeland Security super ministry as reward for having “stopped” the boats.
However, proponents of Bishop as a future Australian prime minister are ignoring the realities of both geography and politics – no matter how well credentialed she is or becomes.
Bishop’s geographic impediment is that she hails from the west. Since federation, only one prime ministerhas come from that state – Labor’s John Curtin – and there has never been a Liberal PM, or opposition leader for that matter, from our western shores.
This is because the power bases of both major parties are located in Sydney and Melbourne. More often than not, NSW and Victorian MPs determine the leadership of those parties because the more populated states hold a higher number of seats in the parliament.
As a result, the Coalition has a long tradition of splitting the spoils of office between the two states, with a leader from NSW often being paired with a deputy leader from Victoria and vice versa. There have been exceptions of course, one notably being opposition leader Andrew Peacock’s onetime deputy Fred Chaney, who was from Western Australia.
Nevertheless, history has shown that geography weighs heavily against any chance of Bishop making it to prime minister.
An even more overwhelming obstacle is that Bishop is a woman. No matter how well the former moderate has adjusted her positions to appeal to the Liberals’ dominant hard-right, and no matter how charming or competent she is as Foreign Minister, Bishop will never be seen by the conservative powerbrokers within her own party as a contender for the top job.
Just as they were unsettled by the unmarried and childless Gillard, the same Liberal traditionalists would be uneasy about the capacity of Bishop, who is similarly unencumbered, to understand the importance of traditional family values when she has chosen not to embrace the whole “hearth and home” experience.
And it’s not just internal party politics that could prevent Bishop from becoming PM. Any political strategist worth half their salt should advise against it on the grounds that Bishop’s elevation could spell electoral suicide for the Liberals.
It should be obvious to any clear-eyed observer of contemporary Australian politics that many of those who responded negatively to our first female prime minister would likely react the same way to the second one.
In fact there’s nothing to suggest that sexism is the sole preserve of one side of politics or the other. The gendered abuse currently being generated online against Abbott’s chief of staff Peta Credlin, the Speaker Bronwyn Bishop, and the mining magnate Gina Rinehart, for example, casts just as ugly a light on perpetrators from the left as it does on similar abuse coming from the right.
And let’s not forget the political media, which admittedly grapples with its pockets of inherent sexism. It will nevertheless remain a bastion of chauvinism until the current stable of senior reporters has retired.
Given this reality, a hypothetical PM Bishop would not be spared any of the gendered opprobrium that was levelled at Gillard, particularly if Bishop was to incur the wrath of the left with unacceptable policies on, say, asylum seekers or climate change.
Granted, Bishop has proven to be personable if not charming, a diligently hard worker, and in possession of a sharp mind when it comes to mastering departmental briefs. Yet Gillard also displayed those qualities as deputy Labor leader, but they dissipated under the combined pressures of difficult politics, bad decisions and destabilisation from Kevin Rudd.
Gillard may still have prevailed if it had not been for the added burden of sexism directed at her by elements of the Australian community and media. The combination of those factors led to Labor’s electoral defeat.
The same pitfall awaits Bishop if she were ever to become PM.
The eminently capable Foreign Minister may yet be able to reshape the Sydney-Melbourne nexus of Liberal Party power to accommodate her west-coast genesis. And she may be able to convince the good old boys that she actually is one of them. But our times simply do not suit Bishop’s ambitions.
It will be a very long wait before Australia is ready to welcome its second female prime minister.