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Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Blowing the whistle on bullies

Julie Bishop is no stranger to the rough and tumble of politics. She is a 20-year veteran of the federal parliament; for 11 she was the Liberals’ deputy leader. And just to complete the picture she was the nation’s foreign minister for the past five years.

The coup that despatched her good friend Malcolm Turnbull to the backbench and then on to a fast track out of parliament also saw Bishop’s career take a dramatic turn. It can only mean her better days as a politician are behind her. So the shackles of ambition no longer bind her. She used this new freedom as a backbencher to call out what she says is a shocking culture in our politics.

You only have to watch question time when federal parliament sits to get a whiff of what she is talking about. Partisan rancour, insults, exaggeration and personal attacks are the norm. Malcolm Turnbull, when he came to the top job, pledged to change the tone only to find that this was condemned as weakness on his part from his internal party critics; his failure was that he was not initially brutal enough in his attacks on his Labor opponents.

Bishop, in a frank speech to a Women of the Future Awards bash last week in Sydney, conceded that politics was “robust” and “not for the faint-hearted”. But she said the appalling behaviour she has witnessed wasn’t acceptable in business circles two decades ago and it’s time the institution that is the ultimate expression of our democracy, namely the parliament, caught up.

The former deputy Liberal leader had praise for her colleague, Julia Banks, who, like herself was successful in the private sector before entering parliament. She said when a “feisty woman” like Banks says “this environment is not for me”, don’t say “toughen up princess”, say “enough is enough.”

Of course, politics is about power. The stakes and the rewards are high. But Bishop, like her Liberal colleagues Kelly O’Dwyer, Linda Reynolds, Lucy Gichui as well as Banks, have done not only their party but us all a favour in calling out the bullying. This isn’t about playing the gender card, this is about respect.

In the same speech, Bishop lamented the Liberals’ failure to make way for more women in their parliamentary ranks. She baulks at calling for quotas but other Liberals like O’Dwyer and recalled minister Sussan Ley are surely right in saying the “merit” arguments have failed. Labor is close to 50% female representation in parliament, it’s time for some real effort at catch-up. The Liberals’ goal of 50% female representation by 2030 can’t happen if women aren’t preselected for safer seats. Targets on the never never fool nobody.

As well, all political parties need to have enforceable codes of behaviour accountable to an independent authority. Labor’s internal dealing with backbencher Emma Husar or the Nationals’ internal inquiry into Barnaby Joyce fall far short of Bishop’s clarion call “enough is enough”.

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