5 September 2018
Women’s Weekly Women of the Future Awards, Sydney
JULIE BISHOP: Virginia, it’s not like me to detail what I meant by a particular act, but I have created a wave of red shoe emojis on every text message I have received since that date! Thank you for that introduction, I am delighted to be here at the Australian Women’s Weekly AGL Women of the Future Awards. I’m honoured to be one of the judges on the panel and I acknowledge Dame Quentin here today and I wish Tanya Plibersek had been able to be here because I am sure there is a lot that we have to catch up on!
To the finalists, the awardees – you inspired us with your stories and I am so looking forward to what you do in the future. I am buoyed by the fact that you will be recognised for the exciting and innovative and enterprising things that you are doing as young women of Australia.
Just 10 days ago I was elected for the 7th time in 11 years as the Deputy Leader of the Federal Liberal Party. Over the next three days there were a series of events that resulted, for me, in my resignation as the Deputy Leader and my resignation from my Cabinet position as Foreign Minister of Australia. The events surrounding the leadership change will be discussed and debated and dissected for years to come.
I am just sitting back wondering, gee what will I do when I grow up? I’m not going to add to that debate today. It is too soon. Not just yet. However, these events have given rise to a much broader debate about the workplace culture in Canberra, with allegations of bullying and intimidation, harassment and coercion, and the unfair, unequal treatment of women. It is evident – notwithstanding those who say “nothing to see here, move on” – that there is an acceptance of a level of behaviour in Canberra that would not be tolerated in any other workplace across Australia.
Like most things in life, it should be put in a broader context, and there are complexities around this because politics is robust, the very nature of it. It is not for the fainthearted. Indeed, it is the battle of ideas and our very system is inherently adversarial.
The Westminster parliamentary system that we embraced virtually in whole from the United Kingdom has, as its base, an Executive Government that governs and an Opposition that holds the Government to account by scrutinising and challenging every decision that the government makes. As a result of this contestability you get better government for the people. In a democracy the people have their say as to who they want to represent them in the Parliament. There is enormous opportunity for the opposition to seek to undermine the government of the day so that they can be elected and implement their agenda and their vision for the nation. So far so good, as a theory goes. However, I have observed that Oppositions now use their position to bring down the Government for purely self-interested motives. It is not about what is good for Australia – it is about the lure of the authority and the privileges associated with ministerial offices. I have witnessed this on both sides of politics and no wonder the public is cynical when policies that the Opposition know are right for the country – because they were their policies once, have even campaigned on them – but they will oppose them and vote against them to impose maximum pressure on the government, even though it is in the national interest for that policy to be implemented.
There is another driver of this adversarial culture and that is Question Time. I believe that this televised theatre does more damage to the reputation of the Parliament than virtually any other issue. It is the grab you get every night on the news of politicians yelling at each other across the House of Representatives. Now, no one can claim the moral high ground here. I have been on the Frontbench in Government and in Opposition for 16 years, asking questions or answering questions. But when we politicians show such contempt for each other, aren’t the public justified in feeling contempt for all of us? It is meant to be 75 minutes each day in an otherwise 10 to 12 hour stint of mostly civil parliamentary debate, but it is a battle of ideas where the winner takes all. There is a take no prisoner approach to it. Notwithstanding the best efforts of the Speaker and his power to kick people out of Parliament if they misbehave, it ends up as an embarrassing circus. Ministers and Shadow Ministers are judged on their performance in Question Time and the more you sledge and the more you ridicule, the more you are applauded. I would hope that over the last five years as Foreign Minister I have tried to answer questions with civility – still pointing out the Labor Party’s shortcomings, and there are many – but I try very hard to answer in an informative way. The clever, witty, informative questions and answers are in very short supply.
It is not only Question Time. We also find that the convention where parties can elect and then remove a leader – even the Prime Minister – by a majority vote of that party room is confounding to so many people. Over the last few days I’ve had so many people, particularly young people, say to me “but I voted for a candidate that belonged to the Party that had Malcolm Turnbull as the Prime Minister and when you changed from him you didn’t come back to me and ask me what I thought and yet you – the Government – force me to vote, you make it compulsory, you fine me if I don’t. Well, why don’t you come back and ask me what I think about the change of leader?”
Given that we have had six prime ministers in 10 years, it is little wonder that we’ve been called the ‘coup capital’ of the world and the ‘Italy of the South Pacific’ – with great respect to Italians. The challenge of course is that it exposes the rivalry and the bitterness and the intense competition within the Parliament.
Politics attracts competitive people, men and women. You have to compete every second of your day. You compete to get preselected, you fight an election to beat the other candidates and as soon as you arrive in Canberra there is intense rivalry for the ministerial and shadow ministerial positions and appointments to parliamentary committees. It is rivalry wherever you turn.
Then there is the workplace itself. Just imagine this, you gather up 226 members and senators from all over Australia of varying ages and genders and backgrounds and beliefs, you put them in Parliament House for two weeks at a time, you work around the clock – all on top of each other – with staff and advisers in a high pressured, intense, high octane environment, and you are all away from your friends and your family and the positive influences that would otherwise keep you grounded.
Now, I’m not making any excuses. I am not condemning or condoning any particular individual, any particular behaviour (I have to go back there on Monday) but you really have to ask yourself, are we getting the best out of our politicians in this environment?
I have seen, and witnessed and experienced, some appalling behaviour in Parliament. The kind of behaviour that 20 years ago when I was a Managing Partner of a law firm of 200 employees I would never have accepted. Yet, in Parliament, it is the norm. We are adults. We are grown people. We have to take responsibility for our own personal behaviour. Every single one of us has to take responsibility. When a feisty, amazing woman like Julia Banks says “this environment is not for me”, don’t say “toughen up Princess”, say “Enough is enough”.
This morning I read a blog online and it concluded with the question – why would any talented, intelligent, committed woman forge a professional career in federal parliament? And 20 years ago I recall being asked that very question time and time again as I campaigned to win the seat of Curtin. I had a successful legal career and the number of people, in fact, I’ve lost count of the number of people who would come up to me and say almost incredulously, why would you give up the secure professional career and your private life to go into the very insecure, very public, much criticised role in federal politics?
My answer then is my answer today: It is because I was brought up to believe entering public office is one of the highest callings and that if you get the opportunity to dedicate your energy and your ability and your ideas to the betterment of your state or your country, then that was one of the greatest contributions you could make. I have always had an intense conviction that individuals can make a difference to the life of their times.
So that is still my guiding star. When I first went into politics I had this dream that I would one day be Australia’s Foreign Minister and that dream came true. For the last five years I have had the honour of representing Australia on the world’s stage and very humbly as the first woman to hold that role. But it was the most satisfying and rewarding job that I could have ever wished for.
It was complex, on a global scale, from presiding over the UN Security Council and negotiating with the Russians to ensure that we could bring back the bodies of those killed aboard MH17 when it was shot down over Ukraine, to taking part in some of the most fiery debates at the highest level with leaders from around the world on issues like the horrifying conflict in Syria; to managing our relationships with other nations during a time of great power rivalry; developing close personal friendships with leaders and foreign ministers so that I could use those informal networks to benefit Australia through those exchanges; to helping out Australians who get into trouble overseas – and believe me there are many who get into trouble overseas and most of it is done behind the scenes; to publishing a Foreign Policy White Paper that is a substantial document setting out what I believe are Australia’s priorities and challenges and opportunities in terms of our international engagement over the next 10 years and beyond; to implementing the New Colombo Plan which I believe will be one of the most significant legacies of this Conservative Government whereby we fund Australian undergraduates to undertake study and work experience in one of 39 countries in the Indo-Pacific. Between 2014 when I commenced it and 2020, over forty thousand young Australians would have had the opportunity to live, study and work in our region. It is not just what they bring back – the experience, the knowledge, the insights – but it is how our region looks at us, that our government invests in our people to study in their universities.
So, I am now a backbencher and my diary is empty apart from lunch today – thank you Juliet – and yet I have so much to do for the people of Curtin, my electorate of 20 years. That is satisfying and rewarding work and I will be able to give them much more of my attention than I have been able to in recent years. But having said all of that I also must tell you that I have seen some of the greatest acts of compassion and kindness from and between members of parliament.
The old adage “if you want a friend in politics, buy a dog”, well that is not true. I have made very good friends with people on both sides, all sides of politics. In fact, the first person I spoke to 20 years ago as a brand new politician was Bruce Baird, father of Mike, father of Julia and we remain close friends to this day. In fact, it was Bruce Baird who introduced me to one of the three men in the room today – that is what I call a friend! Malcolm Turnbull and I were great mates before we went into politics and we are even closer today. We went into the leadership team together; we left the leadership team together.
Some observations. Australia is a significant country. Our voice matters. We are highly regarded as an open liberal democracy committed to freedoms and the rule of law and democratic institutions. We are an open export oriented market economy in our 27th consecutive year of economic growth. That is a world record. But we can’t take any of that for granted. We must defend and strengthen our institutions and we must treat our Parliament with more respect. Unacceptable workplace practices are the responsibility of us all – to identify it, to stop it, to fix it. Also, I firmly believe that no nation will reach its potential unless it fully embraces the talent and skill and energy and intellect and ideas of the 50 per cent of our population that is female.
I say to my Party, the Liberal Party, it is not acceptable for us to have in 2018 less than 25 per cent of our parliamentarians as female. It is not acceptable for our Party to contribute to the fall in Australia’s ratings from 15th in the world in terms of female parliamentarian representation in 1999, to 50th today.
There is a lot to be done and I am committed to helping do it. At a grassroots level our Party – in fact, all parties – recognise that they have a problem in attracting and maintaining women and diversity in general. I am really optimistic about my future and the future of politics in Australia. Things will change, for they must.
I say to the future leaders here today, don’t let go of your dreams too easily. It seems the harder you work at them the more likely they are to come true. Believe in yourself. Back your judgement and do not ever, ever let anyone define who you are or what you can achieve.
– Ends –
Member for Curtin’s office: 08 9388 0288