The Liberal Party is built around the leader. The leader hasn't got time to crunch deals and make them stick, and loses a bit of burnishment in the process. Not hungry for the limelight themselves, effective deputies make up for their lack of name recognition by shoring up the leader and making him (a matter of historic fact rather than a requirement going forward) look capable of running an outfit bigger than the ad-hoc numbers-gathering operation, or "camp", that got him (sorry) the job in the first place.
Eric Harrison (1944-56) and Harold Holt (1956-66) underpinned Menzies' longevity. Phillip Lynch (1972-82) could not save Snedden - no deputy can save an inadequate leader - but Fraser regarded him as so indispensable that, when he sacked Lynch as Treasurer in 1977, he kept him as deputy because of his deal-crunching abilities. Peter Costello managed the transition from Downer to Howard, and Bishop from Nelson to Turnbull to Abbott.
Ineffective deputies undermine their leaders, either through mendacity (e.g. William McMahon 1966-71, John Howard 1982-85, Andrew Peacock 1987-89) or incompetence (e.g. Michael Wooldridge 1993-94). Ineffective deputies create a sense among Liberal MPs that nothing is settled and nothing is possible, and that engaging in leadership speculation (which an effective deputy roots out at every opportunity, or else rides when it becomes overwhelming) and gossip is no more/less useful than anything else.
Bishop was a dealmaker. She kept in contact with stakeholders, understood what they wanted and didn't want, and cut deals that stuck. Liberal MPs who opposed Howard's treatment of asylum-seekers were prevented from crossing the floor, from embarrassing their leader for the sake of a policy that has since proven illusory, through a combination of honeyed words and threats from Bishop. She cut a deal among squabbling wheat farmers, putting her own skin in the game as a Western Australian (WA wheat farmers play a more significant role in that state's Liberal Party than is the case in other states), which may yet count against her now that she is weakened.
Abbott isn't a dealmaker. He'll say anything and will go back publicly on what he said privately if it suits him. He has no experience in law and/or business. He wasn't a factional leader and fears the perception of getting rolled. Nelson wasn't a dealmaker either, operating under the patronage of powerful backers both at the AMA (Bruce Shepherd) and in politics (Howard); a natural deputy, but no leader. Like Abbott he was unable to make the transition from protege to patronage-giver.
Turnbull, of course, was a dealmaker, given his legal and business experience; but in Sydney since the 1980s legal and business leaders aren't Liberals. They were when Howard was learning the ropes in the 1960s and '70s, but that is one ladder that has fallen down since Howard climbed it. Political dealmaking is a different matter altogether from dealmaking in the Sydney business community, as Turnbull has either learned too late or not at all. This division is probably true of Melbourne, though to a lesser extent, and there won't be any Liberal PMs from there any time soon anyway. Elsewhere in the country, such as in Perth, senior legal/business people are still also senior Liberals - so when Bishop became a trusted dealmaker in one sphere she could straddle them all.
Bishop had gained a perception of strength from having kept her position while two leaders lost theirs. Until last week, a weakened Abbott needed Bishop more than she needed him. Nobody in the Federal Parliamentary Liberal Party could do what she does in terms of dealmaking and smoothing ruffled feathers. Western Australian Liberals deferred to her as the nearest thing they've had to a Liberal PM. Bishop has lost the credibility and the status necessary to make deals stick, without anyone else having gained it.
People on Twitter who'd never vote Liberal mocked Bishop's mechanical approach to asking niggling, minor questions of the Prime Minister, yet again wasting the opportunities of Question Time to gather information about how a government is working. This is highly esteemed in the modern Liberal Party. Liberals respect plugging away at a doomed activity far more than taking a punt on an idea that might be costly and not work. Bishop should have come out of this week strengthened within her party, however much she was diminished publicly by flogging an issue that started small and only got smaller.
When Peter Slipper became Speaker, Christopher Pyne frantically nominated half the ALP caucus instead, all of whom declined; again, most people viewed this with mirth or incredulity but for Liberals, Pyne was being a loyal soldier in the face of enemy fire. His effete mannerisms and history of moderation will be forgiven if he's loyal. So it is with Bishop's personal vanity and being from a small but bumptious state. Malcolm Turnbull knows this too, which is why he won't challenge Abbott before the next election; he is wearing ashes-and-sackcloth by professing loyalty to a lesser man as leader and spouting much the same pathetically inadequate policy that the Coalition took to the last election.
The modern Liberal Party is not for people who take initiative - this is a matter for history and rhetoric only, from when the party was dominated by small businesspeople. The modern Liberal Party is for people who carry out the brief set for them and do not question it. This is why drones like Julie Bishop have thrived while more subtle minds have floundered.
Bishop's skittishness in the face of her meetings with shadowy figure surrounding the AWU has proven to be her undoing in the absence of a knock-out blow against Gillard. The phone dropped out, I only met him for coffee etc., these are the classic evasions of a politician in over their head. Peter Costello would have distanced himself from grubs such as Blewitt - but Bishop's from Perth, you'd never drink coffee in that town again if you limited yourself to only dealing with the true and the good.
A Liberal Party with initiative would have steered away from Gillard's personal life and used their accumulated trivia about the AWU to profess concern about union members, using that as cover (along with the HSU saga) to impose the governance on unions that would make it difficult for them to support and nurture the ALP. They could have neutralised their negative perceptions about industrial relations, the issue that stopped Abbott in 2010 and on which he (and Shadow Minister Abetz) has made zero progress since. Oh well, too late now.
Abbott doesn't look good for letting Bishop carry the Gillard-AWU issue (to use the label on Credlin's folder - photo courtesy of Fairfax):
Bishop's tragedy is the Liberal Party's tragedy, and it comes in two parts. First, Bishop did what she was told but it wasn't good enough. It has made her look stupid rather than strong - all the more so for lacking the initiative to demand someone else do the dirty work (such as Abetz, for example, in a house where Gillard would not monster him directly). The Liberal Party has a weakened leader and a weakened deputy, and for what?
The second is that Bishop, Credlin, and Abbott have underestimated Gillard. They don't have a plan B if she fights back - and the more effective she is when she fights back, the more likely the PM is to do it again and again, meaning the poverty of simply assuming she will simper or weakly stonewall when challenged is exposed. Effective deputies have a role in getting the measure of their opponent and standing up to a leader who makes the wrong call.
Had Abbott led the attack on Gillard-AWU he would almost certainly be finished. Bishop would support her fourth leader and the Liberal Party would go forward, with a fresh leader stealing Gillard's oxygen. Her ability to make and enforce deals within the Liberal Party and with major stakeholders outside it would be intact. Until this week, Bishop could have demanded the leadership herself after being such a loyal deputy, and she would have been put there had Abbott been felled by an explicitly sexist event.
Abbott has certainly removed Bishop as a threat to his own position, and has avoided being thrown under the bus himself. It was a feature of the Liberals in the 1980s-90s when leaders started to be regarded in insider-politics terms for the hits they scored against their own deputies. Treating a woman (who has supported him) in a shabby fashion will not help Abbott at all.
Bishop is Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. This is not a policy area which shifts a lot of votes but taking it seriously is the difference between a credible alternative government and a bunch of bludgers who just want another crack at all the perks. Mark Latham thought he could afford to be a foreign policy lightweight in 2004, and he was wrong. If you're going to complain about defence spending, if you're going to talk about trade and jobs created through export, if you're going to talk about immigration, you need a foreign policy framework.
Julie Bishop has done nothing in this area. Her experience as Education Minister might have been useful in the debate over Asian languages. Her lawyerly ability to master a brief might have yielded a respectable if limited policy. It is now clear, however, she won't develop any ability to do so. No other current Liberal MP has or can, including (especially!) Josh Frydenberg.
Other candidates for Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party lack what she had before this week:
- Joe Hockey comes from the same state as Abbott and will always be seen as a rival. HOCKEY DECLARES FULL SUPPORT will become one of those zombie stories that no mere fact can kill. He can cut a deal but needs to be detail-focused and disciplined to compensate for Abbott's shortcomings;
- Peter Dutton comes from a state which should be represented in the leadership group, where the Coalition must hold all they have and advance if they are to win. However, Dutton has also been policy-lazy in a key area, and he doesn't compensate for Abbott's weaknesses - he's a wooden personality, not particularly fast off the mark, and would (like his home state's Deputy Premier) be more likely to crack down on dissent rather than manage it productively and subtly;
- Chris Pyne. Stop laughing, he's a serious candidate. It would raise his profile in his seat, and he could devolve the attack-poodle persona to others. He could switch to the kinder, gentler face of Abbott much as Bishop
- Insofar as Bishop attracted female support for the Liberal Party, there is no woman who could credibly step up as Abbott's deputy. Mirabella? Sussan Ley? Teresa Gambaro?
The Liberals will probably become a rabble over Christmas-New Year. Abbott will look weak and won't be able to rely upon anyone to charm/heavy the miscreants back into place. The wheat farmers of WA will attempt to meddle in Bishop's urban electorate. The Gonski reforms that start with today's legislation are designed to correct inaction on Bishop's part when she was Education Minister under Howard, and if Gillard ever has to dispense with bilateralism to get these reforms through then she will inject this into public debate good and hard.
Liberals are entitled to despair of their predicament, and if they can't take on their leader (who is protected by the National Right) then they will savage the deputy, even though the alternatives aren't great. Bishop could retreat and come back, like Howard; but she lacks Howard's commitment, patience and humility. She can't cut a deal any more, she's finished. Maybe she could go back to Perth and land some directorships, and if they become more attractive than the toxic environment of Canberra then she'll be off in a flash.
It's too late for the Liberals to develop a vision and from that a comprehensive suite of policies as an alternative to the incumbents. At the very least, however, they need a plan B for when attacks blow back on them. Bishop launched into an attack on Gillard without a plan B, and now it is Bishop, not Gillard, who has had the worst of it. Bishop's absence of a plan B does nothing to soothe jittery Liberals, but encourages Labor and gives them a momentum that can roll over zombie stories.
Liberals knew Abbott was imperfect, but with him and Bishop both on the ropes and no strong alternative that fits the Howard Restoration narrative, they are cruelly exposed. They could prise a feeble Labor government from office but not a strong one. They overestimated their own strength, and those of their leaders, while underestimating the growing strength of Gillard Labor. Having changed leaders so often, the Liberals have come to rely on their deputy more profoundly than on the leader pro tem. You can put up an umbrella when it starts to rain but when the levee breaks ...