Before coming to Julie Bishop’s record as foreign minister in areas of my particular interest, three preliminary comments.
First, of the three contenders for leadership of the Liberal Party and prime minister, Bishop would easily have had my vote, no contest. It is reassuring to learn the country agrees. Even after Scott Morrison’s elevation after a week of high drama when Australians became familiar with his name and face, Newspoll has Bishop (29%) preferred over Morrison (25), Malcolm Turnbull (14), Tony Abbott (11), and Peter Dutton (6). She also has rare cross-party support, with 42% of Greens, 32% One Nation and 28% Labor voters rating her the best Liberal leader. Yet among her parliamentary colleagues, only 11 of 85 Liberals voted for her, knocking her out in the first round. Other than a death wish, it is hard to fathom such appalling treatment by the Liberal caucus of their most popular and among the best performing minister, and their best fundraiser. That none of her WA colleagues seems to have voted for her is an act of treachery that WA voters should bear in mind at the next election. No wonder that, kicked in the guts like this for her eleven years of loyal service as deputy, she has called it quits.
Second, we do not know to what extent some key foreign policy decisions were controlled by the PM. Turnbull’s refusal to nominate Kevin Rudd for UN Secretary-General is widely believed to have been against Bishop’s call. In this Turnbull betrayed an early example of pettiness, spite and vindictiveness that was to become more generally obvious over the course of his prime ministership. Two examples of failure to get the policy quite right are Russia and China, with the latter being especially consequential for Australia. Both are great powers and we should expect them to behave as great powers and calibrate our bilateral relations accordingly, respecting their core interests, refraining from offering gratuitous advice or causing gratuitous offence, and identifying areas where we can work with them to strengthen the rules-based global order where weaknesses become apparent.
Great powers pursue imperial not ethical foreign policies and this is true also of the US. There was no call for Australia to have joined US expeditionary forces in Iraq and Syria, even while fully understanding and therefore not publicly criticising US actions. How much of this was down to Turnbull and how much Bishop? At least Bishop did not make us cringe with a soppy paean to US virtues while addressing the US Congress. In fact she seems always to have maintained her dignity, poise and elegance.
Third, the choice of Marise Payne as Julie Bishop’s successor seems to be an attempt by Morrison to defy the Peter Principle, that people rise to their level of incompetence. Payne’s distinctly underwhelming performance in defence has been rewarded with a promotion to the more exacting portfolio of foreign affairs. Lacking Bishop’s judgment, work ethic, panache, ability to connect with people at all levels, and media adroitness, Payne might do well, in Greg Sheridan’s acute observation, to continue with her Trappist vow of silence. Of course, one could argue that the party’s rejection of Bishop is also a defiance of the Peter Principle, in that they did not promote her to her presumed level of incompetence in their collective judgment.
In some key areas of foreign policy in general Bishop was a strong, effective and good foreign minister. She exploited the opportunity of UN Security Council membership to the fullest, quietly ignoring past Coalition opposition to the Rudd-led campaign for the election. Examples include Australia’s leadership in trying to hold the perpetrators accountable for the MH17 tragedy, its role in enhancing the efficiency of UN sanctions, and its demonstration of how much can be done by elected Security Council members.
But on nuclear arms control Australia went AWOL on her watch, ignoring its own tradition of active niche diplomacy. For one, we are witness to a growing nuclearisation of world affairs during this century and a matching elevated threat level with respect to the dangers of a deliberate or accidental and inadvertent nuclear war caused by rogue launch, system malfunction or the inexorable logic of an escalation spiral. For another, there are no global nuclear arms control talks taking place currently, the INF treaty has crumbled, Washington has spurned Russian overtures to extend New Start by five years, Trump is in material breach of the Iran nuclear deal by pulling out and reimposing sanctions on Tehran, and the rounds of Korean summits have yielded negligible concrete results so far. In response an alarmed international community – 122 states – voted in July 2017 to adopt a new UN Nuclear Ban Treaty. An Australian-origin global coalition, ICAN, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its role in spearheading the international coalition advocating for the treaty.
Article VI of the NPT stipulates that ‘Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations’ for disarmament. This was significantly strengthened by the World Court’s 1996 Advisory Opinion: ‘There exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspect’ (my emphases). Given that the Ban Treaty was negotiated at and adopted by a UN-convened multilateral conference, at a time of total absence of any other nuclear arms control talks, it is very hard to see how Australia was in compliance with its Article VI obligation. Our participation could have helped to strengthen some of the technical weaknesses in the text of the treaty. It would still have left it open for Australia not to sign the treaty if it was judged to infringe existing national security policies and alliance requirements, but not attending the conference was a bad error of judgment. That said, Bishop’s departure is not likely to improve matters.