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The Sydney Morning Herald

The Bishop gambit

Date: 23/02/2001
Words: 603
          Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News And Features
Page: 12
The former West Australian premier, Mr Richard Court, calls it lateral thinking. His former deputy, Mr Colin Barnett, calls it treachery. Others see it as a bizarre dodge conceived in panic evidence of the demoralised and desperate state of Australia's conservatives in the wake of their election defeats in Western Australia and Queensland this month. On Wednesday Mr Court persuaded a narrow majority of the surviving State Liberal MPs to elect him Opposition Leader, but only until the Federal election later this year. Then he would stand aside in favour of Ms Julie Bishop, now a Federal backbench MP serving her first term in Parliament and who has no ministerial experience.

It is hard to decide what is sillier: the plan or the devious but hamfisted manner in which it has been executed. Mr Court's rationale for hanging on for the best part of a year as a lame duck Opposition leader that is how it will be seen, however piously he denies it is that this will enable Ms Bishop to serve out her Canberra term before contesting a State seat. The aim, he admits, is to avoid the need for a Federal by-election for her seat of Curtin, something that the Prime Minister, Mr Howard, is anxious to avoid. Mr Howard's concern is understandable in this political climate, but hardly a sufficient justification for delaying the urgent work of rebuilding the West Australian Liberal Party after its election humiliation.

Nobody denies that Ms Bishop is a politician with potential. A lawyer, she is bright and well thought-of in Canberra. Yet even admirers suspect that Mr Court is offering her a poisoned chalice. Sensibly, she has not yet formally committed herself to his plan. There are good reasons for hesitation. The State Liberal leadership is not within a badly beaten former premier's gift. Before the Court scenario could become a reality, Ms Bishop would have to win Liberal preselection for Mr Court's State seat of Nedlands (which her Federal seat encompasses), win a by-election, and then persuade the party room to choose her, an untested newcomer, as leader.

None of these steps can be taken for granted, especially not in the ugly climate created by Mr Court's secretive machinations and by what his deputy of nine years, Mr Barnett, has publicly denounced as a betrayal. It has not helped that a Perth newspaper was able to reveal Mr Court's plan before many of his fellow Liberal MPs had heard about it. Mr Court won Wednesday's leadership contest against Mr Barnett by only 17 votes to 13. How confident can Ms Bishop be that her mentor could deliver the votes to her many months from now? The element of surprise has already been squandered.

A final point, on which Ms Bishop might like to consult Mrs Joan Kirner and Dr Carmen Lawrence. Why is it that the boys offer leadership to a woman only when they reckon the cause is lost?

 
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