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Waleed Aly: Would Julie Bishop Really Have Beaten Bill Shorten?

Politicians famously don’t entertain hypotheticals.

But apparently retiring ones do. Thus did Julie Bishop cheerfully declare in a newspaper interview over the weekend that if she’d been made Prime Minister in last August’s leadership change, she could have gone on to beat Bill Shorten at the next election.

There’s perhaps less to this statement than meets the eye. In her farewell speech to parliament, Bishop also declared Scott Morrison’s Coalition would win the election. Maybe that was one of those mandatory lines she didn’t really believe, but as it stands she’s forced to concede the government didn’t really lose out by choosing Morrison instead.

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We now know that choice was a matter of damage control. Morrison was the candidate that could take enough votes from the conservative wing of the party to defeat Peter Dutton. Even so, he only beat Dutton 45-40. Only three votes would need to change hands to put Dutton in the lodge. Probably no one in the Dutton camp would have voted for Bishop, but it’s very likely at least three who went with Morrison would have swung to Dutton if instead it was a choice between Dutton and Bishop.

Bishop lost out in the first round of voting -- likely a strategic move to avoid Prime Minister Dutton.  (Image: AAP)

That, at least, was the judgment of Christopher Pyne, a leading moderate and one of the party’s most astute political strategists. That’s why he concluded that a Dutton v Bishop run-off had to be avoided at all costs. That meant Bishop had to come last in the first round, leaving Dutton to face Morrison.  Pyne convinced the moderate Liberals to support Morrison as the only way to prevent a Prime Minister Dutton. It’s brutal, but when you look at the final vote and consider the relative support bases of Morrison and Bishop, there’s very little reason to think Pyne was wrong.

This naturally leads to questions about how the Coalition reached the point that it was incapable of voting for its most popular member, who was most likely to deliver them success against Labor. But there are two things to say here.

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First, if the Coalition was thinking about its political prospects against Labor it never would have knifed Turnbull in the first place. As I wrote on this site at the time, this was different to all the leadership spills we’ve had since Kevin Rudd in that it was the first one that was not designed to lift the party in the polls at all.  It was not a party ditching an unpopular leader for a more popular alternative.  It was a party conducting a civil war.

Malcolm Turnbull was  a casualty of a Liberal party civil war. (Image: AAP)

But second, it’s easy to overstate the prospects of Bishop’s success against Shorten. Yes, she’s every bit as qualified as Morrison and Dutton. And yes, she was (and is) vastly more recognised and popular. But any historically-informed political analysis can easily see how little this means.

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Being a popular front bencher is a completely different thing to being a popular Prime Minister. We often forget that Julia Gillard was once wildly popular, too. So popular that when she dethroned Kevin Rudd, most media pundits and even Liberals simply assumed she would steamroll Tony Abbott -- who was vastly unpopular -- in the next election. But as the public finally came to grips with how she got the job, and as her performance in it became increasingly forced and wooden, her popularity plummeted.  She went from a commanding position in the polls to minority government in a couple of months.

Being a popular front bencher is an entirely different thing to being a popular Prime Minister. (Image: AAP)

Bishop, might not have followed exactly the same path. We’re more used to leadership spills now, so are less likely to be outraged at someone becoming Prime Minister this way. But even if Bishop had that advantage, she had one very serious disadvantage: the Liberal Party.

Malcolm Turnbull was popular, too. But he was also a target for the conservative wing which forced concessions from him on climate change and same-sex marriage that made him abandon his long-stated positions on these issues, then proceeded to undermine him anyway. Turnbull quickly became a shell of a Prime Minister, deprived of his own convictions, constantly compromising to hold together a party with massive personality and ideological fractures.

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That is exactly what Bishop would have inherited. Unlike Morrison and quite like Turnbull, she would have struggled to command loyalty from the very people who have made the party itself ungovernable. In the process, she would no doubt have had to make compromises and take the kinds of positions that have been so hurting the Coalition politically. A few months of this, and Bishop’s popularity would have surely taken a hit.

How did the Coalition reach the point that it was incapable of voting for its most popular member, who was most likely to deliver them success against Labor?  (Image: Getty)

Especially since Bishop’s popularity is more fragile than either Gillard’s or Turnbull’s was. Gillard had been Deputy Prime Minister. She’d held serious domestic portfolios in areas that Labor runs on heavily, and voters care a lot about, like education, and workplace relations. Turnbull had been Shadow Treasurer, Minister for Communications, and of course, Opposition Leader. By contrast, Bishop’s popularity arises from her time as foreign minister. It’s one of the least political portfolios available, and unless we’re about to invade Iraq or something, one of the least closely scrutinised by the average voter. It’s prestigious, but allows you to hover, dignified above the fray, and Bishop mostly flourished in it.

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But her most significant domestic portfolio -- the one most likely to give us an indication of how her Prime Ministership might have gone -- was as shadow treasurer. And that was, shall we say, a less happy time. She held the job only four months, watched as the polls showed the Coalition beginning to lose its reputation as the superior economic manager, and quickly found her colleagues campaigning to have her removed. Back then, news coverage would use words like “embattled” to describe her.  Bishop is no doubt more experienced now, but has also had precious little domestic opportunity to hone that into something Prime Ministerial.

Despite her popularity and qualifications, Bishop was pushed out of leadership contention by a ideologically fractured party.  (Image: AAP)

Might Bishop have won the next election? Sure. But then again, Turnbull might have, too. And I’m apparently one of the few outside the Coalition who thinks Morrison still has a chance. Whatever the case, it’s far from clear Bishop would have improved those prospects hugely. That Bishop is more popular than Shorten tells us almost nothing. Gillard was more popular than Abbott. So was Rudd. And Turnbull was more popular than Shorten while losing 40 consecutive Newspolls. Ultimately, the problem is that the Coalition is losing to Labor, and it will take far more than a figurehead to turn that around.