By Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra
ONCE again Julie Bishop has demonstrated she can lay claim to be currently the best performing minister in cabinet.
On her recent overseas trip, Bishop secured an apparently useful meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin to press for fresh access to the MH17 site. Then in Baghdad she made a breakthrough for an agreement to get Australian special forces into Iraq, where they will train and mentor that country’s security forces.
With the winter approaching in Ukraine, it is especially vital to get Australian, Dutch and Malaysian experts back to the crash site for a final retrieval of remains and possessions.
After a conversation on the margin of the Asia Europe Meeting in Milan, lasting nearly half an hour, Bishop said Putin had responded “very constructively” to her appeal. She also urged him to ensure full Russian co-operation with the independent investigation into the downing of the plane, and she said he had agreed.
Bishop, representing Australia at the meeting, was operating in unusual circumstances, just after Tony Abbott’s threat to “shirt-front” Putin at the G20 next month. Certainly her approach was more subtle than the wild words that had come from Australia earlier last week.
Spokesman for the Russian embassy Alexander Odoevskiy says that “it is quite rare that the President talks to a foreign minister – it’s not the day-to-day practice. We can assume he talked to her as representative of the Prime Minister”.
The proof of her persuasiveness will be in Putin’s follow through; that will depend not just on whether he means what he said but also what he can actually deliver on the ground. But at least the vibes seem positive. If some tangible progress can be made before the G20, that would also be useful diplomatically for lowering the temperature around the Brisbane meeting.
Her latest effort in relation to MH17 followed Bishop’s impressive performance at the United Nations Security Council in the wake of the downing, when Australia put forward its resolution.
In Baghdad Bishop certainly did well. Progress on an agreement for the special forces’ entry had been bogged down for weeks.
This agreement now seems on track to be sorted speedily – although sources stress there is still further work to be done and some doubt remains about precisely how long that will take. There is now, with Bishop giving the impression it’s essentially fixed, an even greater political imperative to have the last detail tied up as soon as possible.
Bishop was assisted by the timing – the Iraqis finally got in place ministers for defence and the interior. As she told the ABC, this was “an important part of the finalisation of arrangements with the Iraqi government”.
Assuming the special forces get in quickly, Bishop will win kudos for doing what her colleague the Defence Minister, David Johnston, didn’t manage to do earlier.
An interesting test now looming for Bishop will be the government’s decision on whether Australia should sign up to the Chinese proposal to establish an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, something the United States has been strongly lobbying Australia against. Treasurer Joe Hockey and Trade and Investment Minister Andrew Robb are sympathetic to the Chinese plan; Bishop is suspicious of the bank’s governance arrangements and the danger of China using it to expand its regional influence.
In opposition Bishop, swallowing her disappointment at having to give up the shadow treasurer post after criticism of her performance, settled into the foreign affairs job and started building knowledge and contacts.
In government, the learning curve has inevitably been extremely steep but, unlike some of her colleagues, Bishop has so far climbed it with a mostly sure grip.
Michelle Grattan does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.