The Iron Lady

By Ross Cameron

Goodbye to the Iron Lady of Australian politics.

Bronwyn Bishop was at one time considered a candidate for the leadership of the Liberal Party. From the electoral comfort of the Senate, she had managed to build up an impressive connection with the media and the electorate who at least could recognise her distinctive voice and bearing, the pearls, most conspicuously the bee-hive do and she seemed to have the fighter’s impulse to take it up to Labor. She certainly managed to get under the skin of senior Labor figures in the Senate with Gareth Evans remarking in debate, “Why does one take an instant dislike to Bronwyn? Saves time.” Bronwyn had, in fact, played the role of a barrister in the 1960s television series Divorce Court and had a very great sense of “performance” in her politics.

Bronwyn then suffered three setbacks in quick succession, the first of which was the decisive moment in her political career. She had resigned the Senate to contest preselection for the Seat of Mackellar, in a swashbuckling move against John Hewson, who was gasping for retail cut-through, with she had the apparent momentum of an unstoppable force. Then the wheels fell off. A Pyrrhic victory. Having secured the preselection, it was presumed that Bronwyn would win the seat, but the question was by how much? She was forced to duel with the brilliant, erratic (and

now gone) Bob Ellis, independent, who was running just for the pleasure of irritating her. Ellis attracted some sympathy. Post-result; hard heads formed the view, rightly or wrongly, that Bishop was not the vote magnet that she and others had hoped and believed. That result permanently becalmed the “Bronnie for PM” campaign among those whose votes were required to make it real. Some suspect the flame in Bronwyn was never quite extinguished, perhaps not even today. That would be no crime but may be part of the problem. Once you have drunk from the intoxicating Goblet of Glory, it may be hard to accept that you were ever mortal.

When John Hewson eventually called on the spill motion, Bronwyn did not stand, Alexander Downer did, and won. Bronwyn’s appointment to Shadow Health was perhaps a part of the deal that made Downer Leader, by avoiding a split that may have re-elected Hewson, as the Hockey/Turnbull split elected Tony Abbott. But no sooner had she announced her support for tobacco advertisers, and been thoroughly chastised by the (as it turned out, equally ambitious) head of the AMA, Dr. Brendan Nelson, she was back in the sin bin and soon dropped to Shadow Privatisation and Commonwealth State Relations.

My first personal contact with Bronwyn came shortly after this succession of stumbles. We met at a Liberal Party event, I was a young solicitor at Blake Dawson Waldron with strong views on both subjects which were the limbs of her new portfolio. When my turn came to be presented to the throne, I took the chance to give Bronwyn my free advice on how she could use the portfolio to build a platform of strong policy from which to rebuild her fortunes, until moved along as some other mortal eagerly pressed in to touch the hem of her garment. Some weeks later as I was labouring over a contract, probably a debt covenant of the M2 Motorway, I was startled to receive a call from the firm’s Managing Partner, Graham Bradley, later Chair of the Australian Business Council, in the following general terms: “Bronwyn Bishop has called to say she is required by Alexander Downer to produce the Coalition’s Privatisation and Commonwealth State Relations Policy in two week’s time, and she has asked if the firm will lend you to her.”

The subject of “privatisation” can soften the flinty heart of a big city law firm with a renewed sense of public spirit and duty. I soon found myself, with HRH, a “borrowed” banker, a Researcher from the Parliamentary Library and no doubt a political staffer, in Bronwyn’s Parliamentary Office, amid the detritus of beer and pizza, writing a policy for the privatisation of Telstra until late in the night. Bronwyn was terrific. She provided the pleasurable company of a woman who was open to ideas, willing to take risks and committed to doing good work, in part because she knew her rehabilitation depended upon it. You may wonder how it is, that a member of the staff of the Parliamentary Library, was writing a Coalition policy document, as did I. The answer is, like others before and since, he had fallen under the spell of Bronwyn and would have happily carried her laundry to the cleaners if only she had given him the honour.

My Skynews colleague Graham Richardson is dismissive of the Bronwyn legend, remarking, “I served with her in the Senate and she never uttered a memorable sentence.” I have made a couple of entries in the “memorable sentences” category from those two weeks and the eight years we would later spend as parliamentary colleagues.

One night, for example, I recall Bronwyn saying: “The best way to secure the loyalty of a supporter is to ask them to do something for you.” Novel, I thought. Probably worked with me. On another occasion, “I have made it the habit of my political life, when I enter a gathering of any kind, to walk to the very front, and wait, if necessary, for the host to find my seat”. No difficulty “leaning-in” there. Bronwyn always knew how to make an entry. NSW Senator Bill Heffernan, by contrast, has made it his habit to slink into the back of the room and make every appearance of a slightly disheveled farmer on his way to collect a tractor, who took a wrong turn. Each has its merits.

Everyone has a “Bronwyn Plane” story but I think we should understand that Bronwyn saw the aisle of an aeroplane as a theatre space. It would have been her goal to ensure, by one means or another, that every passenger and crew on the aircraft, including the Captain was aware, and would tell their friends and family, that they had travelled somewhere with Bronwyn Bishop.

When it was decided one year that the Pollie Pedal charity ride would commence (or finish maybe) with a cycle up the northern beaches through Mackellar, Bronwyn was invited by her neighbour, the Member for Warringah, to join the ride. Faced with a sporting dilemma she resolved it in a typically Bronwyn way. Others of her colleagues had said: “I will greet you in the Scout Hall with a cup of tea and scones and ensure there are a few trusty burghers to fill the space and the local paper to report.” Not our Bronwyn. As the pelleton prepared to depart morning tea, throngs and cameras gathered, Bronwyn roared up in the side car of a Harley Davidson, with a bloke driving who I swear was the Sergeant-at-Arms of the Commancheros, with his babe sporting a Biggles style leather cap, Tom Cruise sunglasses and a flowing scarf to compete the ensemble. Following the habit of a lifetime, she gave instruction to her driver to head straight to the front, from where she gave the command, to the cyclists behind, with a beaming smile, “Onward”.

I will tell you, as a marginal seat holder, who spent a fair bit of time knocking on the doors of unsuspecting strangers, there was no colleague in the Federal Parliament who was a greater door knocking asset than Bronwyn Bishop. When you walk up to the porch of a stay at home mother in a Rydalmere estate, and say, “Hi, I’m Ross Cameron your Federal Liberal candidate and this is my colleague Bronwyn Bishop…” it was like you were introducing Princess Grace of Monaco. Royalty had arrived. A fair dinkum celebrity. And Bronwyn would get out that big smile, add the heels, the jackets, the string of vintage pearls, the diction, make regal utterances, crack jokes, and the whole effect was mesmerising. Then off we would go to the next victim. Labor hated it when Bronwyn came to visit Parramatta.

Bronwyn Bishop was the first female President of the NSW Liberal Party and is easily the longest serving female in the Federal Parliament. While others have held strong views from the bleachers, “Bronnie” has been in field of combat for 28 years. She will not be easily forgotten.

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