It’s Saturday morning in Melbourne and Julie Bishop is having coffee in the city. She’s just flown in from New Zealand and, even on a weekend, faces a typically busy day, but she has found an hour to give us – no easy feat in a life as packed as hers.
Amid the tourists in the lobby and the passers-by on Little Collins Street, she impeccably dressed, with an efficient, friendly and, often, endearingly mischievous air. She has the demeanor of both measured seriousness and seeming to be ready for, and then relishing, a good laugh. As a politician on the world stage, not to mention a much-mentioned alternative prime minister, this has been a most successful cocktail.
Everywhere she goes, Australia’s first female Foreign Minister is the talk of the town. She is quoted daily about often complex issues in her large and challenging ministry. She is never far from discussion about the government’s fortunes. On the morning of our interview, there is commentary in The Australian about the “Bishop resurgence”.
It’s been a tumultuous time for the former law firm partner from West Australia, whose work since taking office in September 2013 has included a fraught period overseeing Australia’s response to the MH17 disaster, in which 38 Australians lost their lives, and flying to New York to chair the UN Security Council meeting to discuss responses. Add to that the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines MH370, the ebola crisis and her dogged attempts to avert the executions of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran in Bali.
During a difficult time for the government, she has been the stand-out minister, not just for her well-articulated representations on a range of issues and occasionally mopping up after her leader, but also for the style and accessibility with which she does it.
She has been variously described as the “politician du jour”, “the Liberal Party’s next big thing” and, often, a future prime minister. But away from the high-octane professional life, what happens behind the scenes?
Over coffee I suggest to her that the public observation is that she uses charm and empathy to disarm people. “I’m driven by the desire to get the best possible outcome for Australia and Australian people,” she says.
She rarely has a break from the job. So how does she reclaim herself from the political maelstrom? “To a certain extent it’s my life experience and my training,” she says. “I was a lawyer for 20 years before I entered politics and that instills in you a certain discipline in terms of mastering a brief and getting on top of the detail and I guess that never leaves you.
“I’ve always believed that you need inexhaustible supplies of energy for this type of commitment so I try to keep fit and healthy and that assists given the gruelling travel schedule …”
She goes for a run whenever she can. “It is a habit to run as often as possible early in the morning. It clears my mind and keeps me focused for the day. That’s the plan.”
And her reported adherence to healthy food? “I’m no saint,” she says. “I’m happy to talk about keeping fit but as far as nutrition and eating healthy foods, I aspire to do that.”
How does she wind back from the rigours of the role? “Usually with friends or staff. We will sit around and talk about the day’s events. And I have a busy social life. I have a lot of friends so where I have an opportunity to meet up with friends, I will do that. I also have a very close and loving family and I’ll talk to them. If it’s just me, I’ll read or listen to music.”
She listens to her iPod when jogging. It might be U2 or her favourite song of all time, Hallelujah – Jeff Buckley’s version, which she says is “hauntingly beautiful”. “The music of your youth brings a particular smile to your face,” she says. “The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Duran Duran, Eagles. When I had time, I went to a lot of concerts.”
She spends most of her time reading briefing papers but sometimes finds time to read for pleasure – books on Condoleezza Rice and Margaret Thatcher, and novels over the summer break.
Is it hard to break away from this intense life? “I’m reasonably relaxed. I can turn off. But the fact is you never really do because in this role as Foreign Minister there is always an issue that can arise overseas that will require your attention. Over the summer holidays, I never actually take time off in the sense that I’m never not available.”
I asked if she ever felt exhausted. “Yes, I get tired,” she says. “Note to self – get more sleep.”
Facing a fight in the House, Paul Keating famously listened to Wagner very loudly at home, imagining the gods hurling bolts of lightning. I ask how she charges herself up for a fierce political debate. It’s a less dramatic style, than the former PM: “We have a meeting with the staff, we sit around and talk about the issues of the day,” she says.
Does it ever become too much and all crowd in on her? “No, I’m exhilarated by it,” she says. “I find it an enormous privilege to have this job as Australia’s Foreign Minister and it’s as challenging as I could wish for in terms of a career. So I make the most of every moment.”
But there must be evenings away from it all, a chance to throw together a meal? “I live in Perth, I work in Canberra, I spend a lot of time in the cities around the country, I spend time in marginal seats and I spend time overseas. So we’re talking about a hotel room, an apartment or my home in Perth … I tend not to cook for myself because I would be out most nights of the week [on official duties].”
She will allow herself a sit-down to watch the American political drama House of Cards. And there are other releases, such as fashion. “I enjoy fashion,” she says. “I’ve been wearing Armani for many, many years. It fits and it works and it’s classic.”
She likes French shoe designer Christian Louboutin (“I have been known to wear a pair or two”) and Italian Sergio Rossi.
“It’s a question of if I see something and I like it and I think it will work,” she says. “I tend not to buy clothes that I feel will too easily go out of fashion. So I tend to stick to classics that I can wear at any time anywhere.”
Since childhood, she has spent a lot of time in Melbourne. “I’ve always visited Melbourne. I grew up in South Australia and our school days and university days were intermingled with Melbourne. My school would visit Melbourne. In university days I was very good friends with guys from Melbourne Grammar, Old Melburnians. I went skiing with friends from Melbourne, in Victoria. I’ve got very close friends here.
“Growing up, my parents used to holiday in Melbourne. We’d all drive here and stay in St Kilda. I’ve had a very long association with the city.”
There have been newspaper reports about her partner, property developer David Panton, with whom she has been photographed. But she won’t be drawn. “I’d rather not. I’m not hiding anything but that’s a part of my life I try and keep very separate and to keep it separate is a good thing.”
I ask whether she sometimes pines for those commitment-free nights at home, the trackie-dak nights.
“I can’t remember the last one. I know those nights. I remember them, fondly. I have this incredible opportunity to be Australia’s Foreign Minister and I’m not going to waste a moment of it.
“Politics can be so transient and your opportunity to make a positive difference can be so limited by the political cycle. And so I don’t want to die wondering.”
Julie Bishop in her own words
On the role of gender
I tend not to describe my life through the prism of gender. I’ve been criticised for that in the past but I’m the deputy leader of the Liberal Party, the first female to [have that role]. I’m Australia’s first female foreign minister. And it would be very churlish of me to say that I’ve been held back because I’m a woman.
So I am grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given and I’ve certainly taken the opportunities that have presented themselves, but I don’t think gender has played a role in where I am today. It is, as far as I can see, about your hard work, your judgment, your competence, your capacity to deal with issues as they arise.
I hope that’s how I’ve been judged.
On Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech
I was very disappointed that she portrayed herself as a victim in circumstances where we were actually having a debate about the fitness of the then occupant of the Speaker’s job for a role because of some particularly unsavoury text messages he’d been sending to a junior male staffer.
I thought it was a massive distraction from the very serious issue that we were seeking to debate that day.
On Sex & the City
I’ve seen every episode of Sex and the City. I met [writer] Candace Bushnell. We did a TV show together. She was the other guest. That was a great moment to meet her and chat about clothes. [Starstruck?] A little. Such an extraordinary TV series. It’s had such an impact on the way women see themselves and brought high fashion into the lounge rooms of women.
On claims that journalist Sarah Ferguson’s question to Joe Hockey on ABC TV’s 7.30 “would have given the impression of bias”
I thought it was a pretty tough interview but Joe didn’t complain about it so on that basis it’s up to the independent, objective judges of it.
I think there are some very good journalists in Australia and a number with some very good interviewing techniques.
Those who I think gain the most out of the interviews are those who don’t interrupt and actually allow people to talk.
You often find that the best stories, or the gems, come from when there’s silence and somebody fills in the silence as opposed to if you’re constantly interrupted as an interviewee – you tend to become more defensive and therefore more careful about what you say.