The Q&A audience on Monday night had the chance to echo a question asked by many Australians in the wake of last week’s Liberal leadership spill; why was the popular Julie Bishop not chosen to lead the party?
The first episode of the program since the overthrow of Malcolm Turnbull as Australian prime minister saw the panel attempt to explain to a bemused public just what went on, and why.
The guests on Monday’s show were the Minister for Defence Industry Steve Ciobo, Opposition spokesman for infrastructure Anthony Albanese, radio broadcaster Alan Jones, national political editor for News Corporation’s Sunday papers Annika Smethurst and the people’s panellist from Brisbane, Elmari Whyte.
“Anyone who thought Peter Dutton was the answer must have been asking themselves a pretty weird question,” Labor’s Mr Albanese quipped at one point to laughter from the audience, referring to the man who led the insurgency against Mr Turnbull, only for Scott Morrison to emerge victorious from the party room.
“Peter Dutton hasn’t polled in double figures as preferred leader ever,” Mr Albanese said.
The question from the audience which kicked off the debate was, why, when Ms Bishop repeatedly out-polled all other contenders, did many members decide Mr Dutton was the man for the job?
Ms Whyte, the people’s panellist, offered the view that it was because Ms Bishop was a woman.
“I think exactly because he was the man for the job,” she said.
“I just can’t see why the Liberal Party couldn’t bring themselves to bring a woman to be in that seat and be at the front of their party.
“I think the difficulty is they can’t see a woman do that kind of job, no matter how proficient she might be and how competent and experienced she might be, and that is a real difficulty for the party to deal with.”
Mr Ciobo, who was one of the backers of Mr Dutton’s push for the leadership, disagreed.
“There’s a variety of factors that come into play when you make this decision,” he said.
“I have to disagree obviously completely about the fact it can’t be a woman. The Premier of New South Wales in the Liberal Party is a woman.
“The fact is the numbers of women in the Liberal Party in terms of senior positions haven’t been as strong as we’d like them and I mean that sincerely.
“But the suggestion that the reason Julie didn’t get the support because she’s a woman is fanciful. That’s not the case.
Mr Ciobo said he backed Mr Dutton because of concern about the Government’s achievements not being communicated effectively.
“And after many years of really strong success … the party room felt we were not connecting with Australians about our achievements and that ultimately was the trigger for the spill,” he said.
“[Ms Bishop] wasn’t ignored. Julie stood, she received some support, but not adequate support.”
When host Tony Jones asked if Ms Bishop fell short because she was in the wrong faction, Mr Ciobo’s response raised a titter from the audience.
“No. It’s not factional at all,” Mr Ciobo said.
Labor feared Bishop
Ms Smethurst maintained that Labor had dodged a bullet.
“Not only was Julie Bishop the most popular leader amongst voters, everyone I spoke to in Labor said she was the worst-case scenario for Labor too,” she said.
“They did not want Julie Bishop getting in. They thought she’s got broad popularity across the country, marginal seat holders want her for the electorate buzz, she can swing votes.
“I do agree it wasn’t just because she’s a woman.
“The most astonishing thing is if it’s about winning elections, which is what a lot of the argument was for the spill in the first place, why you wouldn’t put your best candidate in is baffling.”
Mr Albanese, asked if Ms Bishop would have been a more formidable opponent for his party come election time, replied “obviously”.
With Labor undergoing its own leadership crises in the recent past, Mr Albanese was well aware of the transactional cost of a change of leadership.
“What happened with the change is our primary vote increased by 6 per cent. Bill Shorten is now the preferred PM. We’re in a much stronger position than we were a fortnight ago.”