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Legacy of Australia's First Female Foreign Minister

27 Aug 2018
By Professor Jacqui True FAIIA
Julie Bishop delivering key note on UN International Women's Day.

Julie Bishop is gone as Australia’s first female foreign minister. This is both a loss for Australia and for the world.

Diplomacy is the art of the possible. As Australia’s chief diplomat from 18 September 2013 to 28 August 2018, Julie Bishop has charted the best of all possible courses for the nation. But more than that, she has advanced what is right for Australia and what is right for the cause of humanity. This has been no small undertaking in the context of increasingly turbulent international affairs, but like housework we only notice diplomacy when it isn’t done or isn’t done well.

Defending human rights

Taking on the foreign ministership in September 2013 part-way through Australia’s first term on the United Nations Security Council since 1984-5, Bishop moved swiftly to put the protection of civilians and a humanitarian response to conflicts at the top of the agenda. Under Bishop’s leadership, Australia’s support for a rules-based international order was sharpened. Australia gained the consensus of other states to pass Security Council Resolution 2165, enabling UN agencies to deliver humanitarian assistance to Syrian civilians without the consent of the Syrian authorities: the first resolution of its kind.

In July 2014, commercial aircraft Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down over the Ukraine, leading to the deaths of more than 200 civilians including 41 Australians. Bishop worked around the clock to secure an immediate Resolution 2166, adopted unanimously, condemning the act and calling on Ukrainian separatists at the crash site to ensure the bodies of the victims were treated with dignity and respect. A year later, Bishop returned to New York, making a powerful speech that the Security Council establish an independent, international tribunal to prosecute those responsible for bringing down MH17. Rebuking Russia, she said that the use of its veto power was “an affront to the memory of the 298 victims of MH17 and their families and friends” and that any “excuses and obfuscation…should be treated with the utmost disdain.” In light of the MH17 tragedy, Bishop put people and Australian citizens first in international affairs while building a strong multilateral alliance for the Australian position. This was widely considered a diplomatic triumph.

Following the successes on the UN Security Council, Bishop began to vigorously campaign for Australia to be elected to the UN Human Rights Council on a platform including promoting gender equality, good governance, freedom of expression, the rights of indigenous peoples and strong national human rights institutions. Elected in 2017 to a three-year term, Australia is the first country from the Pacific region to serve on the Council and aims to advocate for the Indo-Pacific region and listen to the concerns of smaller states. As a member, Australia convinced the Council to discuss human rights in North Korea for the first time and has actively supported civil society participation and scrutiny of the Council’s work. These are important legacies for the international standing of Australia, especially in the context of concerns about Australia’s border security, immigration regime and treatment of indigenous peoples.

Australian aid: pivot to the Pacific

Australia’s aid and development policy has undergone a practical revolution under Bishop. The Abbott Government announced the merger of the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID) with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) in 2013. This gave Julie Bishop the opportunity to lay out a new paradigm for Australia’s approach to international development. In June 2014 in her delivery of the Magna Carta Lecture, she promoted the new aid paradigm, stressing the role of the private sector in sustainable development and livelihoods, the need to tap new sources of development and capital, and to  focus on the Indo-Pacific region. She argued that “the global context for financing development has changed and our aid program must change with it.”

Bishop has led the strategic redirection of development assistance to poor countries in the region, notably in the Pacific islands, away from increasingly middle-income countries in Asia like Indonesia. According to the Lowy Institute, Australia contributed approximately AUD 8.76 billion into aid projects in the Pacific Islands between 2011 and 2017, making us the largest aid donor to the region. Although the dollar sum of Australian aid has overall decreased under Liberal National Coalition governments since 2013, Julie Bishop has been a strong advocate of sustaining and enhancing the Australian aid program.

Gender equality at the heart of foreign policy

Of particular note is Julie Bishop’s elevation of gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls within the aid program and Australian foreign policy. Immediately after becoming minister for foreign affairs, Bishop raised the priority of the empowerment of women and girls, mandating that it should be addressed by 80 per cent of the Australian aid budget. She appointed Natasha Stott-Despoja, a former political leader and Democrat politician, and then Dr Sharman Stone, former Liberal MP, to the position of Global Ambassador for Women and Girls. Against the background of aid cuts, she pledged AUD 50 million to the Gender Equality Fund of the Australian aid program in the 2015 Federal Budget alongside the AUD 320 million commitment to the Pacific Women’s Empowerment Program.

In February 2016, Bishop announced the first-ever gender equality and women’s empowerment strategy, defining it as a core priority in Australia’s foreign and security policy, economic diplomacy and development program. The whole-of-foreign-policy strategy incorporates significant accountability mechanisms. For the first time, DFAT managers have had to report on the progress of gender equality in all investments over AUD 3 million, and DFAT posts and work areas need to report annually on how effectively their foreign policy work is promoting Australia’s gender equality objectives.

The foreign policy on gender equality and women’s empowerment strategy is a significant legacy of Bishop’s leadership. Bishop has led this strategy not only because she is a female political leader, but also because as a female leader she can see how “gender inequality is holding us back in a globalised world.” Her tenure has taken place against the broader global shift in political and economic power to the Indo-Pacific region, which includes a gradual power shift in gender relations within the region as women’s economic participation increases apace.

The next Colombo generation

Another contribution of Bishop’s term is the establishment in 2014 and subsequent scaling up of the New Colombo Plan. This is the face of Australia’s public diplomacy and benefits young Australians. By 2020, the New Colombo Plan will enable up to 40,000 young Australians to live study and work in the Indo-Pacific complementing thousands of students from the region studying in Australia today. In an age of globalisation, deepening Australia’s international relations can best happen through the education of our citizens and by expanding people-to-people, university and business connections and cultural exchange. ‘Paying it forward’ to the next generation is a lasting legacy of Bishop’s tenure.


The accolades are pouring in for Bishop: Malcolm Turnbull pays tribute to Bishop as “Australia’s finest foreign minister” and “an inspiring role model for women here and around the world”; and Simon Birmingham has touted her as the “most significant woman in the history of the Liberal Party and an outstanding foreign minister.”

Without a doubt, Bishop has been the best-performing minister in the Liberal National Coalition governments since 2013. Her diplomatic skills have been used to full effect in building Australia’s international relationships. Ironically, the rise of Julie Bishop took place in the international realm while her demise has come in the domestic realm, thanks to the backroom shenanigans of party politics. Regardless, we are a lucky country for her service. She has blazed a trail which others, including incoming Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne, can now follow.

Professor Jacqui True FASSA is Professor of Politics and International Relations, Director of the Centre for Gender, Peace and Security and an Australian Research Council Future Fellow at Monash University.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.