The world’s worst air quality blanketed Canberra on the same day former foreign minister Julie Bishop took on her new role, an ominous sign, she said, of what was to come.
- ANU has been led by 13 men before Julie Bishop became the first female chancellor
- Ms Bishop said Scott Morrison had “done the best he was able to do” in the bushfire crisis
- She wants to use the ANU’s research resources to try to help with climate policy and the coronavirus outbreak
More toxic smoke, bushfires, a hail storm and the threat of coronavirus have followed, creating problems for many, including the Australian National University (ANU), of which Ms Bishop is now the first female chancellor.
Dozens of buildings damaged by hail will take months to repair, and thousands of Chinese students are stuck overseas due to coronavirus-induced travel restrictions.
Ms Bishop’s new office is just a few kilometres from her old desk at Parliament House. There, her former colleagues are trying to pick up the pieces from a destructive summer — both environmentally and politically.
Back across Canberra’s iconic lake, Ms Bishop is doing the same at the ANU, where she says the university is facing huge challenges.
“It’s been a very difficult couple of weeks for the Canberra community, but also communities across Australia. These extreme weather events have certainly had their impact and it will take quite some time for communities to recover from that,” she told the ABC.
‘Time to review the target’
The destructive summer goes far beyond Canberra, with thousands of homes destroyed by fire, and farmers forced to dig huge trenches to bury livestock that couldn’t escape the flames.
It’s placed the Government’s climate change policy under immense scrutiny, with the Prime Minister adamant that Australia will “meet and beat” its international commitments for emissions reductions.
Ms Bishop was in cabinet when the Government agreed on Australia’s 28 per cent target.
It’s a figure she said was right for the time, but she now thinks it needs reassessing.
“I believe that the targets should always be under review. And I think that’s an approach that responsible governments have taken around the world and I’m sure the Australian Government will continue to review it,” she said.
“At any time you would want to take into account changing circumstances, changing approaches, so I’m sure they’re doing that.”
A seasoned politician, Ms Bishop is no doubt aware the Federal Government has few intentions of changing its targets, and her carefully worded message could be interpreted as a quiet push to her former colleagues.
“I believe that we have a responsibility as an industrialised developed nation with one of the highest standards of living in the world, we have a responsibility to be a leader in the international debate on climate change, its impact and what we can do about it,” she said.
Speaking in the same city a week earlier, Prime Minister Scott Morrison gave few indications he saw a need to change Australia’s emissions targets.
“Our target is comparable to countries like Japan, New Zealand and Canada — especially when account is taken of such factors as our geography, our population density, growth and economic and comparative advantage — it’s a target higher than every other major economy in Asia,” he told the National Press Club.
The Prime Minister insists his Government is considering adaptation measures Australia can take to contend with climate change, something Ms Bishop hopes her new university can provide advice on.
“We have expertise in climate science, we have about 300 researchers who have expertise in this area,” she said.
“And of course, our research, our advice, our data, our analysis is available to the Federal Government when it looks at the bushfire recovery response and what Australia needs to do in the future to mitigate against such occurrences.”
The Prime Minister’s performance in the peak of the bushfire crisis was questioned by the Opposition in Parliament this week, with Labor MPs asking him to reflect on his response, from travelling to Hawaii and forcing handshakes on people when visiting affected regions.
“No member of this house is perfect … and where there are things that need to be improved — and over the summer where I could have responded to events in different ways, I have already made those comments public — I will also seek to do my best,” Mr Morrison said.
Asked to reflect on Mr Morrison’s response to the bushfires, Ms Bishop had little to offer on the man who defeated her in a leadership ballot after Malcolm Turnbull’s demise in 2018.
“I think he’s done the best that he was able to do,” she said.
‘Tackling a global health crisis’
As the Government grapples with how to recover from the bushfire crisis and introduce measures to stop a repeat of this summer, it’s also having to contend with the spread of the deadly coronavirus.
It’s an effort Ms Bishop would have helped shape had she stayed in politics and on the Coalition’s frontbench, but she’s still not completely removed from the response in her post-political life.
Her university is on the frontline contending with the health crisis.
There are about 5,000 Chinese students enrolled at the ANU and the majority are expected to miss the beginning of the first semester, after the Federal Government banned anyone from mainland China entering the country unless they are an Australian citizen or permanent resident.
Ms Bishop would not comment on the economic impact to the university.
She instead focused on the contingency plans being introduced to try and stay ahead of the evolving situation.
“Of the students who are not able to travel here, we will provide as many flexible options as we can,” she said.
“We will provide online course materials, we may need to delay their entry into their course, we can have intensive summer and winter catch-up courses and we can work with them so they are not penalised for the fact they can’t actually be here at ANU.”
The death toll from the coronavirus has passed 500, but concerns have been raised about whether China is issuing all the relevant information.
During her time as foreign minister, Ms Bishop travelled to China and met her counterpart on many occasions.
Her experience from her former life was apparent, with a response carefully crafted when pressed on whether China could be trusted to release accurate figures on the spread of the disease.
“It is extremely challenging to come to terms with the number of people affected in a pandemic,” she said.
“The World Health Organisation and other global organisations would be working with the Chinese Government to get a handle on the actual situation on the ground and some of these cities are in lockdown, so it can be very difficult to get the accurate statistics.”
Those ominous signs Ms Bishop observed when she arrived at ANU — the hail-damaged buildings, smoke-induced campus closures and rooms missing Chinese students yet to arrive — forced the university to cancel this week’s official welcome to its new chancellor.
She arrives, none the less, much like she did to the federal cabinet.
She broke the glass ceiling in the male-dominated halls of power, becoming Australia’s first female foreign minister and deputy Liberal leader. And now she finds herself again at the top of an institution that has only ever had male leaders.
Though her gender makes her a first, it is her skill as a chief negotiator on the world stage that the university hopes will come in handy as she seeks to secure greater international recognition for Australia’s leading university.