A Very Public Education

Friday, June 1, 2007 - 11:35

Harvard Business School gave Julie Bishop a desire to serve the country. She speaks to Patrick Cullen about the move from a private life to a very public one.

Julie Bishop was born and educated in South Australia. She was appointed Minister for Education, Science and Training in January 2006. Here she talks about education as a driver of Australian prosperity, workplace flexibility and work/life issues.

Q: How did you find it moving from a private existence to a very public one?

A: It was quite a transition going from the private life of a professional in a law firm, and moving to the very public life of an elected representative in the Federal Parliament. The major difference has been the level of public scrutiny that there is around elected representatives compared with that of my previous work. I’ve made that transition, and I’ve certainly accepted the consequences of it. It just means that you don’t have a private life.

There’s also the way in which you’re regarded. Professionals have a certain standing, a certain status in the community, yet elected representatives don’t have that same standing, and that has been a little difficult to come to terms with. The public’s perception of politicians is a negative one, and yet so many of the people in politics are there for the right reasons.

Q: What do you think we collectively need to do to change that?

A: There is no question that the behaviour of some politicians affects the way the public view them and, like any group of people, if there are some that aren’t performing appropriately it can affect the public’s perception of the whole lot. We need to continue to attract to politics people of high quality. And, while there is this extreme focus on their private lives, a lot of people say, I’m just not interested in being subjected to that level of scrutiny.
I think we can go too far, and society suffers as a consequence because we do need people with character, integrity, passion and commitment to go into public life.

Q: You’re saying while the transition is not so easy, a corporate background provides a good base for politics?

A: Yes. While the transition to public life has been the most challenging, it has also been the most satisfying.
I am grateful that I had the opportunity to work in the positions I did as a lawyer and in business, and some of the involvement I had in, for example, the Australian Institute of Management and other organisations: having brought that experience to parliament, I hope, makes me a better parliamentarian. And I had a rich experience in corporate life in Perth, and that’s been one of the most satisfying parts about going into public office; that I’ve been able to bring that experience with me and hopefully bring a clearer focus to the development of public policy because I know how federal policy affects business and everyday life.

In fact, it was one of the things that attracted me to federal politics in the first place. So much of the work that I was doing as a lawyer was with federal legislation, whether it was trade practices or tax or environment laws. So I developed a great interest in public policy through being a lawyer in private practice and representing companies that were affected by Commonwealth legislation.

Q: From being first elected in 1998, have the aspirations and goals you then had altered over the years since you’ve been in the deep end?

A: They’ve probably become more refined, but it’s interesting and instructive to me to go back and read my maiden speech. My first speech to parliament in November 1998 reflects very much the thinking I have today. I spoke about the need for Australia to focus on education as a key driver for prosperity and on the need to ensure that everybody had the opportunity to access education, for that would be the skill set that was needed in the 21st century in the knowledge-based economy.

And when I read that speech, I think, “Who would have thought that I’d end up as the Minister for Education and actually have the opportunity to put in place some policies that support those initial aspirations.”

Q: What do you think Australia needs to maximise the engagement of its workforce?

A: We have to continue to have a flexible workplace. We must continue with industrial relations reforms so that Australians have the incentive to negotiate individual workplace agreements that suit their circumstances and their needs. If you have a flexible workplace where employees and employers come together to recognise each other’s needs then we will continue to see productivity growth.

Q: And how do you think Australia is going in this area at this stage?

A: We’ve made a start with the Work Choices Legislation. There is still this ingrained resistance from the union movement. They don’t seem to connect the need for flexible workplace arrangements with Australia’s future productivity growth. This is now very much a global economy and we’re in a global marketplace. We must have every possible advantage going our way. And that’s throughout all sectors. The education sector is a place ripe for reform. In schools and universities there’s a great need for a more liberalised workplace.

Q: Do you see a difference between management and leadership?

A: Leadership is about setting a vision, strategic goals, getting people to follow an ideal. Management is about the day-to-day implementation of that vision or that ideal. They are two distinct roles. Now, some people are required to undertake both and do it very well, but they’re different skill sets.

Q: Do you see a parallel between leadership and management skills in the private sector transferring into the political sector?

A: Very much. While my role as a minister is to manage my ministerial staff in the sense of the day-to-day management of a ministerial office, I take a leadership role with the Department of Education and you can’t possibly manage that on a day-to-day level with the implementation of all that is required. We have around 3000 people in 24 countries in the department. So the leadership role I take is to put in place the vision, the strategic direction, and then management takes place at the departmental level.

Q: You attended Harvard Business School and did the Advanced Management Program. Do you think leadership can be taught or are leaders born?

A: Harvard has committed a great deal of thought into print on this very topic about leadership and the qualities of great leaders. They had case studies on leaders in the business context, and so it did occupy a good deal of our time. I believe there are some qualities that leaders are born with, but of course I think each one of us has the potential to be a leader.

Q: Do you have a sense of, or a comment on your own leadership style?

A: Well, I guess it’s best to ask those I work with to judge that, but I don’t micro manage. I like to think that I give people the opportunity to work things through, to come up with their own solutions and to be accountable for what they do.

Q: What do you think we need to do to enhance and increase the awareness of the need for ethical behaviour in corporate Australia?

A: The management, the top executives ought to be role models and ought to be called to account if they’re not ethical or if they’re lacking in integrity. That’s where leadership can affect or infect an entire organisation.

If the leaders aren’t demonstrating ethical behaviour, if the top executives aren’t demonstrating appropriate social and business behaviours, then how can you expect the organisation to live up to that ideal? It doesn’t end at the top, but it begins at the top by all that people say and do, and they should be judged accordingly. And the same goes for politicians.

Q: Are there other significant events or people that have influenced your career?

A: Probably the greatest influence on my life was my mother, and she had a great deal of ambition for her daughters and led us to believe that we could do anything; that if we set our mind to it, and if we really believed in ourselves and believed in what we wanted to do, then we could achieve it.

An event that did change my life was going to Harvard Business School. I had no idea that it would turn out the way it did. I’d heard so many stories of people who attended Harvard and said your life will not be the same when you return. There are statistics about how many people graduate from that course and then go off and do something else within 12 months. I thought, well, that won’t be me. I was sure that I knew what I was going to do. I would continue on as a managing partner at Clayton Utz and continue in the business world. And then Harvard turned that all on its head and I came away with a desire to serve the country.

Q: How well do you think Australia is doing with the whole issue of women in management, in leadership, and in political life?

A: The pace of change has been glacial in some respects. In March on International Women’s Day, I released a book that highlighted 10 years of women’s achievements from 1996 to 2006, and there have been some significant achievements in terms of government policies to provide women with greater choice. Women today have much more choice and many more opportunities than we had 10 years ago. But in terms of women in management, it’s still a very slow process.

In the public service, we are seeing a much greater representation of women in senior positions. There are now six heads of Commonwealth Public Service departments that are women, and about a third of senior management are women and that’s a far cry from the days when women had to leave the public service if they got married. Where we’re falling behind is actually in the private sector, and we find that there are still very few women in senior positions on private sector boards. If companies are looking for diversity and quality in their board members, they must start embracing the 50 per cent of the population that are females.

Q: What areas of business and government do you think Australians do best at, and why? What’s Australia’s natural competitive advantage?

A: We’re innovators. We’re resourceful. We can come up with solutions to problems, practical solutions. Innovation is our competitive advantage and we really need to nurture that and recognise it and reward it.

Q: Would you comment on the work/life balance issue?

A: I’m probably the last person who should comment on that because my work is my life, and it always has been, and I find that work sustains me. But I recognise that trying to strike that work-family balance is essential if Australia is going to continue to have a productive and engaged and innovative workforce.

And the more women that come into the labour force the more we must recognise the need for flexibility, which is why I think the need to continue to reform industrial relations is so important. We’re expanding the aged cohort in the workforce. We must attract and retain more older workers and women in the workforce, and in order to ensure that they can continue to work or are attracted to work we must have a much more flexible approach to their individual needs. And that’s a recognition that both employers and employees have to make.

Q: What does the future hold for you as you see it, and what would you like it to hold for you?
A: Well, the fascinating thing about politics is so much of your future is in the hands of other people. It’s a question of chance and circumstance so often. I live from one election to the next and so the challenge facing me now is to ensure that the Howard Government gets re-elected in the 2007 election, and if that be the case, well then I would be delighted to serve in whatever capacity the Prime Minister thinks fit.

In the short term I focus very much on day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month goals. I’m here for a three-year term each time, so you have to look at your role in three-year increments and see if you can cram as much as you can into that time.

I’ve been the Minister for Education for 18 months now. I need to ensure that when my time is up, I leave this having actually achieved things, and not just occupied a position.


The Federal Member for Curtin, Julie Bishop is Minister for Education, Science and Training, and the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women's Issues. Before assuming these roles, Bishop was Minister for Ageing, a position first held in October 2003 before being reappointed in October 2004. Bishop has served extensively on parliamentary and policy committees, including her roles as Chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties, and Chair of the Government Trade and Foreign Affairs Policy Committee.
Before her entry into politics Julie Bishop was a Managing Partner of the law firm Clayton Utz, and has held various positions in civil administration including on the board of the Anglican Schools Commission and a director of SBS (TV and Radio) Corporation.