Julie Bishop opts for payback politics with Steve Bracks sacking

Incoming foreign minister Julie Bishop has sacked former Victorian premier Steve Bracks as the consul-general to New York just as he was about to take up the appointment. Photo: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images Former Victorian premier Steve Bracks has been sacked from his appointment as New York consul-general by the incoming Abbott Government.

Federal election 2013 coverageBracks’ sacking ‘vindictive’

So much for governing for all. The Coalition hasn’t even been sworn in but has opted for what appears vendetta politics.

Steve Bracks was not the first ex-politician to land a prized diplomatic post, and truth be told he won’t be the last.

Incoming foreign minister Julie Bishop’s objection to his appointment to New York in May was not about competency but timing. She claimed the Coalition should have been consulted about the appointment, given Julia Gillard had flagged a September 14 election.

Except, as we know, no writs had been issued and the caretaker conventions did not apply. The prime minister changed, the election date too.

Nor was the timing of Bracks’ appointment so unusually close to an election, given the Howard government had also appointed former Liberal speaker Bob Halverson ambassador to Ireland less than six weeks before the 1998 poll.

It is doubly strange Bishop has not been hitting the airwaves with the name of a replacement, such as a senior trade diplomat to neutralise the view that this is just a decision taken in spite. Should a Liberal insider get the job that view will only be reinforced.

Bracks was the last of a number of ex-Labor premiers to join the diplomatic club, after Bob Carr became Foreign Minister in 2012 and then sent Mike Rann to London.

But the decision to sack Bracks sets a disturbing precedent. Politics can be a tribal business, but in Australia, a change of government has not previously meant diplomatic appointments from the other side have been abandoned.

Labor inherited Amanda Vanstone in Italy and did not recall her even after a bitter staffing clash with her deputy. Richard Alston was in London, Robert Hill at the United Nations in New York.

All kept their jobs. Conservatives Tim Fischer and Brendon Nelson even scored diplomatic posts out of Labor.

But Kim Beazley, Australia’s man in Washington, and Carr’s NSW Labor friend John McCarthy, posted to the Vatican, must be wondering about their futures now.

Australia could now wind up with an US-style system where many diplomats are withdrawn from their post after a change of president.

Australia’s post in New York has traditionally been the stalking ground for former business leaders or political brains. It has long been recognised that politicians – even retired ones – can speak to peers in a manner career officials cannot.

Bracks had already taken up the role in August, and notes on the Foreign Affairs website show him doing the usual pre-departure routine for senior diplomats representing Australia, meeting premiers, business leaders and getting detailed briefings in Australia.

He was due to move to the US this week and given the stringent rules in the public service around job security, it would not be at all surprising if he had a legal case for wrongful dismissal.

Bishop will have to do some explaining.

Perhaps the Coalition’s judgment was that sacking Bracks will make Labor look bad for appointing him in the first place, and keep their opponents talking about the past, not the future.

But the Coalition now can’t sensibly argue Bracks only got the gig as a Labor sop for the boys with a rich salary and plush apartment, and yet still keep paying for the position to exist at all.

If it is such a sinecure role, why have a consul-general in New York at all?

Who Bishop appoints in Bracks’ stead will be a test of whether this is settling a score or a genuine belief that the job is important to Australia’s interests.

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.

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