Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop at a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Wednesday, May 31, 2017.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop at a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Wednesday, May 31, 2017. AAP Image - Mick Tsikas

Julie Bishop faces sexist questions in Senate Estimates

JULIE Bishop is paying a price for not being a dowdy diplomat.

And for being a woman.

No minister gets more personalised attention in Senate Estimates Committees than Julie Bishop and this week saw it reach a new depth.

Often the attention is not considered evaluation of her ministerial performance or even just political sniping. It is personal in a way no male minister has to endure.

Recent Estimates hearings have witnessed senators and senior public servants discuss issues ranging from terrorism to tax policy to defence spending - to Ms Bishop's make-up.

This week a Labor senator asked whether the Foreign Minister provided the flowers and decorations for Budget night drinks. Because, after all, she was a woman.

South Australia's Alex Gallacher on Wednesday sought information about the function hosted by Ms Bishop.

"Given that the 38th foreign minister is the only female in the list of Australian foreign ministers were there decorations, including flowers?" he said.

At least he didn't ask whether Ms Bishop had baked something nice for the occasion.

Back in March the Foreign Minister also featured in questions about her personal details and her attendance at G'Day USA, the annual Australia-America promotion held in Los Angeles in January.

Labor senator Kimberley Kitching, in an estimates hearing, appeared caught up by the Hollywood location of the event and was keen to know who she was wearing.

"Was Ms Bishop supplied with any gowns, shoes, clutches, pearl earrings et cetera for the event?" the senator asked Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade secretary Frances Adamson.

"If so, who offered them to her, so who was the sponsor? Was it a gift and if it was a gift, were these gifts declared as required by parliamentarian standards."

She had earlier asked: "Did Ms Bishop use in-house hair and makeup professionals at her Los Angeles hotel to prepare herself for the event. If not, who provided these services? Did DFAT cover the costs?"

Senator Kitching then moved on to the Trade Minister Steven Ciobo. Did he attend the gala black tie event at the Dolby Theatre?

Ms Adamson replied " … The list that I have in relation to Minister Ciobo is that he did, in fact, attend the G'Day USA Los Angeles gala on 28 January."

Those expecting a grilling over where Mr Ciobo got his dinner suit were disappointed. There wasn't a word about his clobber.

Julie Bishop is a target because she is considered politically vulnerable, following news reports that in January last year she got taxpayers to pay $2716 for travel to and from the Portsea Polo event on Victoria's Mornington Peninsula where she was hosted by a beer maker and a car maker.

The reports came as former Health Minister Sussan Ley was caught up in damaging allegations over her travel spending.

As a senior minister Ms Bishop has to be as accountable as any executive member for the way she uses public funds and she cannot complain about scrutiny.

But there seems to be more involved than keeping a minister on the expenses straight and narrow. A particular hostility appears to be reserved for Ms Bishop.

Returning to this week, the question from Senator Gallacher seemed to confirm this.

Liberal senator Zed Seselja interrupted it to say: "Why is that relevant?

"I'm not really sure what the relevance was of Senator Gallacher's question just then, that because it was a female foreign minister we have to know about decorations and flowers. I'm not really sure about that."

Many struggled to justify the comment, including Labor's Senate leader Penny Wong.

"I would have thought if a Coalition senator had asked, perhaps Senator Wong would be up in arms right now," said Senator Seselja.

Senator Wong declined to join the attack on her colleague.

"I'm supposed to comment on everything always? Anything to do with gender or race you want my comment?" she said.

A spokeswoman for Ms Bishop gave her reply: "This might come as a shock to Labor Senator Gallacher but Australia's first female Foreign Minister spends her time focusing on serious issues of Australia's national security and other important matters of state."