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01 March 2015
by Annabel Crabb

Julie Bishop's game face

Political leaders often become well-known for a physical attribute. John Howard's eyebrows gave, to cartoonists, a whole new visual thesaurus for expressing his many moods. Kevin Rudd's hair – high-maintenance, studiedly casual, endlessly susceptible to breeze – became an allegory for the man himself.

But have we ever, in this country, witnessed a phenomenon quite as magically compelling as Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop's face?

Julie Bishop's face may be the most sophisticated piece of political hardware ever evolved in this country. It is impervious to internal or external shock. Years of remaining calm amid episodes of Force-10 political idiocy have made this woman into a human stealth bomber. Three times now, she has had to maintain the "nothing to see here" visage befitting a loyal deputy while realistically preparing for the reality that her leader is about to be whacked.

She owns one of the few female faces in politics that is remarkable not for what it looks like, but for what it does. Think about it. When is the last time you saw a political cartoon that actually captured Julie Bishop's likeness?

Bishop's Labor nemesis, Julia Gillard, was a walking target for political cartoonists, who in their cheerfully unkind way turned her face into a quizzical collection of acute angles and her bottom into an overstuffed sofa.

Julie Bishop's face is different. It's memorable not for its caricature hooks, but for its uncanny degree of muscular discipline. She can summon her trademark range of expressions – Death Stare, Million Dollar Smile, Blue Steel – at will, independently of whichever giant political banana skin has just appeared in front of her.

This is an unbelievably handy skill, especially for someone who works closely with Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

No matter how strange things get, Julie Bishop's face remains impeccably composed.

Take the occasion just before Christmas, when Mr Abbott declared during a breakfast interview with Lisa Wilkinson that his greatest achievement as Minister for Women was the abolition of the carbon tax.

News of this claim was conveyed to Ms Bishop by a reporter during a live-to-air press conference. Her face betrayed nary a twitch.

A couple of months earlier, Ms Bishop was called in to run damage control on Australia's trading relationship with the Arab states after her colleague, former Attorney-General George Brandis, during a late-night Senate estimates sitting, announced that Australia didn't necessarily accept that East Jerusalem was "occupied".

News travels fast, and within days there was a small but spirited anti-Brandis demonstration at the Damascus Gate, not to mention cheesed off ambassadors from Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan and Turkey queuing up to threaten trade freezes and loudly remind the government about the Six-Day War in 1967.

Ms Bishop, her face a mask of diplomatic charm, defused matters by assuring all and sundry that Senator Brandis had meant only that he did not support the use of the term "Occupied" with a capital O. Small-o "occupied" was perfectly fine, she smoothed. To achieve diplomatic peace through the deployment of punctuation is impressive in its own right. To do it with a straight face: now that's something really special.

Earlier this month, after having been asked repeatedly by Mr Abbott for a declaration of loyalty, Ms Bishop stood behind him during a Townsville press conference wearing an expression of beatific calm as the Prime Minister declared he was "not someone who goes around demanding pledges of loyalty". Not a single muscle moved. She's that good.

In these troubled times, it's worth asking why we are not patenting Ms Bishop's training techniques and selling them to US military intelligence, or at the very least sending her to play Texas Hold 'Em against Ben Affleck.

Only once of late has her face betrayed her, ever so slightly. In Question Time, nodding serenely behind Tony Abbott as he ranted about Labor's job creation record, she heard him use the phrase "holocaust of jobs" and discreetly stopped nodding. Two heartbeats passed, and she allowed herself a sideways glance at Christopher Pyne, then unmistakeably pursed her lips, which in Bishop-land is the equivalent of slipping into an "I'M WITH STUPID" T-shirt.

Ms Bishop, showing admirable entrepreneurship, has now franchised her range of facial expressions into an accessible and smart-phone compatible format. A fortnight ago, she conducted – with a reporter from Buzzfeed - what is believed to be the world's first interview conducted entirely using emoji. (What did she think of Vladimir Putin? Angry face. And so on.) And on Wednesday, she answered a question on television simply by pulling an "emoji face".

People respond to political pressure in different ways. The Prime Minister, for instance, responds by channelling Pope Urban II and smiting human rights commissioners. That's his thing. Malcolm Turnbull responds by getting all twinkly and mysterious. That's his. And if Julie Bishop wants to deal with the situation by evolving into a high-functioning emoticon, then that's pretty much her business, I guess. The phrase "Whatever gets you through the night" has never seemed so apt.