She has been called bulletproof Bronwyn and an Exocet of a woman. It has been said that she is the sort of person who could crack macadamia nuts with her teeth; it has also been said that the softest thing about her is her teeth.
But yesterday the teeth were in evidence only for neon smiles.
And while she was a vision in (hot) pink, the famous high-top hair was pulled back into an unremarkable, if still carefully coiffed, ponytail.
Aged Care Minister Bronwyn Bishop is also renowned for her ability to work a room, and yesterday was no exception.
She was in Moonee Ponds (Dame Edna country – what were her minders thinking of?) to launch a national strategy on ageing. She also launched a charm offensive on the 200 or so members of the Association of Self-funded Retirees who made up her audience.
“Your national conference is one of enormous importance,” she told them earnestly, before congratulating the president on her drive and dynamism.
Ageing is not all doom and gloom, she went on brightly. Ageing accounts for only a fifth of the increase in the nation’s medical costs, and 80 per cent of Australians will live and die without ever needing residential care.
Over-55s are revered for their wisdom, are active and attractive, are a valuable resource and hold 25per cent of the nation’s disposable income, the minister told her grey-haired audience. And older people are also dynamic (except perhaps for the bearded man, hands folded gently on his tummy, who catnapped part-way through her speech).
“My idea of middle age is Sean Connery,” she said. They laughed at that one.
Mrs Bishop’s minders knew what they were doing, all right. This was largely preaching to the converted. Giving the vote of thanks, Roger Valentine, a member of the association’s council, asked: “Isn’t it wonderful to find there’s a politician out there who knows what she’s talking about?”
Later, having a cup of tea with retiree activists and health-care managers, Mrs Bishop cried “My two favorite ladies!” and put her arms around the association’s current and past presidents, with whom she is on cheek-pecking terms.
Retirees who followed the minister out of the conference room for a chat after her talk gave up waiting as she conducted a doorstop interview with journalists, so it is hard to know whether all the rank and file were as enthusiastic about her speech,
which pushed the government’s policies on aged-care beds.
Outside the Moonee Valley Function Centre, however, 16 nurses and health-care workers and a relative of a patient in a nursing home held placards protesting against what they saw as deficiencies in the system, such as one nurse being responsible for 60 patients at night.
“Don’t forget, Bronwyn, you’ll be old one day,” one sign read.
She’s not planning on it soon. Over coffee, one questioner asked Mrs Bishop how she expected people who wanted to retire at 55 to respond to her plans to encourage them to stay at work longer.
“I intend to practise what I preach,” the 58-year-old minister told him. “I’m here for a long time, 70 at least. I have a long way to go.”
No doubt her colleagues will be interested to hear it.
First published in The Age.