WHISPERS OF A RESHUFFLE in the Abbott government raise several tantalising scenarios, but whichever way you cut it — especially after the botch made of a similar exercise late last year — a reshuffle ahead of a scheduled 2016 election would cap a stunning return to form. Even so, one rumoured change would prompt your columnist’s immediate resignation from the Liberal Party on principle, and issue a nationwide call to arms for support.
I want to talk this morning about a bit of chatter I have been hearing around the place for a little while, and which has now found its way into the mainstream press through an article in today’s edition of the Herald Sun in Melbourne; it centres on a possible reshuffle of the Abbott ministry — the second since it came to office — and provided such an undertaking avoided (or, to be sure, corrected) the glaring mistakes and misjudgements of the one that was badly botched late last year, a reshuffle should be regarded as good news indeed.
The very fact another reshuffle is being contemplated, with the Coalition’s position in reputable polling continuing a slow but steady recovery this year, is a triumph over the opposition “led” by Bill Shorten; twelve months ago a sizeable number of the sound political minds I regularly pick — the ones prepared to offer honest off-the-record opinions, that is, rather than regurgitating party-line crap — agreed with my own view that thanks primarily to Joe Hockey’s woeful 2014 budget (with a few peripheral contributions from elsewhere to round out the self-inflicted hit on the government), the Abbott government was terminal.
Perhaps it will yet prove to be so; but if it doesn’t, nobody should be under any illusion that Shorten, Labor, and their ghastly masters at Traders Hall are driving much of the government’s recovery: it would be dangerous to believe, for now at least, that Abbott’s outfit is held in fonder regard on its merits by voters.
And less than six months ago, with the state election debacle in Queensland the precursor to an ill-fated move against Abbott as Liberal leader and Prime Minister, the government’s fate seemed all but sealed: Malcolm Turnbull was (and is) a red herring in the leadership stakes, but under his or anyone else’s prospective leadership the Coalition appeared doomed.
So here we are: the government trails Labor after preferences by just a few points, when it had lagged by 15 points; a reshuffle would enable Abbott to finally clear out some deadwood from his frontbench once and for all, and to promote some of the embarrassment of new talent that has until now languished on the backbench.
The cynic in me does allot more than a passing thought to the prospect that talk of a reshuffle could be used as cover to bring on a snap election; after all, Shorten has pretty much passed his useful lifespan as Labor “leader” (if there was ever anything useful about him at all, that is) and with his date to answer questions arising from damning testimony at the Royal Commission into the unions — and his role in alleged events in his past life as head of the AWU — drawing closer, it seems Labor is boxed in by Shorten and the rank embarrassment the unions are now proving on the one hand, and the odious, messy and protracted process that getting rid of him before an election would entail on the other.
Talking about a reshuffle might tempt Labor hardheads to calculate replacing Shorten is a worthwhile exercise. In those circumstances, it would be a dreadful surprise for the Liberal Party to spring by calling an election whilst the ALP was amidships in its silly leadership ballot process and effectively devoid of a leader to fight an election with.
Wouldn’t it? :)
Assuming, however, we are talking about a reshuffle ahead of an election no earlier than, say, May, here’s the good news.
As the Herald Sun article notes, the first cab off the rank to get it in the neck would be Industry minister Ian Macfarlane — or the “Minister for Industry Assistance” as this column has known him ever since he saw fit to plead for more government money to prop up the car industry — despite billions of taxpayer dollars having disappeared into the endless black hole of union-negotiated enterprise agreements that delivered ridiculous and unjustifiable largesse to those workers covered by them, but which meant that every time the grants were increased manufacturers still couldn’t turn a profit because more and more money disappeared into “renegotiated” wage agreements that just happened to mirror the size of those increases.
The sooner Macfarlane is put out to pasture, the better.
Defence minister Kevin Andrews can’t be too far behind him, having botched Workplace Relations under the Howard government, botched Social Services under Abbott, and underwhelmed in his present portfolio.
Treasurer Joe Hockey — someone I like enormously, but who is clearly out of his depth as Treasurer (a sentiment known to be shared by several of his Cabinet colleagues privately) — should not be sacked, but moved to another portfolio, perhaps Defence, whilst Malcolm Turnbull or Scott Morrison are promoted to take his place.
But I would go further than the obvious names being bandied around; Senate leader Eric Abetz has been a solid servant for the Coalition, but has barely landed a glove on either the ALP or the unions — nor advanced anything constructive by way of industrial relations policy on the government’s behalf — in his role as Employment minister.
His deputy, George Brandis QC — an intelligent operator who ranked among the Liberals’ best performers in opposition, only to become one of the party’s greatest political liabilities in office — should perhaps be redeployed to a post less directly responsible for prosecuting the case to spread freedom and liberal rights: his “freedom to be a bigot” remarks were surely among the worst publicity the government has attracted, and his attempts to explain the government’s metadata laws were confusing at best. Unfortunately these have not been Senator Brandis’ only unhelpful contributions as a minister.
And Howard era figures who have scarcely set the world on fire, like Small Business minister Bruce Billson and Health-turned-Immigration minister Peter Dutton, would scarcely be missed by the electorate if they were moved on to open opportunities for fresh talent.
Of course, the inevitable potential retirements are spoken of, for nothing lasts forever; chief among them is veteran National Party leader and deputy PM Warren Truss, who — at 66 — is being implored by some to stay for another term in Parliament to ward off the “threat” Barnaby Joyce could take his place.
Joyce comes with problems and limitations — like Truss — but unbelievably for someone who was a magnet for public ridicule when he first entered the Senate a decade ago, cut-through and positive sentiment in the electorate are not among them.
But the Coalition’s next generation of stars, drawn from the backbench and the ranks of existing parliamentary secretaries and “Ministers Assisting” — Angus Taylor, Christian Porter, Kelly O’Dwyer, Bridget McKenzie, Dan Tehan, Steve Ciobo, Sarah Henderson and Michaelia Cash, among others — should stand to compete for numerous vacancies as ministers in their own right in any reshuffle, and the short- and long-term political health and policy vigour of the Coalition would benefit immeasurably from a substantial injection of this impressive new talent at senior levels.
Of course, and discounting any surprise election announcement altogether, such a reshuffle — properly executed — could take the Coalition to the polls next year with a team that would set it up for a decade of competent, effective, and electorally popular government.
The one other change I want to touch on is the situation of Trade minister Andrew Robb; undoubtedly one of the top-tier standouts of the Abbott government, Robb, like other long-serving Liberal MPs, faces the ceaseless pressure of the passage of time: soon to turn 64, it is hard to fathom he would serve any more than a single additional parliamentary term: if, that is, he stands at the next election at all.
Robb is also my local MP, as member for Goldstein: the electorate I have lived either in or adjacent to (in the neighbouring seat of Melbourne Ports) ever since I moved to Melbourne 17 years ago.
The article I’ve shared from the Herald Sun today suggests Robb could replace former Labor leader Kim Beazley as Australia’s ambassador to the United States, and were this to occur he would go with my very best wishes on a deserved appointment indeed, and his tenure in that role would ensure Australia’s interests in the US are well represented — just as they have been by Beazley, to be clear.
But under this scenario — which would see Robb head across the Pacific late this year — a by-election would need to be held in Goldstein and, despite repeated denials of interest in a seat in Parliament that the Herald Sun has dutifully noted and reiterated on her behalf, the name of Tony Abbott’s Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin, has been raised as a prospective Liberal candidate to replace Robb in the usually safe Liberal seat in Melbourne’s Bayside.
At the risk of introducing a sour and provocative note to the discussion, I should reiterate that my criticisms of Peta Credlin in this column in the past remain very much in force; too many stories of her idea of management have spilt from too many appropriately placed sources — and the political consequences of those deficiencies writ large for the country to see in the form of poor governance, bad strategy, incompetent communications and woeful opinion polling — for me to reasonably take any other view.
And of course, her “star chamber” vetted me out of consideration for any formal involvement in the Abbott government in 2013 for reasons best known to itself — or, indeed, to her — well before so much as a syllable of criticism was ever published in this column.
Sometimes, principle has to come before any other consideration in politics, and readers will have heard me say often enough over the years that I’m a conservative first and a member of the Liberal Party second.
Indeed, had legendary powerbroker and political strategist Michael Kroger not resumed the presidency of the party’s Victorian branch earlier this year, with an explicit brief to knock the division into more professional and competitive shape, I would have left the party.
Happy as I am to remain a member, I cannot and I will not be a party to Credlin being imposed on Goldstein (even via a sham preselection process and/or administrative committee rubber-stamp to make it look legitimate) and I cannot and I will not campaign for her election in Goldstein, another seat that falls vacant (perhaps Andrews’ seat of Menzies) or, indeed, anywhere else in Victoria at all.
I’m sure this threat will have people around Credlin shaking in their boots with fear — do, of course, note the self-deprecating sarcasm — and acknowledge that I might end up polling a single vote on the day, but in the event Credlin is endorsed as the Liberal candidate for Goldstein, I will resign my membership of the party the same day and contest the seat against her as an independent conservative.
I have no particular ambition to be a member of Parliament, but on principle — faced with a backroom operative foisted on my community, whose record to date seems more concerned with the exercise of power than with the advancement of any cogent set of principles — were Credlin to contest Goldstein, I would feel bound to stand against her.
It won’t be the hottest news in town, and I’m sure it will generate amusement among those who think they know better than everyone else, but if push comes to shove, I’m prepared to get out and fight for conservative ideals against a candidate who has more or less overseen a government that could hardly be characterised as conservative, or even liberal — in the orthodox sense.
Stay tuned. And should the contest eventuate, I’ll be sounding a clarion call to readers — and anyone else more concerned with the advancement of conservative objectives than with the expedient use of power — for all the support they can offer.
I’ll be back this evening to talk about some of the other events going on in the world of Australian politics.