THOSE READERS WAITING on the promised article on Senate reform should see something from me tonight, but this morning I wanted to comment on the brouhaha surrounding controversial Defence minister David Johnston — and the opportunity to reshuffle the ministry it presents for Tony Abbott. With Arthur Sinodinis sidelined and Johnston apparently done, change now could reap immediate political dividends for the government.
First things first: the article on Senate reform I have been promising this week is partly written, and — barring the kind of unforeseen developments that happen, as issues spring into political focus out of nowhere — should be published late tonight. Any delay will be the result of unexpected developments and/or the need to cover the ground adequately, but the piece is “under construction.”
But the fracas that has erupted around “canoe” comments from Defence minister David Johnston has brought to a head the issue Abbott has sought to date to avoid, in the name of presenting a united and stable frontbench: namely, that that frontbench has holes in it, has already been shown to house under-performers and time-servers, and should be the subject of a limited reshuffle to invigorate the government and provide an injection of some of the excellent fresh talent that swells the Coalition backbench.
Significantly, the need to replace Johnston — to date a solid but unexceptional performer before his outburst yesterday — opens up exactly the kind of senior frontbench role into which Treasurer Joe Hockey could be moved sideways: to help rule a line under the debacle the May budget continues to prove for the government, yet to ensure that an outstanding minister of Hockey’s capabilities is retained by the government and deployed in a role perhaps better suited to his strengths.
I wrote in this column last month that as a replacement for Hockey, Abbott could do worse than to appoint Malcolm Turnbull; this column stands by that assessment, and despite the obvious political risks in elevating a leadership rival to the post traditionally occupied by an heir apparent, this critical portfolio simply must be allocated to a minister who can both capitalise on the Coalition’s traditional reputation for economic management, and who can draw the line under the May budget — and, in short, start again.
Turnbull is the ideal candidate, with his background in banking and business and his not-inconsiderable record from a decade as the federal Liberals’ Treasurer: and in any case, the problems caused by Hockey’s budget are potentially existential in nature for the government. The sooner this traditional Coalition strength is removed as a political liability, the better.
And significantly — with Turnbull having this week confirmed cuts of $50 million per year over five years to the budget of the ABC, it is perhaps wise to get him out of the direct firing line of the Left: a group which almost counts the Communications minister as one of its own, despite his membership of the Liberals, and who will be vocal in their fury at the cuts and savage in expressing the sense of betrayal they feel at what Turnbull has (correctly) now done.
But more widely, a reshuffle is exactly what the government needs, and that need transcends any imaginary picture of stability or unity that has caused Abbott to hesitate to date.
The government has its stars — Julie Bishop, Andrew Robb, Scott Morrison and Matthias Cormann are names that come quickly to mind.
But it also has underperformers and liabilities such as Johnston, and Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane, who was tantamount to being the union movement’s best buddy in government when the closures of car manufacturers were being confirmed last year. Add in time-servers like Kevin Andrews in Social Security — and the reality none of these names are likely to feature in any second-term ministerial line-up — and the imperative for a little change grows stronger.
And there is already one vacancy; with the government’s first term now almost half-expired and Assistant Treasurer Arthur Sinodinis sidelined for almost all of that time, the luxury of batting one short is a luxury the government, faced with consistent poor public opinion findings, can scarcely afford.
Simply stated, the time appears to have chosen the Prime Minister when it comes to reshuffling his ministry, rather than the other way around; there is an embarrassment of riches parked on the government backbench in terms of new talent, and impressive up-and-comers like Josh Frydenberg, Kelly O’Dwyer, Sarah Henderson and Bridget McKenzie all merit promotion: and it can be argued, with little trouble, that all of them could hardly do worse than some of those they would be slated to replace in any rearrangement of the government’s ranks.
I think the Prime Minister has to act: and whilst I’m the last person to get unduly jumpy about opinion polls (my insistence the Victorian Coalition under Denis Napthine may yet be re-elected on Saturday is a case in point), the danger in being consistently five to ten points down in reputable polling is that the trend becomes entrenched, the sense of embattlement accepted as a default, and the slide toward losing office after a single term a self-fulfilling prophesy.
Much as it quickly did for Julia Gillard after 2010.
It doesn’t need to be like this. The Coalition offers the very best prospects for effective, competent and stable governance in this country, both in the present and for years to come.
The time to move on the personnel side of the ledger is now, and to put the best available team — despite any admirable statements of loyalty from Abbott about the present line-up — into place.
It would be little consolation to anyone concerned if a failure to act contributes to the Coalition fielding the most talented shadow ministerial team ever seen in Australia after the next election.
Were this to occur, it would condemn Australia to more inept Labor government, with spiralling levels of debt and deficit: and, with the government that was elected to fix these things removed from office, there would be no brake or restraint on Labor’s capacity to inflict untold damage on the country’s fortunes if this unpalatable scenario were to materialise.