THE RESIGNATION from Tony Abbott’s ministry by Assistant Treasurer Arthur Sinodinis — sidelined since March after being implicated in an ICAC investigation — is welcome, overdue, yet warrants no acclaim; Sinodinis’ leave from ministerial duty has been badly mishandled, but his belated departure provides an opportunity for Abbott to extensively reshuffle (and fix) his sometimes misfiring frontbench. Early portents, however, are not promising.
The “simply stand firm” mentality that has characterised the Abbott government so often, and usually for the worst reasons, looks set — barring a miracle onslaught of good common sense — to hit the government between the eyes not once, but twice, in the next few days, and it remains to be seen how much collateral damage it stands to suffer if the folly Tony Abbott is rumoured to have been goaded into actually comes to pass next week.
“Simply standing firm” on principle — real principle, not the BS diatribes that pass for political discourse in Australia today — is noble, and can ultimately reap dividends.
But doing it through sheer stubbornness, or because inactivity masquerading as single-mindedness is the easy option of least resistance, is a hazardous pastime indeed.
And to be clear, there is plenty of the latter going on in Canberra at present, and laughably little of the former.
But first things first: Assistant Treasurer Arthur Sinodinis has resigned from the Abbott government ministry, fully nine (9) months since stepping aside from his official duties after being adversely named at ICAC; his absence has weakened the government, and compromised an already inadequate economic management team led by Treasurer Joe Hockey at a time when the integrity of policy and tactical and strategic nous have been sorely lacking in the face of a ridiculously populist but effective onslaught by just about everyone who doesn’t vote Liberal.
Once again, I reference the ten-point opinion poll deficit the government has faced ever since the May budget.
Sinodinis has been sidelined on full pay, whilst the government has floundered against an all-out parliamentary assault (especially in the Senate, where Sinodinis sits), and whilst its firepower has been one key gun down with him missing. It is difficult to know where to begin.
Sinodinis’ resignation certainly can’t be said to have been offered and accepted in the best interests of the Liberal Party; if it had been it would have been forthcoming in March. There is nothing quick about ICAC, and it would have been reasonable to assume from the outset that even if cleared, Sinodinis would have been subject to its processes for months.
Certainly the belated resignation announcement is welcome, and overdue, even if it is motivated by a delay of further months emanating from ICAC and the machinations surrounding it.
But nobody should be leaping out of their skins to give the Senator a round of applause; as I said, this should have happened months ago.
ICAC — as the NSW ALP knows all too well — is political poison, and whilst I do not suggest in any way that Senator Sinodinis is guilty of any wrongdoing, from a purely political perspective the mere association with ICAC is enough to tarnish anyone it touches.
In fact, Sinodinis may well end up being cleared by ICAC, and if he is then it is one of those grossly unfortunate and unfair aspects of political life that even if innocent of any impropriety, his name will have still been smeared: nine months is a long time for the broader public to engage in (often uninformed) banter and speculation, and there are those who will have already judged and sentenced the Senator nonetheless.
The end target of public distaste over this particular ICAC activity is the political standing of the Abbott government.
So much for stepping aside and “simply standing firm” — doing so has ensured the episode will damage the government even if Sinodinis is cleared. And outright resignation in the first place would have avoided much of that, and Sinodinis would have had an easier path back to the ministry at a later date.
Whomever dreamed up the strategy of Sinodinis merely stepping aside rather than resigning — and a clue lies in the fact The Australian reports his resignation was planned over a period of weeks in discussions that included the Liberals’ federal director, Brian Loughnane — has in fact done the government a great disservice. The entire issue was very poorly managed.
But — alas — poor management by people who should either know better or be nowhere to be seen is fast becoming the trademark of this government.
And it seems a second strike may be set to be inflicted on the government, as the “simply stand firm” crowd sets about goading Abbott into another monumental political miscalculation, albeit one that could exacerbate the existential political threat it faces after the botched 2014 budget and other monumental failings this year.
Since his resignation was announced yesterday afternoon (and in chatter preceding it in the past few days) talk emanating from Canberra has centred on a so-called “one in, one out” reshuffle of the Abbott ministry: unsurprisingly, the single change in this scenario would see Sinodinis’ role taken over by someone else, and one new name added to the ministry to replace his.
As the theory goes, a limited reshuffle now would be followed by a more widespread overhaul near the end of 2015, and this idiotic idea is so bad as to beggar belief that anyone masquerading as a professional political strategist could be stupid enough or incompetent enough to even countenance its execution.
It is already pretty obvious to anyone with half a clue about politics and government that the Abbott government’s first 15 months in office have revealed a number of ministers who are either liabilities in need of replacement (David Johnston, Ian Macfarlane, possibly George Brandis), good people who would better suit a different portfolio (Joe Hockey), old warhorses or unspectacular performers unlikely to feature in a second-term Abbott ministry (Warren Truss, Kevin Andrews, Bruce Billson), plus the no-show in Sinodinis that has arguably kept a bright new prospect from a well deserved opportunity to shine as a minister.
Gifted the pretext for a reshuffle by Sinodinis’ overdue resignation and bolstered by a backbench overflowing with likely ministerial talent to offset the loss of some pretty ordinary performers, why tinker at the seams? Most of the names I have mentioned are almost certain to be moved on anyway, so why not do it now?
Further, a big reshuffle in a year’s time (with an election beginning to bear down) will look like panic, especially if the government’s political standing does not recover in the meantime: and given its predicament has been brought about by the present coterie of ministers, there is little reason to believe the same group in mostly the same roles will make much of a difference.
Treasurer Joe Hockey has to be moved, preferably to Defence; his replacement (without so much as a syllable of endorsement in any leadership context) should be Malcolm Turnbull. Johnston, Macfarlane, Andrews and perhaps Brandis and Billson should all be dumped, whilst Truss (who is also the leader of the National Party and deputy Prime Minister) could relinquish his portfolio whilst retaining his other duties if his intention is to retire at the next election.
A properly managed reshuffle can be an electoral positive; renewing a government and harnessing its best people in the roles that best fit them is a powerful and obvious way to maximise its performance and in turn feed back into its electoral stocks.
But reshuffles too often or for the sake of them can have the opposite effect; sometimes they are inescapable, as anything from illness or death to unforeseen scandal or administrative oversight can force a change on a government. Viewed this way, formulating a plan to wilfully engage in multiple reshuffles within the remainder of this term of Parliament is bordering on a flirtation with political suicide.
It is refreshingly constructive that Sinodinis himself — quoted on the same issue in The Age — has encouraged the Prime Minister to select the best ministerial team possible, and that good governments “have a capacity to face up to performance issues as they arise, rather than allowing them to fester.”
That does not sound like an endorsement of the “one in, one out” strategy.
It does not sound like an endorsement of “simply standing firm” behind a team clearly in need of some of the fresh blood that is readily available, and eagerly awaiting an opportunity.
It does not sound like the utterance of a man either ignorant of the political predicament the Abbott government is in, nor of the opportunity to take a big step to try to redress it that his resignation has created.
Someone, at least, gets it. Then again, Sinodinis has always been (rightly) credited with having sound political instincts.
But if those who have the ear of the Prime Minister continue to insist on the “simply stand firm” principle — and succeed in seeing to it that relatively minimal change is made to the ministry at what is arguably a pivotal point in the government’s political fortunes — then they should perhaps take a look at themselves instead.
In the final analysis, perhaps Senator Sinodinis’ isn’t the only resignation from the government that is past due.