FOR A SECOND TIME in three days, this column offers ringing endorsement of the machinations of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s government; having signalled on Friday he would put a scythe through the ranks of advisors hand-picked by the insidious Peta Credlin, Turnbull has followed that today with a well calibrated ministerial reshuffle. We will give credit and criticism wherever due, but early Turnbull moves are proving surprisingly deft.
If the Turnbull government proves successful (and by successful, I mean re-elected reasonably comfortably) I will be very pleased, and forthright about saying so; my disagreements with Malcolm have been about his left-leaning social ideas — and sporadically, overweening ambition — but never personal from my perspective, and whilst I did not support a switch to his leadership that outcome has materialised: and Liberals must either close ranks or leave the party.
In my own case, I’m staying in the tent, but for as long as this column continues to publish independent, conservative comment, we will apportion credit and/or criticism as variously warranted; today however — for the second time in three days, since Turnbull allowed it to become known the government’s (severely dysfunctional) advisory pool is set to be drained and refreshed — I have to be effusive in my praise.
The ministerial reshuffle announced yesterday by the Prime Minister, to be blunt, absolutely nails it; unlike the train wreck unveiled late last year by Tony Abbott, Turnbull’s first ministry sees several of yesterday’s men, no-hopers and other liabilities dumped, and — with one or two notable exceptions and at least one glaring omission — refreshes the ministry, promoting both men and a reasonable number of women, and ought to reinvigorate what should always have been a stellar Coalition government (and would have been, if more adroitly managed from the outset).
Readers can access some excellent coverage of the reshuffle from The Australian (including a full list of the Turnbull ministry) here, and whilst some in the conservative faction of the Liberal Party (with which I nominally identify) will take umbrage with some of my remarks, it’s hard to take much issue with the line-up Turnbull has announced.
Credit must be given, and tribute paid, to former Treasurer Joe Hockey; this column has been relentless in its crusade to have him removed as Treasurer, but believed he nevertheless had a substantial contribution to make as a minister in a different capacity; Hockey has stepped down and instead all but resigned from Parliament, and he goes with my goodwill and very best wishes for whatever he chooses to do in the future.
Similarly, Small Business minister Bruce Billson has also stepped down, clearing the way for another new entrant to be promoted.
Howard government minister Kevin Andrews — possessed of such promise for such a staunch conservative, only to spend a decade delivering a series of monumental disappointments and failures such as the inability to sell WorkChoices, the Haneef debacle that helped seal defeat for the Coalition in 2007, the bungled attempt at welfare “reform” last year and the misdirected “giggle” of marriage counselling vouchers that he himself purported to lead by example with — has been dumped.
For good measure, Andrews saw fit to compound his humiliation yesterday by calling his own press conference prior to Turnbull’s reshuffle announcement; claiming to be “disappointed” the Prime Minister had turned down his “offer to work with him,” Andrews seems oblivious to the fact Turnbull would remember his role as a stalking horse for a leadership change in 2009 (drawing 35 of 82 votes in a snap challenge to precipitate a second, more serious attempt the following week) and the fact he seriously misread the mood of the party by standing against Julie Bishop last week as deputy leader, no matter how aggrieved or justified he may have felt in doing so.
Moderate/conservative allegiances are well and good, and I have been vocal in my own right to this end: including where Malcolm Turnbull himself is concerned.
But there is a time and a place; prior to Monday evening was the time to fight, but now is the time to try to heal and to live with the reality that has emerged if you’re a conservative Liberal, and Andrews has neatly illustrated why his is neither a healing nor unifying voice where Liberal Party politics are concerned.
In addition to Andrews, Billson, Hockey, and the obvious absence of Abbott, the dumping of Eric Abetz as Employment minister and Ian Macfarlane as “Industry Assistance” minister are to be lauded; both of the Right — and as I did say, with an eye to Andrews, some on the Right won’t like me saying it — Abetz was a waste of space and a failure where any serious advocacy of industrial relations reform was concerned; a murmur of union militancy via Bill Shorten and his ardour for reform evaporated.
As for Macfarlane — who took it upon himself to advocate for the bottomless pit of billions in government largesse to continue to be thrown at the car industry, where it was recursively consumed by union EBA agreements and needing more billions to fuel the cycle — the less said, the better.
Turnbull’s ministry, understandably, has a more moderate feel to it than the one it displaces, and whilst I am concerned that true conservative voices have either been shut out or restricted to token voices commanding little authority or respect (Peter Dutton in Immigration, take note) it is difficult to argue with most of the appointments on merit, if divorced from the prism of moderate/conservative considerations.
The expansion of Cabinet to accommodate former Howard government Chief of Staff Arthur Sinodinis as Cabinet Secretary will go some way to providing the strategic compass so conspicuously absent on Abbott’s watch, charged as it was to Credlin to execute.
The elevation of former WA Treasurer and Attorney-General, Christian Porter, is a no-brainer, and a promotion that should have been made soon after the 2013 election; for all the talk of “stability” and “grown-ups” being back in charge, the Abbott government was guilty of leaving an embarrassment of riches on the backbench where its future prospects and talents were concerned — and Porter sat atop any honest list of those languishing on the outer whilst relics and list cloggers occupied prime roles in their stead.
Several women have been promoted, and as with any group of individuals my thoughts are mixed; Michaelia Cash was, like fellow Western Australian Porter, a no-brainer to promote into Cabinet, whip-smart as she is; Marise Payne (to Defence) sees a capable no-nonsense mind tackle a difficult portfolio at a difficult time, and whilst Payne is too moderate for my blood the nature of the portfolio should temper that to a degree; Kelly O’Dwyer (Assistant Treasurer) finds an opportunity for the member for Higgins to realise the sky-high (and reasonable) expectations widely held of her, on the turf most related to her pre-parliamentary field in banking; and whilst others — such as Corangamite MP Sarah Henderson — arguably deserved to be promoted, there are now nine women on the Turnbull front bench, including five in Cabinet: and more women, it must be said, are not the only people to have missed out here.
Rhodes Scholar and Hume MP Angus Taylor can consider himself unlucky to have missed out, for Taylor is another of those MPs with arguably stronger claims than some who were allowed to remain, and one of the great travesties of two years of Coalition government has been the practice of leaving real but unproven talent to languish on the backbench in favour of the retention of ageing seat warmers. I understand too much change at once can resemble instability and chaos. But a couple more changes yesterday would have been well warranted.
Queensland Senator George Brandis QC — who is elevated to Government leader in the Senate — could have benefited from a portfolio change at the minimum, having botched the selling of metadata laws, changes around anti-discrimination and freedom of speech laws, and having caused the government grief over entitlement-related issues; Peter Dutton’s resignation, frankly, should have been accepted; and new appointment Wyatt Roy and the steep promotion of Senator Mitch Fifield appear more driven by rewarding support than with any particular claim to higher office in their own right.
Christopher Pyne, moving to Industry, should be thankful the times have been kind to him; were leadership manoeuvres and factional and state balances irrelevant, he might have found himself on the backbench after a woeful performance in Education. There may well be a case for the reforms Pyne attempted to make, but as a salesman — and he is not alone among his colleagues in this respect — Pyne has proven utterly useless to the government to date.
The big story of this reshuffle is the promotion of future Liberal leader (and I believe, Prime Minister) Scott Morrison as Treasurer; it is an unfortunate reality that Hockey simply wasn’t up to the job, and to the extent he was it is an open secret the PMO under Abbott was a handicap on him. The government’s economic message has been contradictory, inconsistent, confused, and decidedly un-Liberal for the duration of this government to date. A clean break and a fresh approach has become critical, and Morrison is the ideal candidate to deliver.
The retention of star trio Andrew Robb in Trade, Julie Bishop in Foreign Affairs and Matthias Cormann in Finance is to be lauded, but expected: these are, along with Morrison, the standout performers from the Abbott government, and Turnbull has wisely retained them without moving them. Morrison’s promotion to fill a void in Treasury completes a core of key ministers that is evocative of the Costello-Reith-Downer triumvirate that was so effective early on in the Howard years.
Speaking of those, the Turnbull reshuffle closes the door on most of the ageing has-beens from that period; the future lies ahead, not 20 years ago, and Turnbull deserves kudos for finally dispensing with the fantasy that this government offered a return to all that was best of the Howard government: it didn’t, and it hasn’t, and with luck these changes will be the last we hear of it.
And whilst he backed Turnbull, the elevation of Queensland LNP identity James McGrath sees another of the Liberal Party’s best strategic minds brought in from the cold; readers know I have made a lot of noise about people of outstanding tactical and strategic bent being shut out of Canberra by Credlin and her little regime for one petty or vindictive reason or another, and whilst the real difference in this regard will be made by cleaning out the defective individuals running those areas (and media/communications) in the advisory pool, McGrath has been left outside the tent to date out of nothing more than spite. It is pleasing to see his inclusion.
Similarly, the restoration of Howard government minister Mal Brough — despite some trouble he got into over the Peter Slipper/James Ashby fiasco a few years ago — is commendable; whilst we expect Turnbull’s reshuffle to make an instant difference to the government’s fortunes, the bald fact is that the government had few stars to its credit this time last week; Brough, a very good minister under Howard, has been excluded to its clear detriment. He now has an opportunity to show the faith expressed in him by many people (including me) is justified.
To be clear, there are those who will never be happy with anything Turnbull does, and those voices will pipe up to try to sabotage the fresh face he has put on his government.
I have been frank about my concerns — a couple of people left out who deserved inclusion and a couple who should have been demoted or axed, and a lack of effective conservative voices overall — but this ministry must be given its opportunity to showcase its wares and to deliver the outcomes expected of it.
Despite those reservations, I think Turnbull has absolutely nailed this effort: provided he has, the early opinion poll lead he has established should prove far less illusory than many observers (and disgruntled conservatives) think or expect.
Time will tell if he has the balance right. It is the results from this point that must be judged, not some pre-emptive strike landed to sabotage the endeavour. We will be watching, but despite my reservations about Turnbull in the first place, this column is — at the outset — very, very cautiously encouraged.