THE LATEST reshuffle of Cabinet — necessitated, of course, by the departure of Sussan Ley — is questionable, and any judgement of the arrangement should be deferred; Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has chosen to eschew a comprehensive overhaul of a line-up that has mostly failed to fire since the election, rewarding leadership supporters as usual, and delivering a double kick in the guts to Tony Abbott. Yet again, the portents are not good.
This evening’s piece will be relatively brief; I have partially completed something of an omnibus piece on the government as a whole, and once this is finished, it will be published: it probably would have been up during the day today, but thinks to the interference little children are wont to run when “big people” are visibly occupied with something, I ran out of time before needing to head out this morning. Any parent reading will understand.
But despite the news that Greg Hunt is to be Australia’s new Health minister being the worst-kept secret in politics for some time, there is very little to get excited about where Malcolm Turnbull’s latest, involuntary ministerial reshuffle is concerned; it is one thing to be pushed into a corner by an unavoidable ministerial departure, but — in the broader context of a clearly misfiring government — it is another matter altogether to fail to use that inconvenience to make more widespread changes.
Watching the Coalition at work (and this was also true during the tenure of Tony Abbott) is akin to watching a very poor imitation of a decent political drama; you can almost hear the stock lines jumping out from the screen, things like “simply stand firm” and references to nights of long knives that ultimately land in the (metaphorical) skull of the leader who wields them.
“Cynical club of cronies” is another such line that is especially pertinent where Turnbull is concerned; once again, the chief beneficiaries have all been MPs who voted for dear old Malcolm at his successful leadership coup, and if Turnbull wonders why the conservative wing of the party despises him (and especially at the grassroots level, without which the Liberal Party would be unable to fight effective election campaigns), perhaps his penchant for stacking the frontbench more and more heavily with sycophants could provide a clue.
In making Hunt Health minister, Turnbull has — whether he realises it or not — probably marked him out as his preferred long-term successor; after all, Julie Bishop (solid ministerial record aside) is anathema to the Liberals’ parliamentary conservative wing now on account of being seen to have been not quite straight with her involvement in the Turnbull coup, and Treasurer Scott Morrison’s prospects are…well, they’re the collateral damage sustained from the ridiculous tax reform “debate” during the top half of last year. Beyond that, it’s hard to imagine who, on the moderate side of the party, might step forward when the time comes with a better or more persuasive claim.
But Hunt comes with risks; Turnbull and his mouthpieces have been out and about today, spruiking him as “the son and husband of nurses” — whatever that is meant to matter — whilst a willing press and a ready onslaught from the ALP conspired to quickly remind everyone that just like his predecessor, Hunt faces questions emanating from unclarified travel expense claims that ought to be resolved. More on that shortly.
When it comes to the utterances of opposition “leader” Bill Shorten, on this issue or any other, he should simply be ignored.
Moving Cabinet Secretary Arthur Sinodinis — another Turnbull man — into the Industry portfolio comes with risks; after all, he was so swiftly demoted a couple of years ago as Assistant Treasurer, when caught up in an ICAC scandal over which it was found he had no case to answer, that he remains a virtual ministerial neophyte despite his years running John Howard’s office when the latter was PM himself.
Turnbull failed to resist the opportunity to aim a kick at Abbott and his former Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin, noting that Sinodinis’ duties as Cabinet Secretary would return to being a function of his office rather than a ministerial post; saying that as proper process had “been restored” to the functions of a Cabinet Secretary on Sinodinis’ watch, there was no longer the need to assign a minister to them. It was a cheap crack that was as unnecessary as it is likely to fuel the grievances of those MPs who viscerally loathe the sight of Turnbull.
This slight, of course, was the doubling down on the failure to offer Abbott a frontbench position at all, despite the fact that whatever risks might have flowed from doing so, Abbott is more capable as a minister than most of the current frontbench — and was proven as such during the Howard years.
But when sycophancy rules, as it does in the Turnbull government, such distinctions are pointless.
Promoting Ken Wyatt to Aged Care and Indigenous Health is an unknown; good luck to him. But really, about the only unequivocally nice thing that can be said about Turnbull’s reshuffle is that he (wisely) resisted calls to make a female backbencher Health minister: any untried backbencher, female or otherwise, is a completely unfit option for such a senior, politically sensitive and central domestic portfolio — and those who make these brainless, unreasoning calls need to have a Bex and a lie down, and temper the blind gender crusade with more than a little dash of reality.
But Turnbull has left a slew of good people languishing either on the backbench or the outer reaches of the ministry — Dan Tehan, Angus Taylor, Alan Tudge — presumably for the sin of remaining loyal to Abbott when others were prepared to pay their 30 pieces of silver in September 2015.
And he has left liabilities like the chronically underperforming Kelly O’Dwyer, and the rank political embarrassment that George Brandis has come to represent for the government as Attorney-General, right where they are: but then again, they voted for Turnbull in 2015 as well.
For the sake of the Liberal Party and the country, I hope that the piecemeal fiddling Turnbull has engaged in today really does add just enough oomph! to his ministry to kickstart its capacity to generate political momentum; God knows, political momentum is something Malcolm has spent nearly 18 months pissing away, and now has none.
I’m unenthusiastic, to be sure.
But with several continuing ministers under the cloud stirred up over the travel rorts affair — in addition to a raft of ALP identities who have sensibly kept quiet in the hope of not being noticed — if Turnbull does not follow today’s announcements up with an immediate, rigorous and genuinely independent audit and review of all MPs’ travel expenditure claims, his government might be right back in the same situation it was a week ago before another week is out.
Readers will forgive the obvious lack of confidence I have in today’s reshuffle, but in the final analysis, we have been here with Malcolm before and, as sure as night follows day, we will be here again.