PRIME MINISTER TONY ABBOTT — or, perhaps, the narcissistic coterie that apparently runs his office — has spectacularly botched his government’s biggest opportunity for a political circuit breaker in the current term of Parliament, with the reshuffle announced today failing to adequately renew his ministry, and with some much-needed changes simply ignored. Despite warranting some merit, this has the distinct whiff of paranoia about it.
I must confess to readers, at the outset, that I am astonished — to the point of near-disbelief — that a serious undertaking like a ministerial reshuffle, at a time of great political weakness and with the clock ticking toward what increasingly looms as a very difficult election, would elicit such a vapid and counter-intuitive effort from the Abbott government.
Those Liberal voters who actually give a damn about whether the government wins the next election or not have been given every reason to be horrified.
If the idea of a reshuffle is to ensure a government’s best MPs are included in its ministry, this effort falls short; if the purpose of a reshuffle is to ensure ministers are allocated portfolios on a “best fit” basis, this doesn’t even achieve that. And as a counterpoint to this government’s glaring political weaknesses, this reshuffle leaves everything to be desired.
Regular readers know I have turned my mind to a ministerial reshuffle quite considerably in recent weeks; for those new to our discussion, a couple of recent posts on the topic may be accessed here and here.
A breakdown of the full Second Abbott Ministry can be accessed here.
Just about the most unambiguously positive thing I can find to say about this reshuffle is that the gaffe-prone Defence minister, David Johnston, has been sacked: a good man and an ally of apparent leader-in-waiting Julie Bishop, Johnston simply wasn’t up to the management of such a critical area of government, and not least given the poor state it was left in after being gutted of funding by Labor.
The promotion of another woman (Sussan Ley) into the Cabinet, at face value, is a positive, as are promotions dished out to up-and-comers Steve Ciobo, Josh Frydenberg, Kelly O’Dwyer, Karen Andrews and Christian Porter.
And I don’t think anyone would argue that Immigration minister Scott Morrison is not deserving of the promotion he has received, so impressive has his performance been in bringing an end to the flow of asylum seekers by sea into Australian waters — to say nothing of the hundreds and hundreds of drownings these movements caused — and the consequent end to human trafficking by unscrupulous people smugglers in the Middle East and in South Asia.
Yet this is where the list of positives ends.
Nobody could deny that Ley is undeserving of a Cabinet post, or that such a post ought to be hers on merit. But in appointing her to the Health portfolio, there seems little basis for matching this particular MP with that particular portfolio other than to engineer the tacky, jingoistic spectacle of a female Health minister taking on a female shadow spokesperson in Catherine King.
Not that anyone would know King is shadow Health minister, of course, for the ALP’s deputy leader (and shadow Foreign minister) Tanya Plibersek makes so much aggressive noise about Health it’s easy to forget she isn’t actually Labor’s designated representative in this area.
Even so, Ley’s promotion moves her into Plibersek’s sights — and Tanya Plibersek, despite her self-styled status as a “champion” of the advancement of women, has notoriously refused to accord a scintilla of credit to Foreign minister Julie Bishop, and flatly refuses to acknowledge any merit on Bishop’s part as a female achiever in government at all.
In fact, given the sheer nastiness with which Plibersek approaches her duties and the “misogyny”-obsessed anti-male rhetoric that oozes from her — and the fact she’s Labor’s de facto spokesperson on Health anyway — the Health job could almost be seen as an insult to Ley.
The outgoing Health minister, Peter Dutton — in a curious demotion, perhaps over the botched Medicare co-payment — moves into Morrison’s old portfolio of Immigration, and if this is intended to be seen as any kind of punishment it should be remembered that much of the heavy lifting in this portfolio has already been done by Morrison.
In other words, provided Dutton keeps his head down, he can keep his Cabinet job, safe in the knowledge the government’s most poisoned chalice has already been largely neutralised.
I thought Morrison — who moves to Kevin Andrews’ old slot in Social Services — would have been an excellent choice either for Defence (a logical progression from Immigration) or for Health (given the need for him to add a more domestic focus to his profile if he is to contend as a Liberal leadership aspirant some day).
But in moving him to Social Services, Morrison has been removed from a frying pan and thrown into the fire: Andrews, it has to be said, was at best ineffectual in this role, which potentially holds the key to unlocking vast budget efficiencies as well as being pivotal to any recalibration of the national psyche away from a handout mentality to more of an emphasis on personal responsibility.
Social Services does come with a potent bag of goodies; this is the role that will be central to a revamped childcare package that will help spearhead the government’s attempts to reconnect with its traditional bedrock of middle class families.
If things go well in Social Services, it’s a fair bet the upcoming childcare package — not Morrison — will be credited; if it goes pear-shaped, however, Morrison will wear the blame, notwithstanding the fact that on Andrews’ watch the fat, unaffordable, inefficient NDIS was left intact, and notwithstanding the fact that the national bill on welfare spending continued to rocket despite some piecemeal tinkering in the form of budget measures that will never see the light of day.
This reshuffle sees a triumvirate of yesterday’s men, today’s time servers and tomorrow’s retiring MPs remain in Cabinet; looking at Kevin Andrews first, it is difficult to see how the decision to retain him in Cabinet is either reasonable or justified.
After all, his inability to prosecute a brief — the notorious WorkChoices laws — as Workplace Relations minister in the Howard government was arguably a direct and disproportionate contributor to the defeat of that government; as Social Services minister under Abbott, he hasn’t fired a shot. Now, as Defence minister, it is unclear what Andrews might do differently to anything else he has done over the past decade that would actually deliver positive results and outcomes.
Industry minister Ian Macfarlane — now Industry “and Science” minister, in a sop to an outraged Labor Party furious that its practice of using political slogans in the names of ministerial portfolios was dropped by Abbott when he won office — should, along with Andrews and Johnston, have been an early casualty of a significant reshuffle; readers have heard me say previously that he could well have been called the minister for Industry Assistance, so firmly at times has he appeared to position himself alongside the unions. Macfarlane has been an ineffectual embarrassment. The government, however, remains lumbered with him.
And a more benign but no less relevant view must be taken of National Party leader Warren Truss — rumoured to be in line for retirement at the coming election — who could have opened up another vacancy to a newcomer by relinquishing his portfolio of Infrastructure and Regional Development to focus on his responsibilities as deputy Prime Minister in the meantime, but didn’t.
The single biggest failing of today’s reshuffle is the fact Joe Hockey has been permitted to remain as Treasurer, and whilst I like Joe enormously, the fact remains that he has now been effectively given official imprimatur to get away, scot-free, with framing an abysmal federal budget in May, and one of the worst ever served up by an incumbent Liberal government.
I remain adamant that Hockey, were he to remain in Cabinet, should have been moved to Defence: with his place taken by Malcolm Turnbull, for whom I have little time in terms of any aspirations he might harbour despite considerable personal regard.
This sends a dreadful message that not only was the 2014 budget a botch, but that the minister responsible for it is free to carry on without sanction. The 2015 budget is critical to the long-term viability of this government from a political perspective. Another balls-up like this year’s effort is unaffordable, and will not be tolerated in the electorate. Yet the opportunity to make a completely clean break, and to approach this absolutely crucial task with the Liberals’ best-credentialled candidate given responsibility for it, has been squandered.
In fact, this entire reshuffle is a squandered opportunity: yes, one woman made it into Cabinet and another couple received token promotions; yes, one of the up-and-coming men made it to the ministry (new Assistant Treasurer Josh Frydenberg) and another couple received token promotions.
But the token scapegoat — Johnston — should have been given company on the outer, whilst the “sideways shifts” were almost invariably the wrong moves, or not made at all.
But where this all makes sense, in a highly perverse fashion, is when it is viewed through the paradigm of the Liberal leadership and it is here that the fingerprints of Abbott’s most senior advisers can be recognised all over today’s changes.
Heir-apparent (and moderate) Julie Bishop has been forced to accept the sacking of her trusted ally in WA Senator David Johnston, and to compound the wound, his replacement — Kevin Andrews — is from the hard Right. The newcomer to the ministry from her home state of WA, former Barnett government Treasurer Christian Porter, has been appointed to a piffling Parliamentary Secretary role. Bishop’s influence within the government, arguably, has been diluted.
Longer-term leadership prospect Morrison — who mastered the Immigration portfolio — has now been given another piece of what Paul Keating might term a “shit sandwich” in Social Services: responsible for the colossal outlays in welfare and social spending and charged with reaping huge savings, you can almost hear the odds being given from a distance on whether Morrison might do himself a fatal injury in his new job.
Turnbull — who, all other considerations aside, should have been a lock as Treasurer in this reshuffle — has been left where he is in Communications, and this is significant because the Treasurer’s job would have provided Turnbull a profile and a platform from which to parade his wares as a “leader in waiting.” This gift has not been given.
And Hockey — a rival to Abbott to succeed Malcolm Turnbull as Liberal leader in late 2009, and for some time afterwards the heir-presumptive until the abomination of the May budget — has been left in position in the knowledge that his leadership prospects are probably now extinct: if the 2015 budget is a success, Hockey will have merely repaid some of the political capital that has been expended on him, no more; if it is as poor as this year’s, he will probably be sacrificed before the election anyway. Either way, Hockey no longer poses any threat to Abbott.
It is only by examining the leadership implications of these aspects of this reshuffle that much sense can be made of any of the other high-profile movements it contains. There are a number of Abbott supporters who have retained spots in the ministry and/or Cabinet (even if their roles have changed) when, on balance, they did not deserve them.
Frankly, all of this has the whiff of paranoia about it, and whilst the reshuffle is mildly worthy of merit in some respects, it leaves the government deprived of the renewal it needed, and starved of fresh talent in adequate quantities to replace the ageing no-hopers who have kept their jobs.
A very accusatory finger needs to be pointed at the Prime Minister’s Office: once again, it has done neither the government nor the country any favours.
In the meantime, and as unsatisfactory as it might be, this revamped ministry must now knuckle under and get on with it: the government is a long way behind the game. There is a lot of ground to make up. Much electoral goodwill has been needlessly squandered over the past year over poor policy and/or abysmal efforts to sell it.
But really, this has been a spectacularly botched opportunity to use the resignation of Arthur Sinodinis on Friday as a circuit breaker that might help retrieve the government’s position.
The extensive reshuffle this column called for has indeed been undertaken — and appears to have been used to engage in playing games.
With the government’s political position precarious at best, today’s announcement was the last thing it needed.
And if the silly plan for a second reshuffle this time next year is still exercising the minds of the Prime Minister’s narcissistic, self-obsessed, inward-looking “brains” trust, one can only shudder at the thought of how much damage this government might yet inflict upon itself by the sleight of its own hand.