Resignation Of Hon Andrew Robb And Goldstein Liberal Preselection

AUSTRALIA WILL LOSE perhaps the best Trade minister it has ever had at the coming federal election, with Andrew Robb announcing on Wednesday that he will retire from Parliament when the government faces the people; it brings to an end an extraordinary 28-month stint in the Trade portfolio, and lifts the curtain on a spirited race for Liberal Party preselection in his blue-ribbon Melbourne seat of Goldstein.

Over the next few days, readers are likely to see a number of short posts from me, in addition to a longer feature I partially wrote on Tuesday (which remains relevant) and a look at things that have happened since I disappeared at the start of the week; I have been rather distracted, busy with other matters these past few days — hence my silence — but at the risk of covering old ground in a bid to make up ground, we will get to the key events of the week over the weekend.

I want to begin by briefly acknowledging the fine efforts of Andrew Robb as Trade minister, as he announces his imminent exit from Parliament; first elected at the 2004 election after the retirement of David Kemp, Robb briefly served as a parliamentary secretary in the Howard government before rising to senior shadow portfolios in opposition, and finally to the Trade and Tourism portfolios when the Coalition returned to office under Tony Abbott in 2013.

It is fair to say that Robb’s tenure in the Tourism portfolio was solid — if unspectacular — but in a very short period, he has carved out a stellar reputation in Trade, sealing free trade agreements with Japan, China and South Korea, negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and (I understand) he is still looking to conclude a free trade agreement with India before he leaves office later this year.

These agreements will go a long way to bolstering Australia’s economic performance in coming years, securing greater access to the key markets to our north — with vastly reduced (or in most cases, no) tariffs — that are collectively home to some 1.5bn people, or well over 2.5bn if the India deal is done before his departure takes effect.

The benefits they will bring to exporters in the agriculture, mining, manufacturing and service sectors of the economy will also help to diversify it, and to lessen our reliance on exports of mineral and energy-based commodities, and whilst some harbour concerns about this country being flooded with cheap Chinese labour — a proposition I emphatically reject — it is very difficult, with the exception of fatuous scare campaigns cooked up at Trades Hall, to see Robb’s handiwork as anything other than having rendered an incalculable service to Australia that will endure for decades to come.

Indeed, it is not a stretch to suggest he is not only the best Trade minister Australia has had, but that his performance as a minister in a second successive Coalition government deserves to rank him among the best ministers of state Australia has produced (and I don’t say that lightly).

Robb’s resignation, of course, opens a predictable free-for-all for the seat of Goldstein, in Melbourne’s inner south; currently held with a margin over Labor of 11%, it is one of the safest Liberal-held seats in Victoria, and has never been held (either as Goldstein or, between Federation and 1984, in its earlier incarnation as Balaclava) by the ALP. As rusted-on conservative seats go, this is one of the safest.

It is also — as some readers will have seen me note previously — my local electorate.

As a member of the Liberal Party with voting rights at the forthcoming preselection (which has been scheduled today for 19 March) I am bound by the rules of the party which explicitly prohibit commentary on preselection contests in which I have an interest; as this concerns the branches of the party in my own local area, those restrictions certainly apply.

Thus, I’m not going to run through who’s definitely standing, who might, who isn’t, who I intend to back and/or what gossip is doing the rounds locally; some of these questions have been raised in both Fairfax and Murdoch publications this week, and beyond the coverage provided in those tomes I won’t be adding to it in this column.

However, there are two exceptions, the first being the obvious one: and that is, that I will not be standing — contrary to some of the stories that have dogged me over the years and in spite of the occasional declaration to the contrary (usually when angry or frustrated) I have no interest in a seat in Parliament, and on this occasion this observation should be interpreted as an explicit ruling out of any interest in standing now too.

And two (and the exception to even that) is to note that the hare-brained plot to parachute former Chief of Staff to Tony Abbott, Peta Credlin, into the seat whenever it fell vacant appears to be extinct, and nobody I know is suggesting any attempt to do so now is in the offing, let alone likely.

But be that as it may, and despite little interest around local branches in Credlin being their MP, should the nightmare scenario of her being parachuted into Goldstein materialise, and were she to secure Liberal endorsement for the seat, the threat made in this column some time ago to resign from the party to be able to run against her remains very much in force.

It won’t come to that, of course. Thank goodness… 🙂

And beyond that, I will provide no further comment in relation to Goldstein until the preselection is resolved.

I will be back — probably tomorrow at some point — to talk about the imminent reshuffle Malcolm Turnbull faces, and the (justified) sacking today of Human Services minister Stuart Robert over a clear breach of ministerial guidelines; as I alluded at the outset, I am also working on a piece that looks forward to the election, and how current machinations over reform and other matters might pose a potential threat to the government’s legitimacy if it is re-elected without a platform as such to stand on.

Enjoy your evening.


Possible Abbott Reshuffle, And A Not-At-All Idle Threat

WHISPERS OF A RESHUFFLE in the Abbott government raise several tantalising scenarios, but whichever way you cut it — especially after the botch made of a similar exercise late last year — a reshuffle ahead of a scheduled 2016 election would cap a stunning return to form. Even so, one rumoured change would prompt your columnist’s immediate resignation from the Liberal Party on principle, and issue a nationwide call to arms for support.

I want to talk this morning about a bit of chatter I have been hearing around the place for a little while, and which has now found its way into the mainstream press through an article in today’s edition of the Herald Sun in Melbourne; it centres on a possible reshuffle of the Abbott ministry — the second since it came to office — and provided such an undertaking avoided (or, to be sure, corrected) the glaring mistakes and misjudgements of the one that was badly botched late last year, a reshuffle should be regarded as good news indeed.

The very fact another reshuffle is being contemplated, with the Coalition’s position in reputable polling continuing a slow but steady recovery this year, is a triumph over the opposition “led” by Bill Shorten; twelve months ago a sizeable number of the sound political minds I regularly pick — the ones prepared to offer honest off-the-record opinions, that is, rather than regurgitating party-line crap — agreed with my own view that thanks primarily to Joe Hockey’s woeful 2014 budget (with a few peripheral contributions from elsewhere to round out the self-inflicted hit on the government), the Abbott government was terminal.

Perhaps it will yet prove to be so; but if it doesn’t, nobody should be under any illusion that Shorten, Labor, and their ghastly masters at Traders Hall are driving much of the government’s recovery: it would be dangerous to believe, for now at least, that Abbott’s outfit is held in fonder regard on its merits by voters.

And less than six months ago, with the state election debacle in Queensland the precursor to an ill-fated move against Abbott as Liberal leader and Prime Minister, the government’s fate seemed all but sealed: Malcolm Turnbull was (and is) a red herring in the leadership stakes, but under his or anyone else’s prospective leadership the Coalition appeared doomed.

So here we are: the government trails Labor after preferences by just a few points, when it had lagged by 15 points; a reshuffle would enable Abbott to finally clear out some deadwood from his frontbench once and for all, and to promote some of the embarrassment of new talent that has until now languished on the backbench.

The cynic in me does allot more than a passing thought to the prospect that talk of a reshuffle could be used as cover to bring on a snap election; after all, Shorten has pretty much passed his useful lifespan as Labor “leader” (if there was ever anything useful about him at all, that is) and with his date to answer questions arising from damning testimony at the Royal Commission into the unions — and his role in alleged events in his past life as head of the AWU — drawing closer, it seems Labor is boxed in by Shorten and the rank embarrassment the unions are now proving on the one hand, and the odious, messy and protracted process that getting rid of him before an election would entail on the other.

Talking about a reshuffle might tempt Labor hardheads to calculate replacing Shorten is a worthwhile exercise. In those circumstances, it would be a dreadful surprise for the Liberal Party to spring by calling an election whilst the ALP was amidships in its silly leadership ballot process and effectively devoid of a leader to fight an election with.

Wouldn’t it? 🙂

Assuming, however, we are talking about a reshuffle ahead of an election no earlier than, say, May, here’s the good news.

As the Herald Sun article notes, the first cab off the rank to get it in the neck would be Industry minister Ian Macfarlane — or the “Minister for Industry Assistance” as this column has known him ever since he saw fit to plead for more government money to prop up the car industry — despite billions of taxpayer dollars having disappeared into the endless black hole of union-negotiated enterprise agreements that delivered ridiculous and unjustifiable largesse to those workers covered by them, but which meant that every time the grants were increased manufacturers still couldn’t turn a profit because more and more money disappeared into “renegotiated” wage agreements that just happened to mirror the size of those increases.

The sooner Macfarlane is put out to pasture, the better.

Defence minister Kevin Andrews can’t be too far behind him, having botched Workplace Relations under the Howard government, botched Social Services under Abbott, and underwhelmed in his present portfolio.

Treasurer Joe Hockey — someone I like enormously, but who is clearly out of his depth as Treasurer (a sentiment known to be shared by several of his Cabinet colleagues privately) — should not be sacked, but moved to another portfolio, perhaps Defence, whilst Malcolm Turnbull or Scott Morrison are promoted to take his place.

But I would go further than the obvious names being bandied around; Senate leader Eric Abetz has been a solid servant for the Coalition, but has barely landed a glove on either the ALP or the unions — nor advanced anything constructive by way of industrial relations policy on the government’s behalf — in his role as Employment minister.

His deputy, George Brandis QC — an intelligent operator who ranked among the Liberals’ best performers in opposition, only to become one of the party’s greatest political liabilities in office — should perhaps be redeployed to a post less directly responsible for prosecuting the case to spread freedom and liberal rights: his “freedom to be a bigot” remarks were surely among the worst publicity the government has attracted, and his attempts to explain the government’s metadata laws were confusing at best. Unfortunately these have not been Senator Brandis’ only unhelpful contributions as a minister.

And Howard era figures who have scarcely set the world on fire, like Small Business minister Bruce Billson and Health-turned-Immigration minister Peter Dutton, would scarcely be missed by the electorate if they were moved on to open opportunities for fresh talent.

Of course, the inevitable potential retirements are spoken of, for nothing lasts forever; chief among them is veteran National Party leader and deputy PM Warren Truss, who — at 66 — is being implored by some to stay for another term in Parliament to ward off the “threat” Barnaby Joyce could take his place.

Joyce comes with problems and limitations — like Truss — but unbelievably for someone who was a magnet for public ridicule when he first entered the Senate a decade ago, cut-through and positive sentiment in the electorate are not among them.

But the Coalition’s next generation of stars, drawn from the backbench and the ranks of existing parliamentary secretaries and “Ministers Assisting” — Angus Taylor, Christian Porter, Kelly O’Dwyer, Bridget McKenzie, Dan Tehan, Steve Ciobo, Sarah Henderson and Michaelia Cash, among others — should stand to compete for numerous vacancies as ministers in their own right in any reshuffle, and the short- and long-term political health and policy vigour of the Coalition would benefit immeasurably from a substantial injection of this impressive new talent at senior levels.

Of course, and discounting any surprise election announcement altogether, such a reshuffle — properly executed — could take the Coalition to the polls next year with a team that would set it up for a decade of competent, effective, and electorally popular government.

The one other change I want to touch on is the situation of Trade minister Andrew Robb; undoubtedly one of the top-tier standouts of the Abbott government, Robb, like other long-serving Liberal MPs, faces the ceaseless pressure of the passage of time: soon to turn 64, it is hard to fathom he would serve any more than a single additional parliamentary term: if, that is, he stands at the next election at all.

Robb is also my local MP, as member for Goldstein: the electorate I have lived either in or adjacent to (in the neighbouring seat of Melbourne Ports) ever since I moved to Melbourne 17 years ago.

The article I’ve shared from the Herald Sun today suggests Robb could replace former Labor leader Kim Beazley as Australia’s ambassador to the United States, and were this to occur he would go with my very best wishes on a deserved appointment indeed, and his tenure in that role would ensure Australia’s interests in the US are well represented — just as they have been by Beazley, to be clear.

But under this scenario — which would see Robb head across the Pacific late this year — a by-election would need to be held in Goldstein and, despite repeated denials of interest in a seat in Parliament that the Herald Sun has dutifully noted and reiterated on her behalf, the name of Tony Abbott’s Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin, has been raised as a prospective Liberal candidate to replace Robb in the usually safe Liberal seat in Melbourne’s Bayside.

At the risk of introducing a sour and provocative note to the discussion, I should reiterate that my criticisms of Peta Credlin in this column in the past remain very much in force; too many stories of her idea of management have spilt from too many appropriately placed sources — and the political consequences of those deficiencies writ large for the country to see in the form of poor governance, bad strategy, incompetent communications and woeful opinion polling — for me to reasonably take any other view.

And of course, her “star chamber” vetted me out of consideration for any formal involvement in the Abbott government in 2013 for reasons best known to itself — or, indeed, to her — well before so much as a syllable of criticism was ever published in this column.

Sometimes, principle has to come before any other consideration in politics, and readers will have heard me say often enough over the years that I’m a conservative first and a member of the Liberal Party second.

Indeed, had legendary powerbroker and political strategist Michael Kroger not resumed the presidency of the party’s Victorian branch earlier this year, with an explicit brief to knock the division into more professional and competitive shape, I would have left the party.

Happy as I am to remain a member, I cannot and I will not be a party to Credlin being imposed on Goldstein (even via a sham preselection process and/or administrative committee rubber-stamp to make it look legitimate) and I cannot and I will not campaign for her election in Goldstein, another seat that falls vacant (perhaps Andrews’ seat of Menzies) or, indeed, anywhere else in Victoria at all.

I’m sure this threat will have people around Credlin shaking in their boots with fear — do, of course, note the self-deprecating sarcasm — and acknowledge that I might end up polling a single vote on the day, but in the event Credlin is endorsed as the Liberal candidate for Goldstein, I will resign my membership of the party the same day and contest the seat against her as an independent conservative.

I have no particular ambition to be a member of Parliament, but on principle — faced with a backroom operative foisted on my community, whose record to date seems more concerned with the exercise of power than with the advancement of any cogent set of principles — were Credlin to contest Goldstein, I would feel bound to stand against her.

It won’t be the hottest news in town, and I’m sure it will generate amusement among those who think they know better than everyone else, but if push comes to shove, I’m prepared to get out and fight for conservative ideals against a candidate who has more or less overseen a government that could hardly be characterised as conservative, or even liberal — in the orthodox sense.

Stay tuned. And should the contest eventuate, I’ll be sounding a clarion call to readers — and anyone else more concerned with the advancement of conservative objectives than with the expedient use of power — for all the support they can offer.

I’ll be back this evening to talk about some of the other events going on in the world of Australian politics.