Still Standing, But Only Just: Timid Reshuffle Weakens Turnbull

IN A CHOICE between being bold — an extensive, imaginative reshuffle of the Cabinet and ministry — or timid in his first act since his narrow re-election, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull yesterday chose the latter; a series of ostensibly petty changes based more in stubbornness than proactivity will do nothing to quell anger over a poor election result. More of the same, which would hardly surprise, will further weaken his diminished standing.

It really isn’t good enough — amid solemn and po-faced declarations on the ABC’s 7.30 programme last night that “we have won the election” — to be emphasising that his will be a government focused on “stability and continuity” in office.

But it is patently ridiculous, armed only with a two-seat majority in the House of Representatives and probably little more than a third of the seats in the Senate, to state that the Coalition is embarking on “three years of delivery” when those fraught numbers impose the very real risk of being unable to legislate anything of genuine substance at all.

A tangible pointer to this brave new world of stability and delivery emerged yesterday in the form of a reshuffle of the Turnbull ministry that was unimaginative at best, and a truculent exercise in petty malice at worst, and it pains me to say that the line-up announced by the Prime Minister will do nothing to enhance the reputation or authority of the government and/or himself: much less the good of the country.

Even those grassroots Liberals who identify as members of Turnbull’s own moderate faction are entitled to shake their heads this morning, but the conservative wing is entitled to be enraged — which, of course, was the whole point.

First things first: I’m linking an article from Michelle Grattan today, from her column at online portal The Conversation; whilst I don’t disagree with any of the comment Grattan has provided it doesn’t go very far, and in any case the main reason for posting it is the full list of Turnbull ministry that is the result of a very poor use — or failure to use — available resources.

On just about every line there are big black marks over Turnbull’s famed defective judgement; 7.30 host Leigh Sales tried to get Turnbull to admit the quantum of donations he made to the cash-strapped Liberals during the campaign to pay for advertising (rumoured to exceed $2 million) and/or to comment on the assertion that the money meant people would be reticent in standing up to him.

Turnbull, of course, refused to be drawn on either barb, but if yesterday’s reshuffle is indicative of what the Liberal Party is to be saddled with in exchange for Malcolm’s money, it would be better off finding some way to give the money back.

The minister most central to Labor’s so-called Mediscare lie campaign — Health minister Sussan Ley — has been left in her critical portfolio, despite being virtually invisible to the public eye in refuting the fictitious scare during the election campaign, the small matter of policy changes made on her watch that enabled the ALP to cobble such rubbish together and make it sound plausible to voters in marginal seats notwithstanding.

The most obvious under-performer during Turnbull’s tenure in the Prime Ministership (aside from himself), Treasurer Scott Morrison, has also been left where he is; the election campaign exposed Morrison’s inability to frame and carry a cogent economic message to the electorate — to the extent that description could be applied to the woefully thin manifesto he and Turnbull had the gall to describe as “a strong plan” — and in the aftermath of an election, even a close one such as this has been, Morrison should have been an early candidate to be moved.

Defence minister Marise Payne remains in her role — despite suggestions the portfolio is simply not a fit — albeit with the high profile and substantial responsibility for the construction of new submarines chopped out and handed to Christopher Pyne.

And junior minister Kelly O’Dwyer remains in the ministry, albeit relieved of her responsibilities as Small Business minister; I have spoken to a lot of Liberal members off the record, including many who claim to be moderates, who all concur O’Dwyer really should have been dumped: nobody could accuse her of effective salesmanship of the controversial Coalition changes to superannuation, and the more I speak to people, it seems even fewer would have been particularly perturbed to see her sacked.

But all of these ministers — underperforming, ill-fitting, or simply not up to it — were key Turnbull supporters at the time of the leadership change last year; the practice might be as old as politics itself, but despite the rhetoric about competence and delivery, it is immediately clear that there are an awful lot of protected species in the ranks of the Turnbull cabal.

Little has been done to advance the Liberal Party’s eventual leadership stocks in this reshuffle; Christian Porter (who has performed adequately in Social Services) could easily have replaced Morrison, having served as a state Treasurer in WA prior to moving to Canberra; similarly, Josh Frydenberg — spoken of in some quarters as the likeliest long-term prospect from the conservative wing — could as easily have been moved to Health, to add solid domestic experience that will be invaluable if a leadership baton ever finds its way into his backpack.

Instead, Turnbull appears to have played the silly game of making Frydenberg responsible for both Energy and the Environment — a contradictory appointment on any analysis, the disclaimer that another minister would be “responsible” for fossil fuels notwithstanding — and seems only to have been aimed at throwing obstacles in the path of the talented Kooyong MP.

The even longer-term prospects on both sides of the party — Dan Tehan, Angus Taylor, perhaps Steve Ciobo — have received little or no advancement this time; even the junior minister (and a Turnbull moderate) who was one of the most effective election campaigners, WA’s Senator Michaelia Cash, has been left right where she was.

In fact, the only MP who could be said to have experienced promotion that in any way enhances his leadership credentials is Christopher Pyne, with his new Defence-based role added to duties as Leader of the House of Representatives, and Pyne — unlikely to ever win an election in the even unlikelier event he ever contests one as Liberal leader — is yet another of Turnbull’s inner sanctum.

For a leader so obsessed with innovation and transition and renewal, this failure for succession planning must be acknowledged.

Certainly, the proportionally strengthened presence of the National Party within the Coalition has forced Turnbull to add to the number of spots that party is allocated, and he has done so.

But for a Prime Minister from the party of small business to not only downgrade the Small Business portfolio from a Cabinet-level position, but to hand it to a relative neophyte from the National Party, is simply unfathomable, especially in view of the abundantly gung-ho, pro-business rhetoric Turnbull filled his campaign utterances with.

With a minimum of three vacancies (before anyone might have been involuntarily dispatched, which they weren’t), Turnbull has seen fit to promote just one new MP from the Liberal Party’s conservative wing — the Senator for the ACT, Zed Seselja — and whilst Seselja is thoroughly deserving of a post on merit, the pettiness of Turnbull’s failure to add to his number with at least a second fellow conservative is compounded by the Turnbull supporters who kept their jobs, despite growing evidence they deserved at the minimum a sideways shift, and strips bare the reality that talk of “healing the rift” with the party’s conservatives is nothing more than that: talk.

As has been noisily protested by Bill Shorten, there were no promotions for additional women in this reshuffle, and that is true.

But there really weren’t all that many promotions for anyone else, either, for whilst a few of the chairs have changed, the backsides that fill them have remained mostly the same.

Even so, names like Karen McNamara, Sarah Henderson, or the Nationals’ Bridget McKenzie would have added to this ministry: not least when other time-serving, Turnbull-supporting duds like Jane Prentice are taking up spots that could easily be used to give others who offer the government and the Liberal Party more promise in the longer term an opportunity.

Rather than demote anyone — with the consequent risk of pissing them off — to accommodate the extra National Party Cabinet berth that that party’s improved electoral showing entitled it to, Turnbull has simply enlarged Cabinet, from 22 to 23: meaning the taxpayer will fork out a little more in ministerial salaries, whilst the National Party’s prize for holding its ground when the Liberals went solidly backwards looks just that little bit diminished.

Tasmania is now completely unrepresented in the ministry altogether — an oversight the Liberal Party might pay dearly for in future, at both the state and federal level — and whilst the failure to restore any of the trio of Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz or Kevin Andrews to the ministry was the correct decision, it could only have been truly validated by the promotion of one or two more of the up-and-comers from the conservative wing which, of course, it wasn’t.

All in all, the reshuffle — which, despite the near-death experience the government suffered 17 days ago, could have sent a strongly positive message — is instead a damp squib, and a disappointment.

There is a very clear suggestion of a one-fingered salute aimed at the party’s conservative wing in all of this; you’d have thought that even if Turnbull hadn’t learned his lesson from almost being booted out of government that some of the more seasoned types advising him might have prevailed upon him, but no.

Asked by Sales on 7.30 last night what he thought the lessons from the election debacle had been, Turnbull started waffling about his “strong plan” and a focus on jobs and growth: after the abysmal election campaign effort he turned in, the remarks were alarming, to say the least.

As for the capacity of the minders to enforce perspectives remotely grounded in the real world or in common sense at all, comments attributed to federal director Tony Nutt and pollster Mark Textor in The Australian today are more suggestive at best that the delusional narrative of how great Malcolm Turnbull has done still persists, and at worst sound more like a justification for keeping their own jobs safe.

And speaking of the advisory pool, an awful lot of people have had a hand in engineering the Liberal Party’s current parlous predicament; it stands to reason that an awful lot of new blood is going to have to flood into the ministerial wing to retrieve the situation. But if the cultures of butt-covering, preferment and petty jealousies inherent in the reshuffle are anything to go by, there isn’t going to be all that much change behind the scenes, either.

Which is a shame.

I should like to assure readers that I have no wish to harm the government through this column, and that I do hope — somehow — that it can succeed.

But I’m not going to pander to it either — whether from tribal diplomacy or the fear of missing out on a call to serve (that really, I know will never come) — and so I am going to be completely candid in covering the new term of Parliament, and critical (whilst constructive) in any analysis I publish.

Still, this first shot from the government’s arsenal isn’t going to win it plaudits from anyone other than the most sycophantic of observers — and nor should it.

Turnbull has probably made his first howling clanger since the election by naming this line-up as his refreshed ministry. Unless some radical or drastic or unforeseeable force intervenes, many more seem certain to follow — and with them, Turnbull’s standing will weaken even further.

Sooner or later, it won’t matter who paid the Liberal Party’s advertising accounts. If this is Turnbull’s idea of stability and delivery, it will all end in tears.

One way or the other.

Defence Fracas: Reshuffle To Move Hockey, Dump Johnston

THOSE READERS WAITING on the promised article on Senate reform should see something from me tonight, but this morning I wanted to comment on the brouhaha surrounding controversial Defence minister David Johnston — and the opportunity to reshuffle the ministry it presents for Tony Abbott. With Arthur Sinodinis sidelined and Johnston apparently done, change now could reap immediate political dividends for the government.

First things first: the article on Senate reform I have been promising this week is partly written, and — barring the kind of unforeseen developments that happen, as issues spring into political focus out of nowhere — should be published late tonight. Any delay will be the result of unexpected developments and/or the need to cover the ground adequately, but the piece is “under construction.”

But the fracas that has erupted around “canoe” comments from Defence minister David Johnston has brought to a head the issue Abbott has sought to date to avoid, in the name of presenting a united and stable frontbench: namely, that that frontbench has holes in it, has already been shown to house under-performers and time-servers, and should be the subject of a limited reshuffle to invigorate the government and provide an injection of some of the excellent fresh talent that swells the Coalition backbench.

Significantly, the need to replace Johnston — to date a solid but unexceptional performer before his outburst yesterday — opens up exactly the kind of senior frontbench role into which Treasurer Joe Hockey could be moved sideways: to help rule a line under the debacle the May budget continues to prove for the government, yet to ensure that an outstanding minister of Hockey’s capabilities is retained by the government and deployed in a role perhaps better suited to his strengths.

I wrote in this column last month that as a replacement for Hockey, Abbott could do worse than to appoint Malcolm Turnbull; this column stands by that assessment, and despite the obvious political risks in elevating a leadership rival to the post traditionally occupied by an heir apparent, this critical portfolio simply must be allocated to a minister who can both capitalise on the Coalition’s traditional reputation for economic management, and who can draw the line under the May budget — and, in short, start again.

Turnbull is the ideal candidate, with his background in banking and business and his not-inconsiderable record from a decade as the federal Liberals’ Treasurer: and in any case, the problems caused by Hockey’s budget are potentially existential in nature for the government. The sooner this traditional Coalition strength is removed as a political liability, the better.

And significantly — with Turnbull having this week confirmed cuts of $50 million per year over five years to the budget of the ABC, it is perhaps wise to get him out of the direct firing line of the Left: a group which almost counts the Communications minister as one of its own, despite his membership of the Liberals, and who will be vocal in their fury at the cuts and savage in expressing the sense of betrayal they feel at what Turnbull has (correctly) now done.

But more widely, a reshuffle is exactly what the government needs, and that need transcends any imaginary picture of stability or unity that has caused Abbott to hesitate to date.

The government has its stars — Julie Bishop, Andrew Robb, Scott Morrison and Matthias Cormann are names that come quickly to mind.

But it also has underperformers and liabilities such as Johnston, and Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane, who was tantamount to being the union movement’s best buddy in government when the closures of car manufacturers were being confirmed last year. Add in time-servers like Kevin Andrews in Social Security — and the reality none of these names are likely to feature in any second-term ministerial line-up — and the imperative for a little change grows stronger.

And there is already one vacancy; with the government’s first term now almost half-expired and Assistant Treasurer Arthur Sinodinis sidelined for almost all of that time, the luxury of batting one short is a luxury the government, faced with consistent poor public opinion findings, can scarcely afford.

Simply stated, the time appears to have chosen the Prime Minister when it comes to reshuffling his ministry, rather than the other way around; there is an embarrassment of riches parked on the government backbench in terms of new talent, and impressive up-and-comers like Josh Frydenberg, Kelly O’Dwyer, Sarah Henderson and Bridget McKenzie all merit promotion: and it can be argued, with little trouble, that all of them could hardly do worse than some of those they would be slated to replace in any rearrangement of the government’s ranks.

I think the Prime Minister has to act: and whilst I’m the last person to get unduly jumpy about opinion polls (my insistence the Victorian Coalition under Denis Napthine may yet be re-elected on Saturday is a case in point), the danger in being consistently five to ten points down in reputable polling is that the trend becomes entrenched, the sense of embattlement accepted as a default, and the slide toward losing office after a single term a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Much as it quickly did for Julia Gillard after 2010.

It doesn’t need to be like this. The Coalition offers the very best prospects for effective, competent and stable governance in this country, both in the present and for years to come.

The time to move on the personnel side of the ledger is now, and to put the best available team — despite any admirable statements of loyalty from Abbott about the present line-up — into place.

It would be little consolation to anyone concerned if a failure to act contributes to the Coalition fielding the most talented shadow ministerial team ever seen in Australia after the next election.

Were this to occur, it would condemn Australia to more inept Labor government, with spiralling levels of debt and deficit: and, with the government that was elected to fix these things removed from office, there would be no brake or restraint on Labor’s capacity to inflict untold damage on the country’s fortunes if this unpalatable scenario were to materialise.


Deck Chair Dancing: Gillard Government’s Dud Reshuffle

The innocuous resignation — and pending departure from Parliament — of veteran ALP frontbencher Nick Sherry necessitated a reshuffle of Julia Gillard’s ministry. The result is a showcase of incompetence, indulged egos, political weakness, and a fatally flawed Prime Minister.

I’d like to say some nice things about Senator Sherry; he’s a good bloke who has faced a lot of personal adversity to have the career he has had.

He hasn’t revolutionised Australia; but he has been the quintessential quiet achiever, with the emphasis on “achiever,” who came back from that dreadful suicide attempt many years ago to be an honest, ardent and diligent Minister who added a bit of lustre to the government in which he ultimately served.

Unfortunately, his resignation has led directly to one of the grubbiest little exercises in partisan politics witnessed in this country for quite some time.

The ministerial reshuffle announced by Julia Gillard yesterday stinks; it reeks of payback, patronage, revenge and self-interest.

It will also cost the taxpayer a bit more money; more on that later.

It should alarm anyone concerned about politics in this country that Peter Garrett —  he of the “Pink Batts” fiasco, latterly charged with responsibility for schools forced to build useless structures under the so-called “Building the Education Revolution” scheme — was informed he was to be sacked, threatened to resign from Parliament, and thus was allowed to stay in the ministry.

It’s a pretty clear signal as to just how unstable Julia Gillard’s government is, and of just how unstable her leadership of it is.

And it’s pretty clear how far the threat of a by-election will get you at the moment; even with Liberal turncoat Peter Slipper in the Speaker’s chair, a by-election is the last thing Gillard wants, needs, or can afford.

Especially when there are other obvious time bombs like Kevin Rudd and Craig Thomson on the loose.

I have opined previously that the best thing Gillard could do would be to sack Rudd; a dangerous exercise to be sure, but the only way to remove a debilitating cancer eating away at her leadership and — as long as anybody other than Rudd leads it — at the survival prospects of the Labor government.

To use an Andrew Peacock phrase, as sure as night follows day Gillard faces a leadership challenge from Rudd early next year; she hasn’t sacked him, which will only embolden him, and allow him to continue to act as a magnet within Caucus to attract the leadership votes of the increasing number of disaffected Labor MPs.

But there you go; Gillard didn’t have the nerve or the verve to act against Rudd — even with an extra vote in the chamber as a short-term safeguard from an election, should a resultant by-election add a number to the Liberal Party tally.

There’s a clear risk the rumours that Thomson will face criminal charges early next year — leading to disqualification from Parliament and another by-election the Liberals are certain to win — will materialise into reality.

Yet Gillard has sought to use her reshuffle to spit in the eyes of her enemies, and to signal to the waverers that their doubts about her judgement are based in fact and not suspicion.

The demotion of former industry, innovation and science minister Kim Carr to a very junior portfolio as minister for manufacturing — supposedly as a result of Carr’s transfer of his leadership support to Rudd — is just too cute.

Carr — who is from the Left of the ALP, an entity I despise — has nonetheless been a relatively competent minister.

But competence, to Gillard, is no consideration.

She made the statement yesterday, in explaining her reshuffle, that it would give her government “the firepower” it needed for 2012 and, it was implied, in the lead-up to the election due in 2013.

That argument might be valid if not for the fact the overall composition of her ministry is virtually unchanged: aside from a couple of personnel changes mandated by resignation, the line-up is identical.

It’s only the seats on the proverbial deck that have changed.

Michelle Grattan, in today’s edition of The Age, made the observation (I believe, with tongue in cheek) that Gillard has now appointed a bunch of bright political salespeople who will get the message out.

Have they in the past four years?

Who are they? They’re the same group of people who were there last week.

It’s still basically the same team that couldn’t even communicate good news without damaging the Labor vote.

And I’d make the observation that they can’t be too bright if the Labor vote now languishes around the 30% mark.

Still, there are “positives.”

Ambitious egocentric Bill Shorten enters Cabinet; Greg Combet is promoted for his astute handling of the climate change issue (which not only is largely responsible for Labor’s freefall in the polls, but has been followed by Canada’s withdrawal from the Kyoto protocol and all future similar treaties).

The size of the cabinet has been expanded from 20 to 22, meaning the Australian taxpayer is liable for two additional fat salaries in exchange for Gillard buying off people who would otherwise have caused trouble for her leadership had they been on the receiving end of a straight sacking.

And we have Gillard explaining that expansion of Cabinet by saying that the additional  numbers are the result of the “increased breadth of the Labor reform agenda.”

Er…no, they’re not the result of that.

And the so-called Labor “reform” agenda is a dubious entity at best.

You see, all Gillard has done is to buy people off, keep certain interests quiet, stave off multiple sources of insurrection, and purchase her useless tenure as Prime Minister a little more time within the closed citadel that is the ALP.

This reshuffle has been grubby; it has (as reported) rewarded and promoted allies and cronies, and punished and demoted enemies and dissidents — real, perceived and/or imagined.

Tony Abbott has been right to criticise the arrangement and he has been right to criticise Gillard’s failure to act against Kevin Rudd: in purely political terms, Rudd must be discarded from the government, and as Gillard hasn’t done it now, she never will.

Which in turn means Rudd will fatally wound Gillard, even if he isn’t the recipient of the prize when Gillard’s leadership collapses next year.

No no no, Tony Abbott — again — has correctly read this situation.

For Gillard, she’s reshuffled the deck chairs, and is smug about the look of the arrangement.

But at what cost…at what cost?