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.