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.

Ministerial Reshuffle: Turnbull Nails It

FOR A SECOND TIME in three days, this column offers ringing endorsement of the machinations of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s government; having signalled on Friday he would put a scythe through the ranks of advisors hand-picked by the insidious Peta Credlin, Turnbull has followed that today with a well calibrated ministerial reshuffle. We will give credit and criticism wherever due, but early Turnbull moves are proving surprisingly deft.

If the Turnbull government proves successful (and by successful, I mean re-elected reasonably comfortably) I will be very pleased, and forthright about saying so; my disagreements with Malcolm have been about his left-leaning social ideas — and sporadically, overweening ambition — but never personal from my perspective, and whilst I did not support a switch to his leadership that outcome has materialised: and Liberals must either close ranks or leave the party.

In my own case, I’m staying in the tent, but for as long as this column continues to publish independent, conservative comment, we will apportion credit and/or criticism as variously warranted; today however — for the second time in three days, since Turnbull allowed it to become known the government’s (severely dysfunctional) advisory pool is set to be drained and refreshed — I have to be effusive in my praise.

The ministerial reshuffle announced yesterday by the Prime Minister, to be blunt, absolutely nails it; unlike the train wreck unveiled late last year by Tony Abbott, Turnbull’s first ministry sees several of yesterday’s men, no-hopers and other liabilities dumped, and — with one or two notable exceptions and at least one glaring omission — refreshes the ministry, promoting both men and a reasonable number of women, and ought to reinvigorate what should always have been a stellar Coalition government (and would have been, if more adroitly managed from the outset).

Readers can access some excellent coverage of the reshuffle from The Australian (including a full list of the Turnbull ministry) here, and whilst some in the conservative faction of the Liberal Party (with which I nominally identify) will take umbrage with some of my remarks, it’s hard to take much issue with the line-up Turnbull has announced.

Credit must be given, and tribute paid, to former Treasurer Joe Hockey; this column has been relentless in its crusade to have him removed as Treasurer, but believed he nevertheless had a substantial contribution to make as a minister in a different capacity; Hockey has stepped down and instead all but resigned from Parliament, and he goes with my goodwill and very best wishes for whatever he chooses to do in the future.

Similarly, Small Business minister Bruce Billson has also stepped down, clearing the way for another new entrant to be promoted.

Howard government minister Kevin Andrews — possessed of such promise for such a staunch conservative, only to spend a decade delivering a series of monumental disappointments and failures such as the inability to sell WorkChoices, the Haneef debacle that helped seal defeat for the Coalition in 2007, the bungled attempt at welfare “reform” last year and the misdirected “giggle” of marriage counselling vouchers that he himself purported to lead by example with — has been dumped.

For good measure, Andrews saw fit to compound his humiliation yesterday by calling his own press conference prior to Turnbull’s reshuffle announcement; claiming to be “disappointed” the Prime Minister had turned down his “offer to work with him,” Andrews seems oblivious to the fact Turnbull would remember his role as a stalking horse for a leadership change in 2009 (drawing 35 of 82 votes in a snap challenge to precipitate a second, more serious attempt the following week) and the fact he seriously misread the mood of the party by standing against Julie Bishop last week as deputy leader, no matter how aggrieved or justified he may have felt in doing so.

Moderate/conservative allegiances are well and good, and I have been vocal in my own right to this end: including where Malcolm Turnbull himself is concerned.

But there is a time and a place; prior to Monday evening was the time to fight, but now is the time to try to heal and to live with the reality that has emerged if you’re a conservative Liberal, and Andrews has neatly illustrated why his is neither a healing nor unifying voice where Liberal Party politics are concerned.

In addition to Andrews, Billson, Hockey, and the obvious absence of Abbott, the dumping of Eric Abetz as Employment minister and Ian Macfarlane as “Industry Assistance” minister are to be lauded; both of the Right — and as I did say, with an eye to Andrews, some on the Right won’t like me saying it — Abetz was a waste of space and a failure where any serious advocacy of industrial relations reform was concerned; a murmur of union militancy via Bill Shorten and his ardour for reform evaporated.

As for Macfarlane — who took it upon himself to advocate for the bottomless pit of billions in government largesse to continue to be thrown at the car industry, where it was recursively consumed by union EBA agreements and needing more billions to fuel the cycle — the less said, the better.

Turnbull’s ministry, understandably, has a more moderate feel to it than the one it displaces, and whilst I am concerned that true conservative voices have either been shut out or restricted to token voices commanding little authority or respect (Peter Dutton in Immigration, take note) it is difficult to argue with most of the appointments on merit, if divorced from the prism of moderate/conservative considerations.

The expansion of Cabinet to accommodate former Howard government Chief of Staff Arthur Sinodinis as Cabinet Secretary will go some way to providing the strategic compass so conspicuously absent on Abbott’s watch, charged as it was to Credlin to execute.

The elevation of former WA Treasurer and Attorney-General, Christian Porter, is a no-brainer, and a promotion that should have been made soon after the 2013 election; for all the talk of “stability” and “grown-ups” being back in charge, the Abbott government was guilty of leaving an embarrassment of riches on the backbench where its future prospects and talents were concerned — and Porter sat atop any honest list of those languishing on the outer whilst relics and list cloggers occupied prime roles in their stead.

Several women have been promoted, and as with any group of individuals my thoughts are mixed; Michaelia Cash was, like fellow Western Australian Porter, a no-brainer to promote into Cabinet, whip-smart as she is; Marise Payne (to Defence) sees a capable no-nonsense mind tackle a difficult portfolio at a difficult time, and whilst Payne is too moderate for my blood the nature of the portfolio should temper that to a degree; Kelly O’Dwyer (Assistant Treasurer) finds an opportunity for the member for Higgins to realise the sky-high (and reasonable) expectations widely held of her, on the turf most related to her pre-parliamentary field in banking; and whilst others — such as Corangamite MP Sarah Henderson — arguably deserved to be promoted, there are now nine women on the Turnbull front bench, including five in Cabinet: and more women, it must be said, are not the only people to have missed out here.

Rhodes Scholar and Hume MP Angus Taylor can consider himself unlucky to have missed out, for Taylor is another of those MPs with arguably stronger claims than some who were allowed to remain, and one of the great travesties of two years of Coalition government has been the practice of leaving real but unproven talent to languish on the backbench in favour of the retention of ageing seat warmers. I understand too much change at once can resemble instability and chaos. But a couple more changes yesterday would have been well warranted.

Queensland Senator George Brandis QC — who is elevated to Government leader in the Senate — could have benefited from a portfolio change at the minimum, having botched the selling of metadata laws, changes around anti-discrimination and freedom of speech laws, and having caused the government grief over entitlement-related issues; Peter Dutton’s resignation, frankly, should have been accepted; and new appointment Wyatt Roy and the steep promotion of Senator Mitch Fifield appear more driven by rewarding support than with any particular claim to higher office in their own right.

Christopher Pyne, moving to Industry, should be thankful the times have been kind to him; were leadership manoeuvres and factional and state balances irrelevant, he might have found himself on the backbench after a woeful performance in Education. There may well be a case for the reforms Pyne attempted to make, but as a salesman — and he is not alone among his colleagues in this respect — Pyne has proven utterly useless to the government to date.

The big story of this reshuffle is the promotion of future Liberal leader (and I believe, Prime Minister) Scott Morrison as Treasurer; it is an unfortunate reality that Hockey simply wasn’t up to the job, and to the extent he was it is an open secret the PMO under Abbott was a handicap on him. The government’s economic message has been contradictory, inconsistent, confused, and decidedly un-Liberal for the duration of this government to date. A clean break and a fresh approach has become critical, and Morrison is the ideal candidate to deliver.

The retention of star trio Andrew Robb in Trade, Julie Bishop in Foreign Affairs and Matthias Cormann in Finance is to be lauded, but expected: these are, along with Morrison, the standout performers from the Abbott government, and Turnbull has wisely retained them without moving them. Morrison’s promotion to fill a void in Treasury completes a core of key ministers that is evocative of the Costello-Reith-Downer triumvirate that was so effective early on in the Howard years.

Speaking of those, the Turnbull reshuffle closes the door on most of the ageing has-beens from that period; the future lies ahead, not 20 years ago, and Turnbull deserves kudos for finally dispensing with the fantasy that this government offered a return to all that was best of the Howard government: it didn’t, and it hasn’t, and with luck these changes will be the last we hear of it.

And whilst he backed Turnbull, the elevation of Queensland LNP identity James McGrath sees another of the Liberal Party’s best strategic minds brought in from the cold; readers know I have made a lot of noise about people of outstanding tactical and strategic bent being shut out of Canberra by Credlin and her little regime for one petty or vindictive reason or another, and whilst the real difference in this regard will be made by cleaning out the defective individuals running those areas (and media/communications) in the advisory pool, McGrath has been left outside the tent to date out of nothing more than spite. It is pleasing to see his inclusion.

Similarly, the restoration of Howard government minister Mal Brough — despite some trouble he got into over the Peter Slipper/James Ashby fiasco a few years ago — is commendable; whilst we expect Turnbull’s reshuffle to make an instant difference to the government’s fortunes, the bald fact is that the government had few stars to its credit this time last week; Brough, a very good minister under Howard, has been excluded to its clear detriment. He now has an opportunity to show the faith expressed in him by many people (including me) is justified.

To be clear, there are those who will never be happy with anything Turnbull does, and those voices will pipe up to try to sabotage the fresh face he has put on his government.

I have been frank about my concerns — a couple of people left out who deserved inclusion and a couple who should have been demoted or axed, and a lack of effective conservative voices overall — but this ministry must be given its opportunity to showcase its wares and to deliver the outcomes expected of it.

Despite those reservations, I think Turnbull has absolutely nailed this effort: provided he has, the early opinion poll lead he has established should prove far less illusory than many observers (and disgruntled conservatives) think or expect.

Time will tell if he has the balance right. It is the results from this point that must be judged, not some pre-emptive strike landed to sabotage the endeavour. We will be watching, but despite my reservations about Turnbull in the first place, this column is — at the outset — very, very cautiously encouraged.

 

Fact Or Crap, Peta Credlin, And Doing Things Differently

FOR ONCE we’ll be nice about Prime Ministerial Chief of Staff Peta Credlin; with the government at a crossroads and Tony Abbott himself perhaps dependent for survival on a solid result at the Canning by-election, rather than (justifiably) slating Credlin, today we are going to acknowledge her supposed strengths — and pray flexibility might be added to them. Nobody knows everything: especially Credlin and the coterie she is surrounded by.

It really doesn’t matter how smart, insightful, or how strategically and tactically astute you are — or think you are, or are told you are — when the whole enterprise for which you have been given oversight is going to hell in a handbasket; to be brutally Darwinian about it, faced with oblivion, you either change or die.

It is just such a position in which the federal government (and specifically, Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his Chief of Staff, Peta Credlin) finds itself, one week out from what some believe is a make-or-break electoral test at a by-election in the outer Perth seat of Canning.

Not for the first time, what should have been a good week for the Coalition has ended on a sour, divisive note, with yet more rumours of a leadership challenge from Communications minister Malcolm Turnbull, and an increasing number of gutlessly anonymous Liberal MPs briefing journalists that Abbott is “finished” irrespective of the Canning result — just the thing to encourage voters in that electorate to deliver a ringing endorsement at a mid-term field trip to the ballot box whose outcome will not affect the overall composition of Parliament.

In other words, the electors in Canning have a free hit in hand next Saturday: with so much apparently riding on the result, the behaviour of the Coalition camp this week is inexplicable. And unforgivable.

I read an excellent article earlier today in The Australian from Peter van Onselen, who argues — correctly — that Abbott must listen to conservative critics of his government; van Onselen’s central thesis applies equally to Credlin, for anyone who seriously thinks Tony Abbott singlehandedly runs his own government is delusionally naive.

That responsibility, ultimately, is carried by Credlin: and if one side of that partnership is permanently misfiring, then the closer the implosion point comes the greater the risk it will destroy not just both of them, but the government with it.

For years now, anyone who follows politics has been told by Abbott, ad infinitum, that Credlin is the “smartest and fiercest political warrior he has ever known,” and perhaps, in fact, she is; nobody seriously doubts the intellect of someone who comes from a background in law and who has held a swathe of high-profile roles both in and out of politics for the better part of 20 years.

But something is clearly not working; after 18 consecutive months of opinion polling showing, on average, a 6.5% two-party swing against the Coalition at an election — enough, if uniform, to gift an additional 29 seats to the ALP and with them, government in a cakewalk — and with Credlin nominally in charge of the entire management effort of the Coalition’s political fortunes, the buck stops with her.

Let me say that again: the buck stops with Peta Credlin, as Chief of Staff to the Prime Minister.

This is a job to which she was appointed; she was demonstrably qualified for the post, at the time of the appointment, by her track record as a government staffer in a range of roles over a 15-year period; she accepted the responsibility that goes with the post when she accepted the appointment; and whilst it’s certainly true that Abbott is responsible for her as her employer, Credlin’s role dictates that she is the responsible official if politically acceptable outcomes are not being delivered by the government as a whole.

So for today at least, we will accept that Credlin is, all other things being equal, an ideal candidate to head the Prime Minister’s Office.

In turn, she is also responsible for the entire coterie of advisors who discharge what all observers know is a centrally planned political strategy that emanates from the PMO.

She has had oversight over their recruitment, famously vetoing scores — perhaps hundreds — of names; some reputedly for petty reasons, and some on the dubious grounds that she didn’t know them: whichever way you cut it the government’s advisory pool is, if not entirely hand-picked, certainly personally shaped by the direct input of Credlin.

My understanding, from extremely reliable sources, is that the emphasis in selecting these people was less on capability and more on obedience, and certainly, anyone hiring staff wants to ensure the people they pick do what they are told.

But this wasn’t the case when the Abbott government was being staffed; it is widely known in Liberal Party circles that Credlin wanted people who were personally compliant, rather than simply people who would do what they were told in the course of the day’s business — and even without the evidence of a government trailing in the polls and seemingly destined for an electoral belting, this approach to “people and culture” as it has become quaintly known in business was easily foreseeable as a recipe for catastrophe.

It isn’t that any of them are bad people, per se; rather, the Abbott government is being run, broadly, by the wrong people in the wrong roles, and the frightening thing is that by and large, the impenetrable, incandescent disaster that has been made of two years in office is quite probably (and literally) the very best the people stacked into those roles are capable of.

Just like the internal ructions that culminated in an abortive but desperate putsch against Abbott in February, it should have surprised nobody in the Credlin cabal that others — outside Parliament and/or excluded from any involvement in or influence over the workings of the government for one malicious reason or another — would find their voices, and in many cases much more quickly than the MPs who moved on Abbott at the beginning of the year and who widely nominated Credlin as their number one target.

In this context, the van Onselen article completely nails the problem the government faces.

Accepted wisdom around the corridors of power is that the Abbott government boasts a shining record of achievement that has seen it do all sorts of good things for Australia. It hasn’t.

Accepted wisdom around the corridors of power persists with the fantasy that those charged with the stewardship of the government’s fortunes — headed by Credlin — not only know what they are doing, but that they know better than everyone else. They don’t.

Accepted wisdom around the corridors of power is that the government has a strategy that will see voters flock back to the Coalition when the time for expressing an opinion that matters — at the ballot box — arrives next year. It doesn’t, and unless things change, they won’t.

And part of the problem (and this might sound odd coming from someone who identifies as sitting on the conservative wing of the Liberal Party) is that the Liberal Right, despite some disillusioned drift over two poor years in government, still retains overwhelming numerical dominance of both the Liberal party room and the organisational wing that enables Credlin and others like her — husband Brian Loughnane just one of many — to remain in positions at considerable expense to the party which they have discharged very, very badly indeed.

Once again — just to keep the point central — a government so entrenched in a losing electoral position cannot be regarded as either a glittering testament to those in charge behind the scenes and/or a triumph of “astute” political practice.

My criticisms of the government are on record and may be accessed by anyone wishing to sift through the archives of this site, and I would make the point that whilst I use colourful language from time to time — phrasing my points in sometimes absolutist and even confrontational terms — the views expressed here are hardly extreme even if the terminology used to give voice to them is. After all, there needs to be a little sizzle provided with the sausage, so to speak.

But van Onselen rightly lists out a throng of higher-profile commentators than myself: Janet Albrechtsen, Grace Collier, Miranda Devine, Niki Savva, Peter Costello, Chris Kenny, John Roskam, Tim Wilson, even Alan Jones.

None of them are socialists or voices of the Left; all of them are naturally sympathetic to the Coalition and to the Liberal Party specifically, and for various reasons — just like me — are desperate to see the Abbott government succeed.

Like me, each of them is responsible for a veritable tome of constructive criticism in his or her own right.

All of them, like me — and like anyone else who dares to raise their voice in defiance — is dismissed: we’re malcontents bent on stirring up trouble, or trying to damage the party (“damaging the party” is an insult I’ve both heard bandied around and at various stages had levelled at me personally ever since I joined the Liberal Party in 1990), or we don’t “understand,” or we’re motivated by sour grapes over one thing or another, or we’re lunatics, insane, barking mad.

But all of us want to help: this is not the kind of “help” that takes the form of an adolescent fantasy in a grown-up world; different people offer different strands of thought, insight, expertise and competence that, in a shallow and reasonably closed system like a political staffing pool, might add depth and perspective.

Instead, as things stand, a shallow gene pool drawn from people of limited overall ability began fucking things up shortly after gaining access to the government suites in Canberra and has continued to do so ever since.

This week should have been an outstanding one for the Abbott government; after an initial lurch as how to respond was quickly canvassed and calibrated, its approach to the refugee crisis emanating from Syria was bold, compassionate, and I think well reflected community expectations and sentiment.

But on Thursday night, some fool in Canberra leaked word of a looming ministerial reshuffle — complete with not just an explicit hit list but also names of people who were said to be “immune” but who probably should have sat atop the list of intended casualties — and today, we see headlines in the press across the country of yet more mutterings of an imminent leadership challenge by Turnbull.

It is here, of course, that the dominant numbers of the Right come into play: that faction can do whatever it likes, it believes. But only until enough of the softer support around its edges detaches itself in desperation — and then Abbott, like the minders around him, become fair game.

And it is here that the crossroads — faced by the government, Abbott personally, and the likes of Credlin, Loughnane, and their assembled minions — has crystallised into one very big problem: just like it did a little over six months ago, and for similar reasons when distilled to their essence.

Now, of course — less than a year prior to polling day — an additional urgency has characterised that problem and the reasons underpinning it.

This government, in the absence of radical change, is certain to lose an election.

Such an election defeat, even to a charlatan, a populist imbecile and an intellectual fraud like Bill Shorten, could signal three years in opposition: or it could herald the start of a decade in the political wilderness. Nobody — not even the smug, self-congratulatory types in charge of things inside the Liberal citadel — can say with confidence which would be the outcome.

Either way, restored to office on a platform of rank irresponsibility and little else, the damage that would be inflicted on Australia by another Labor government would make the foibles of the Rudd and Gillard governments — and their cretinous, useless, spectacularly incompetent Treasurer, Wayne Swan — look mildly risible by comparison.

And for Shorten and Co to win an election to the extent disturbingly consistent opinion sampling suggests, dozens of Coalition MPs are going to be turfed out of Canberra and onto the street: and the self-interest of those people before the event is likely to be a powerful, and unstoppable, force.

None of this sits with the official version of events at the PMO or, by extension, at the Liberals’ federal secretariat at Canberra, presided over by Loughnane and aided in its defective but holier-than-though insistence it knows better than its critics as well.

But in the meantime, the PMO and the Liberal secretariat in Canberra can see the fruits of their handiwork in articles like this one from reputable journalists who have no association with the Liberal Party, are not noted for being sympathetic to it — far from it — but who can spot the facts of the matter from the crap served up as spin at a thousand paces distant.

On the reshuffle (and we spoke about this not so long ago: I urge readers to revisit it today) I simply say that not only should one occur, but names like Peter Dutton’s, Joe Hockey’s and Kevin Andrews’ — irrespective of the protection afforded them by the numerical primacy of the Liberal Right and/or their political enmeshment with Abbott — should appear on any list of ministers to be fired or demoted, not to be granted immunity from change: these gentlemen, and others like them (“Industry Assistance” minister Ian Macfarlane, Attorney-General George Brandis, and Employment minister Eric Abetz being standout candidates for replacement at first glance) are all responsible for different aspects of the abysmal fist the Abbott government has made of too much of what has confronted it, and should be moved on.

There is no point having bumbling no-hopers from the Right locked into the ministry out of “loyalty” if an election loss is the result: after that, there aren’t any goodies to pass around, to factional buddies or to anyone else. At least, not any goodies that matter. Opposition is not a commodity to be savoured.

If people don’t want Malcolm Turnbull to become Liberal leader and Prime Minister by way of a successful leadership challenge, personnel changes — in the ministry and the advisory pool — and the benefits that can flow from replacing duds who’ve benefited from “loyalty” with people who have the political success of the government at heart and the various shades of expertise with which to help engineer it are mandatory, even if they’re not personally sycophantic to Abbott, Credlin, Loughnane and his mates, or a combination of them.

Whilst I have publicly backed him for promotion to Treasurer, I will argue until I am blue in the face that Malcolm Turnbull is no solution as Prime Minister. But unless things change, drastically and quickly, Turnbull is precisely what the party may end up being lumbered with out of the sheer desperation of those MPs fearful of losing their seats at an election under Abbott and guided by the “expertise” of his “friends.”

Prior to both the 1998 and 2001 elections, the government of John Howard faced entrenched and far worse opinion polling than the present government does; on each occasion, the Howard government recovered to win re-election.

The difference is that Howard had learned over decades that options had to be kept open, and that change — however much he disliked it — sometimes had to be involuntarily accepted as the price for continuing political and electoral success. It is a lesson that is not evident in the behaviour of key people within the Abbott government.

His Chief of Staff — Arthur Sinodinis — now sits as a Senator from New South Wales; as the equivalent official in the Howard government to Credlin, Sinodinis obviously knew a thing or two about what it takes to retrieve a seemingly terminal government and restore its fortunes to a winning position. Credlin would do well to seek, and accept, the counsel of Sinodinis.

But above all, there is a wealth of talent available to the government — both on its backbench and away from Credlin’s chosen coterie, outside Parliament – that is not merely being ignored, but which is roundly dismissed as irrelevant.

Responsible for a ship of state following an eerily similar trajectory to the Titanic, such a closed position in the face of looming disaster is unforgivable.

I have always said I’m happy to work with anyone I’m satisfied has the best interests of the Liberal Party at heart; I have no interest in being an MP (although, yes, readers know of a certain threat I made earlier this year, which will be honoured if the specified preconditions ever materialise), and I certainly don’t want a public political profile if I can avoid one. Even now, I would be prepared to work with Credlin and the others like her who have been the target of this column’s invective if suitable circumstances arose. But I doubt an invitation to do so will ever materialise.

We can only hope, at a seminal and pivotal point in the political cycle, that everyone with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo in the Abbott government even if it kills it — Credlin, Loughnane, the horde of abject lackeys and quislings they have assembled around them, and even Abbott himself — have the “come to Jesus” moment and embrace a change of direction.

The story of the unimpeachable value of this junta, however validly grounded, is by virtue of its execution an absolute fantasy: and whilst Turnbull might be the enemy they think they are holding in abeyance, and conservative dissidents punitively excluded to communicate that they are not at all taken seriously, an election loss to Labor — and to Billy Bullshit, of all people — will destroy not just the government, but the “legend” of their intellectual, moral and political superiority as well.

The ball is in Credlin’s court to drive change, and to do for Abbott what Sinodinis did for Howard.

It remains to see whether she is capable of doing so, but the indications this week of a disinclination toward anything other than more of the same bullshit that has fouled two years in government are not encouraging at all.

Any Reshuffle Must Go Further Than Dumping Hockey

WITH ONE EYE on the Canning by-election and the other on consistently dreadful opinion poll numbers, whispers emanating from the Abbott government and into the Fairfax press suggest a strategy of dumping Joe Hockey in the by-election’s aftermath followed by a double dissolution in March. A “reset” may — may — still work. But Hockey, who is a political liability, must be just one of a raft of changes if there is to be any point attempting one.

Sooner or later the fraught position of the Abbott government was bound to occupy our conversation in this column again, and — thanks to some injudicious chatter finding its way into the willing ears of the Fairfax press — it seems today has been selected for that purpose.

One of the journalists at Fairfax I have great respect for is James Massola, who today has filed this report and this analysis piece, both of which detail an apparent “survival” strategy being cooked up by elements inside the Liberal party room to throw Treasurer Joe Hockey under a bus and to get the government to an early election in March in the wake of the looming by-election in Don Randall’s old seat of Canning in Western Australia.

We have discussed the misfortunes of the Abbott government — mostly self-inflicted as they have been — at great length since Hockey’s ridiculously misdirected 2014 budget, and the irony is that whilst Massola raises the issue of Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s famed loyalty to those around him (and the direct adverse effects it has had on his government’s standing), a position of true loyalty to the best interests of the government, the Liberal Party and the millions of ordinary people it is charged with representing lies in advocating the exact opposite of much of how Abbott has allowed that government to be conducted.

The idea that merely throwing Hockey under the bus, as a scapegoat for a poor result in Canning, will somehow restore the Coalition’s political fortunes is sorely wanting at best, for as much as Hockey has made himself a political liability in his current post, the real seeds of the problem lie elsewhere: namely, in Abbott’s own office.

Even so, the fact such a change is even being seriously countenanced when just six months ago Hockey was sacrosanct and protected by Prime Ministerial imprimatur is telling.

Just a couple of short months ago — before the outrage of Bronwyn Bishop’s travel entitlement excesses became public knowledge — it did rather look as if the Abbott government had a case for calling (and winning) an early double dissolution election, although I didn’t think doing so was wise without a handful of triggers lined up for a subsequent joint sitting as opposed to just the bills to abolish the Clean Energy Finance Corporation.

Yet even so, a 2015 budget that was publicly received far more benignly than its predecessor, combined with Labor and Bill Shorten feeling real heat from the Royal Commission into the unions, saw the Liberals’ fortunes turn strongly for the first time in over a year, even getting well within the error margin in a slew of opinion polls if not in fact managing to pull into the lead.

Bronwyn Bishop stopped that momentum dead in its tracks. Abbott’s obstinate display of loyalty toward her threw it into reverse. The revelation that some knucklehead in the NSW Liberals saw fit to invite Dyson Heydon to a Liberal Party event compounded the damage.

The government is now in real — probably existential — trouble, and it remains to be seen if there is adequate time to dig it back out by any means, although with an election due to be called in 10 months’ time it’s fairly obvious that the Coalition will get one opportunity to enact a major salvage effort before that election (held on schedule or otherwise) and one only.

Replacing Hockey with either Scott Morrison or Malcolm Turnbull should have happened in the wake of the abortive leadership putsch against Abbott at the start of the year; the fact it didn’t — and that Abbott instead rattled on vacuously with chatter about “loyalty” to his Treasurer to the point he asserted the pair would stand or fall together — is symptomatic of the dysfunction that infects much of the government away from the public eye.

The problem, of course, is that so dysfunctional is the Abbott government away from the public eye that its consequences have frequently been laid bare for all to see.

Whilst no supporter of Turnbull’s in a leadership context, I have been consistent for the duration of this column in acknowledging his talent and, in certain circumstances, his ability; contrary to some of those more blindly opposed to him I think he would make an excellent Treasurer, and the leadership risks of moving him to that post are easily outweighed by the continuing and compounding damage Hockey’s tenure in it is creating.

And I think Morrison should be held back — at least until after the election — from such a frontline post, not least when he is performing brilliantly in Social Services: another heavy domestic portfolio that is traditionally very problematic for the Liberal Party.

But any reshuffle, if it starts and finishes with Hockey, is a waste of time.

There are others who have either outlived their usefulness or who won’t be around for much longer anyway — Kevin Andrews and Ian Macfarlane are just two names on what, if I wanted to be brutal, could be an extensive list — and the opportunity to get more of the embarrassment of backbench talent the Coalition parties boast into ministerial posts should not be squandered or passed up.

After all, talented backbenchers — even if they make the mistakes of the beginner — are arguably of more use to the government than ageing duds anyway.

And in any case, the composition of the Abbott ministry is scarcely the government’s greatest problem.

It seems ridiculous that fully a year after it became undeniable that the Abbott government was in dire, dire electoral straits, we are still having exactly the same conversation; it is a measure of just how poorly calibrated the government is that its problems, whilst stark in their clarity and obvious in terms of the action required to remedy them, are basically the same list of ills that was supposedly ticked off after the coup attempt against Abbott.

This government can’t carry a message; its tactical and strategic activities are so defective it would be better off dispensing with them altogether; it can’t respond decisively to Labor, the unions, the ABC or the Fairfax press without overreach or misdirection; it has proven spectacularly inept at dealing with a hostile Senate; its message to voters — such as it is — is confused and inconsistent; and it is supported by a plethora of state and federal secretariats that couldn’t campaign their way out of a paper bag.

Election defeats in Queensland, Victoria and South Australia constitute deadly proof of that final point, and rather than shuffling the club members who run them from one division to another to keep “talented” losers in the gravy (read: putting “maaates” ahead of the true best interests of the Liberal Party) a large number of them should be encouraged to simply pirouette out the door and not come back.

And this leads me to the Prime Minister’s Office; creditable attempts were made earlier in the year to hoodwink people into believing that that sinecure had changed, and that notorious Chief of Staff Peta Credlin had been curtailed.

The brutal truth is that it hasn’t, and she wasn’t, and consequently the government continues to make the same mistakes in the same way it has ever since it was elected. Only the daily issues that surround those mistakes change, and even some of those are ominously constant.

Now we’ve had Arthur Sinodinis — a one-time Chief of Staff to John Howard — come out today, demanding ministers and/or advisers who’ve leaked the details of the “Hockey as scapegoat” plan either quit or be fired; Sinodinis has also spoken of “loyalty,” and my issue here covers yet another point I have been banging on about for months.

Quite bluntly stated, the notion of “simply standing firm” might be a worthy one if there was actually something worth standing firm behind at all; this government might fool itself into believing in its own competence, but it isn’t fooling anyone else.

What a lot of these insiderish boffins don’t realise and/or don’t want to know is that vast numbers of the Liberal rank and file are angry, disgusted and aghast that the party has comprehensively trashed a golden opportunity for a decade in power.

And all of that is before we even countenance the average punter on the street who is expected to vote Liberal in a year or so.

The “debt and deficit” emergency the Coalition was elected to fix has miraculously given way — after a horror budget whose punitive fixes mostly weren’t even legislated — to a blue skies scenario featuring supposed endless growth, large giveaways to small business, and the incredible promise of fat tax cuts without the pain required to fund them; believe that and you’ll believe anything.

Labor’s profligate spending continues to run out of control — and perhaps it’s true the government faces a roadblock in the form of the Senate to rein it in — but the savings measures it has attempted are mostly direct additional hits on its own constituency, with very little by way of actual cuts at all.

Not only has the government failed to fix the budget, it has failed to line up bills to cut Labor’s waste and extravagance and electoral bribery of Left-leaning interest groups. And it has sent the signal to Coalition voters in so doing that they are fair game when it comes to squibbing genuinely tough action and instead enacting a quick fix by slugging those who decided to vote for it in 2013.

What a mess.

Meanwhile, all of the other issues I’ve talked about fester away, to varying degrees; and even the Royal Commission into the unions — whilst uncovering copious evidence of criminal misconduct — has been seized by the ALP and the unions and turned into a political weapon for those God-forsaken entities.

A professional political outfit would never have handed such a battering ram to its opponents, but this government has managed to do just that.

Someone as astute as John Howard (and the coterie he kept around him) would never have let himself get into such a parlous political position through wilful and stubborn incompetence, but that is where the Abbott government stands today.

And Sinodinis trying to close ranks around the rotten edifice might be noble on one level, but it amounts to an uncharacteristic lapse of judgement on his part when the edifice itself is in urgent need of a significant structural overhaul.

I don’t think the Canning by-election should be some inane test of Abbott’s leadership and I don’t think he should be pushed off the plank if the party loses, which admittedly at this point in time has to be regarded as distinctly possible.

But there is little point in standing firm when such a stance is utterly misguided, and no point in blind ongoing loyalty to the very people who put the government in that situation in the first place.

Win or lose in Canning, a reshuffle is a good idea: but if it starts and finishes with replacing Joe Hockey as a token scapegoat, it will have been for nothing.

Either way, replacing a large proportion of the contingent of advisers sponging off the taxpayer and cruelling the government politically and electorally, if anyone is really serious about fixing the government, is mandatory.

Anyone responsible for (surprise, surprise) communications, strategy and tactics should be in line to get it in the neck, for if they can’t manoeuvre a first-term government into a position of invulnerability against an utterly discredited Labor Party — hurdles such as the Senate notwithstanding — then heaven help the Coalition if the going ever gets really rough, and the thunderbolts begin shooting from hands other than its own.

Those who want to preach of loyalty to this government should first get to grips with the real reasons for its malaise, and if they are unwilling or unable to look inwards to do so, then they too are a part of the problem.

Nobody likes singling out those they work with, get on well with and with whom they have professional associations that in some cases span decades, but there is something very wrong at the heart of the Abbott government, and it isn’t something Labor can be blamed for or that a token sacrifice will wash away.

There may or may not be time to fix the government, and perhaps one more opportunity afforded by the electoral cycle to make a concerted effort to do so.

Any talk of early elections must be abandoned, and the cancer at the heart of the government excised once and for all, for if allowed to remain and to grow it won’t matter when the election is held: the Coalition will lose anyway.

And that is a hell of a price to pay for what is being bandied around as “loyalty” but which, in the end, is nothing more than unmitigated stupidity.

 

Abbott Reshuffle A Spectacular, Paranoid Botch

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.

 

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?