Does the ministry ‘stability’ border on stagnation?

In an effort to display stability Tony Abbott has resisted calls to reshuffle his cabinet, but that has meant keeping some deadwood from the Howard years and stifling ambitious backbenchers.

During the Howard government years, the prime minister often took the opportunity to refresh his ministry by reshuffling it just before or after the Christmas break.

When done before Christmas, the reshuffle gave new ministers time to familiarise themselves with their portfolios and reduce the chance of newbie mistakes once the Parliament resumed in February.

Reshuffles conducted in January helped give a sense of renewal without upheaval, using the dawning of the new year as a way of drawing a line under the previous year and looking ahead to new and fresh perspectives and approaches.

As we approach the end of the Abbott Government’s first full year in power, the pressure is on for PM Tony Abbott to similarly reshuffle his ministry. The PM may be pitching 2014 as a year of achievement for his Government, but ambitious backbenchers and even some restless ministers are advocating a reshuffle as a circuit breaker from the blunders and woes of 2014.

To date, Abbott has resisted calls to refresh the ministry he inherited in opposition after beating Malcolm Turnbull by one vote for the Liberal leadership. Only minimal changes have been made since that time, mostly to fill vacancies created by the retirement of MPs.

Abbott’s stated rationale for resisting wholesale change has been to provide continuity and a sense of stability. His unstated motivation has been to provide a stark comparison with the instability that wracked the Rudd and Gillard governments.

But this desire to maintain the status quo also suggests Abbott is concerned that his hold on the party room could be fragile and at risk of being fractured by the dissatisfaction that a reshuffle would inevitably produce.

In some respects it was a smart move on Abbott’s part to keep MPs with previous ministerial experience on his first frontbench. No less than 20 in Abbott’s ministry served in the last ministry of the Howard government. They were therefore familiar with how government works and had limited teething problems in taking over portfolios from their Labor predecessors.

The downside to such a cautious approach is that Abbott remains saddled with some of Howard’s deadwood, including ministers who have been decidedly uninspiring since their return to government such as Defence Minister David Johnston, Health Minister Peter Dutton, and Environment Minister Greg Hunt.

Meantime a bunch of talented backbenchers have been cooling their heels, not always containing their impatience to try new approaches and inject fresh ideas. Some of these young guns have been biding their time since being elected more than a decade ago, while others have only been in parliament for half that time.

A fair proportion of this up-and-coming talent comes from Victoria, where the federal Coalition is doing less well than in other states, and the Liberal state government recently received a drubbing thanks in no small part to badly timed and unhelpful announcements from the Abbott Government.

Even before Abbott hung the Victorian state Liberals out to dry, the young guns had been restive and agitating for change. Some of the complaints about the PM’s chief of staff, Peta Credlin, have come from these quarters.

Other calls for a reshuffle are coming from within the ministry itself, where ambitious ministers such as Scott Morrison are looking for fresh challenges and opportunities to consolidate their power.

Abbott is right, however, to be cautious about yielding to pressure for a reshuffle, and to be concerned that it could prove to be destabilising. He knows that not everyone can be satisfied with a rearrangement of the deck chairs.

Even on the conservative side of politics, ministerial positions are apportioned according to a range of factors. While it would be fair to expect only the most competent MPs to be appointed, the ministry composition must also take into account the proportion of seats held by the Liberals and Nationals, the number of seats held in each state and territory, and the sharing of ministerial positions across the Senate and the House of Representatives.

This would require Abbott having to sack or demote (which can be even more demoralising) existing ministers from Victoria in order to promote any of the young guns from that state. The same applies for ambitious MPs from any other state or territory looking to move up the ministerial hierarchy.

So even if a poorly-performing minister such as Western Australia’s David Johnston were to be counselled out the door, he would likely be replaced by another Western Australian. This is why noises are being made that it is time to tap longtime Victorian MP and Minister for Social Services, Kevin Andrews, on the shoulder.

It’s important to note that Howard usually reshuffled his ministry in the 12 months leading up to the next federal election, whereas Abbott is barely 12 months into his first term. If the PM were to follow the Howard template, he’ll have to make do with the ministry he has for another 12 months.

This of course presupposes that Abbott is still in a position to do so. It’s too early to gauge the true extent of combined party room angst over Peta Credlin’s management style and the unshuffled ministry. Ultimately, it will be a different concern – that over the Government’s poor electoral standing – that leads to the most destructive type of party room unrest.