A tale of two reshuffles

So here we are, only three weeks after an election at which voters made it clear we’d grown tired of the major parties and their shenanigans. And yet the silly political games continue.

A record 23 per cent of Australians voted for candidates from non-major parties this election. Instead of recognising this voting trend as an existential threat, both the Coalition and Labor have claimed a victory of sorts from the result, and are now squabbling over the spoils of office.

First it was the arch conservatives in the Liberal Party, demanding their man Tony Abbott be returned to the cabinet to legitimise their cloistered views on what should be the Government’s priorities.

The PM treated this call with the scorn it deserved, particularly given he’d already appointed the most talented conservatives to the ministry when he became Liberal leader last year. However Mr Turnbull did not snub the right entirely, using a vacancy in the lower ranks to promote rising conservative star Zed Seselja.

As we mentioned last week, the PM’s bigger challenge was to accommodate another two ministers from the Nationals in light of the junior party’s better performance at the election. Mr Turnbull took the easy way out of this conundrum, choosing to increase the number of ministers in the cabinet rather than demote one of the Liberals.

Clearly the PM was unwilling to risk taking away the prestige and perks of higher office from the very same Liberal MPs who he may one day have to ask to support him again in a leadership tussle.

After the new ministry was sworn in on Tuesday, Mr Turnbull may have thought he’d gotten away with managing the competing interests within the Coalition.

But no, according to a media report on Friday, the particularly idiosyncratic collection of Queensland MPs known as the Liberal National Party belatedly decided they had not been allocated enough goodies from the cookie jar during the ministerial reshuffle.

The LNP is an amalgamation of the Liberal and National parties that exists only in Queensland. It’s officially the Queensland Division of the Liberal Party but also associated with the Nationals, meaning some federal LNP MPs sit with the Libs and others with the Nats when in Canberra.

The LNP MPs’ reported solution to the apparently graceful rebuff from the PM was to propose leaving the Liberal Party to form a separate party so they could supposedly lay claim to more seats in the ministry.

This is a politically delicate situation – the LNP federal MPs who sit with the Libs get a vote when the Liberal party room elects the leader and so are important to Mr Turnbull. And Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce depends on the LNP MPs who sit with his party to bolster their numbers in the Government as well as claims to the frontbench.

So it’s no surprise the move by the LNP to claim more seats on the ministerial gravy train was quickly nipped in the bud by Mr Joyce and the LNP’s most senior office holder, Senator George Brandis.

Ordinarily, Opposition leader Bill Shorten would seek to exploit such an outbreak of tensions within the Coalition, perhaps even holding a press conference to denounce the unseemly spectacle of MPs grimly defending their place at the trough while more deserving colleagues miss out.

But the Labor leader remained quiet on the Coalition’s travails.

Unlike the Liberal and National parties, Labor’s factions determine which MPs will be in the ministry. Having been presented with the list of chosen MPs, it is simply the Labor leader’s task to allocate the portfolios to those honoured by their factions with the sinecure.

But this week the Opposition leader had to deal with his own civil revolt. Labor MPs had also been brawling over who was more entitled to the pay boost and title that comes with being a “shadow” minister.

Mr Shorten is, if nothing else, a faction man. While he once wielded the numbers to depose Kevin Rudd and then Julia Gillard, the Labor leader has become deeply dependent on other factional warlords to wrangle the votes, such as those needed to beat Anthony Albanese for the Labor leadership or stymie the left’s attempts to embarrass him at national conference.

The man Mr Shorten is most beholden to in this respect is Senator Kim Carr, whose Victorian left faction abandoned him to make room for new talent on the frontbench. Senator Carr has been a minister or shadow minister almost continuously since his first appointment in 2001, except for a short period early in 2013 after Kevin Rudd’s non-leadership coup.

Like Mr Turnbull, Mr Shorten took the path of least resistance in order to protect (the protector of) his numbers. Instead of prevailing on a supporter who’d already had a good innings to move on for fresh blood (as Mr Turnbull did with Ian Macfarlane last year but failed to do this week), Mr Shorten increased the ministry from the legislated limit of 30 to 32 to make room for Senator Carr.

This means two Labor MPs will be shadow ministers in name only, and will not receive the $40,000 pay rise that normally comes with the title.

One of these MPs is Sam Dastyari, the Miley Cyrus of Australian politics who would probably do his job for nothing as long as it meant keeping his high profile with the media. Senator Dastyari is also a factional powerbroker from the NSW right, so he must have seen strategic value in getting promoted to a phantom ministry.

Then there is Andrew Leigh, a shadow minister in Mr Shorten’s previous frontbench who will now have the pleasure of performing a similar role but with a hefty pay cut.

It goes without saying that Dr Leigh is considerably more credentialed than most of his Labor colleagues, but the former professor of economics is also factionally-unaligned and therefore in no position to complain. One anonymous Labor source reinforced this point to the media on Friday, saying Dr Leigh should be grateful he was still in the ministry given “he’s only got one vote”.

What will voters make of this behaviour from Australia’s only two parties of government?

Coalition and Labor MPs should treat their re-election as the honour that it is, behaving in a way that acknowledges the privilege of serving the voters of Australia.

Instead we’ve been treated to a week of tantrums, grand-standing and horse-trading. This is exactly the type of entitled behaviour that enrages voters and drives us away.

This originally appeared at The New Daily.


Turnbull is a leader besieged on all sides

With the election hanging in the balance, it is difficult to see a safe path for Malcolm Turnbull to navigate through the minefield that he alone has created.

On election night, Bill Shorten delivered the line that will haunt the rest of Malcolm Turnbull’s time as Prime Minister, however short or long that time proves to be.

“Three years after the Liberals came to power in a landslide,” crowed the Labor Leader, “they have lost their mandate.”

While this is true more generally of the Coalition, it is even more applicable to Turnbull.

If this election was about anything, it was about securing Turnbull’s authority; not only a mandate to pass his more contentious policies, but also to legitimise Turnbull’s replacement of Tony Abbott as Liberal leader.

Now Turnbull must do what he can without either. If he manages to form a majority or minority government, the presumptive PM faces a future filled with obstructionism and pamphleteering from Labor and the crossbench parties in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Labor took the Faustian decision in the final fortnight of the election campaign to embrace the devastating power of Abbott-like negativity using faux facts, and found that it liked it very much. The Mediscare campaign is now being credited (along with the ousting of Abbott) as the reason western Sydney turned on Coalition MPs.

We can expect more such Abbott-like tactics from Labor if it continues as the Opposition.

During the previous parliament, the Coalition was able to work around a similarly obstructionist Labor by doing deals with the newly pragmatic Greens. It is unclear at this point whether the Greens will again be prepared to be amenable to a returned Turnbull Government.

Accordingly, Turnbull will be forced to play to the whims of an even larger Senate crossbench than before the election. It will be weeks until the final numbers in the Senate are known, but early indications suggest the Coalition has 30 senate seats, Labor 27 and the Greens nine, meaning a Coalition Government would need nine of the 10 crossbenchers to pass legislation.

Turnbull will likely be beholden not only to the protectionist demands of Nick Xenophon, but also to Fred Nile’s Christian Democrats, the anti-paedophilia crusader Derryn Hinch, and the xenophobes Jacqui Lambie and Pauline Hanson.

Conversely, Labor combined with the Greens would need only three other votes to block government legislation – although, beyond the NXT senators, it is difficult to see three others whose votes Labor and the Greens would be willing to accept.

This spells the end of Turnbull’s “plan for jobs and growth”, given Labor will support corporate tax cuts only for the smallest of businesses. Then again, Labor in Opposition may become born again fiscal conservatives, belatedly seeing the merit in preventing increased government spending (as long as it is Coalition government spending that is stopped), and causing even further grief for the PM.

Legislation to facilitate the plebiscite on same-sex marriage would also be doomed, with nine supporters of same-sex marriage (let alone the plebiscite) difficult to find within the predominantly conservative crossbench.

Of course Turnbull’s conservative problem is much closer to home than the Senate crossbench. Nothing short of an increased Coalition majority would have satisfied the conservative rump within the Liberal Party and the commentariat that the Turnbull experiment justified the knifing of Abbott.

The former PM made a point of staying above the ground war waged by his supporters against Turnbull, leaving the heavy lifting to his former chief of staff, Peta Credlin, and other right-wing commentators on Sky News and in the Murdoch press.

These forces were gearing up to fight a modestly-returned Turnbull on superannuation and the same-sex marriage plebiscite. They would have had to respect Turnbull’s mandate but still make him fight for his signature policies.

But as the results came in on election night, their disgruntlement turned to fury, setting off a round of recriminations that likely will not subside completely until Turnbull is replaced.

It is difficult to see a safe path for Turnbull to navigate through the minefield that he alone has created. Returning Abbott to Cabinet would simply provide the former PM with a stronger platform from which to build community and party room support. Julia Gillard made this mistake with Kevin Rudd, as did Abbott with Turnbull.

However, leaving Abbott on the backbench allows him to speak more freely than a Cabinet minister could, and gives him the time to duchesse the MPs who abandoned him for Turnbull and may now be experiencing buyers’ remorse.

Either way, the authority Turnbull needed to get contentious measures through the party room is seriously if not fatally diminished. Perhaps the only way he could get anything through both the party room and the Senate would be to pander to the conservatives in both. In effect, to become Abbott in a nicer suit.

Such a transition would put an end, once and for all, to the hope progressives and centrists once vested in Turnbull to be a truly liberal Prime Minister. But it might just be enough to win back the Liberal base.

It would mean selling his soul to the conservatives, but such a sacrifice might be the only way Turnbull can regain the mandate he threw away on election night.