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.

 

Is a cabinet reshuffle worth the instability?

Talk of a cabinet reshuffle is ramping up in Canberra, but is that just wishful thinking from ambitious MPs, and can the PM risk the appearance of instability by rolling senior Liberals?

Coalition MPs have woken this morning to an opinion poll that suggests voters are pretty unimpressed with the Government’s untidiness over the past week.

Today’s monthly Ipsos Poll is the first to be published since Treasurer Joe Hockey dug himself into a Sydney mortgage-sized hole over housing affordability, and the Prime Minister and his Immigration Minister couldn’t get their answers straight on whether people smugglers were paid hard cash by Australia to turn their boats back to Indonesia.

Iposos has recorded a 3 per cent drop in the Coalition’s primary vote (to 40 per cent) since last month, and an increase in Labor’s vote of 2 per cent (to 37 per cent), which after the allocation of preferences gives a two-party preferred result of 53:47 in Labor’s favour. Ipsos’s post-budget poll found the major parties to be at 50:50, and this latest poll brings it into line with the other published pollsters Roy Morgan(53:47), Newspoll (52:48), and Essential (52:48).

Whether or not these other polls will show a similar deterioration in the Government’s position when they are revealed in coming days, it’s fair to say voters don’t like it when ministers look incompetent. And while Treasurer Hockey might have kept it together for the initial salesmanship of this year’s budget, he’s been all over the place since then.

Even setting aside the mishandling of changes to paid parental leave by suggesting new mothers were rorters and frauds, Hockey has reverted to the Sloppy Joe of old, making up tax policy on the runcasting doubt on the PM’s iron-clad commitment not to tamper with superannuation, and opening up a debate on housing affordability that the Government really could have done without.

According to today’s Ipsos poll, 69 per cent of voters living in capital cities say homes in their area are unaffordable for first-time buyers. This amount increases to 80 per cent for Sydney-based respondents.

While the Treasurer hasn’t yet resorted to complaining about his lot, as he did last year when things got tough, his position is again being eyed by the more ambitious and impatient among his parliamentary colleagues.

Talk has already emerged about a possible ministerial reshuffle prior to next year’s federal election. However, just like the last time such talk surfaced in the media, this is more likely the work of ambitious MPs pressuring for change and jostling for positions than the PM flagging his intentions.

The fate of wholly-unimpressive Attorney-General, George Brandis, has been placed in the media’s sights by at least one anonymous backgrounder, while the extended absence of Government Senate Leader Eric Abetz to deal with a family matter has prompted others to suggest Finance Minister Mathias Cormann should be placed in the leadership role.

According to one commentator, “Abbott had always planned a big reshuffle in the second half of 2015, to take a fresh team into the 2016 election.” But that statement is more likely the wishful thinking of an over-looked backbencher than a reflection of Abbott’s current thinking, particularly considering the PM essentially brought forward the traditional pre-election ministry reshuffle to the end of last year.

Whatever the Prime Minister ultimately does about his ministry, the move will be inextricably linked with the state of his leadership within the Liberal Party. The hardliners within the party are reasserting their dominance, having seen off the leadership hopeful Malcolm Turnbull at the failed party room spill in February, and split the Turnbull-Bishop dream-team vote by cultivating the Foreign Minister’s own leadership aspirations.

Meantime, the hard-right’s heir apparent, Scott Morrison, has essentially swung in behind Abbott to bolster the PM’s position on two of the right’s emblematic issues: national security and same-sex marriage. The former Immigration Minister publicly backed the national security proposal, which divided Cabinet but has strong backbench and community support, to strip Australian citizenship from sole nationals who were found to be terrorists. As a possible alternative, Morrison also proposed suspending their residence rights rather than cancelling sole nationals’ citizenship altogether.

In doing so Morrison has clearly set himself apart from the Turnbull-Bishop “legal eagles” on the matter, and aligned himself with the majority of the backbench and the populace. He has also differentiated himself from Turnbull on gay marriage, an issue the hardliners are reportedly claiming could destroy Abbott’s leadership if he allows a free vote. Interestingly, Bishop has not yet declared her hand on the matter, although she has said in the past she’d consult her electorate if Liberal MPs were given a free vote on legislation to legalise gay marriage.

It’s hard to see how the pragmatists in the Liberal right would tear down a prime minister on an issue that has such strong support in the community, even if there are claims the Coalition could lose Senate seatsif it stops resisting the change.

Focus group research conducted last month showed that voters take a dim view of political instability. Given the choice between Turnbull, Bishop or Abbott, “Abbott is a long way last,” according to the market researcher who conducted the focus groups, Tony Mitchelmore. But if asked whether they wanted Turnbull, Bishop or stability, then “stability wins”.

This antipathy for government sloppiness and instability will be driven home as the televising of The Killing Season reminds voters that this was what they most despised about the Rudd-Gillard years.

Today’s opinion poll results are sure to cause anxiety in Government ranks, and throw fuel on the smouldering ambitions of ministerial and leadership aspirants.

But if there is anything to be learned from the poll dip, to the extent that there is one outside the margin of error, it is that voters want stable government. Any thought of throwing out an accident-prone Treasurer, who has privately threatened to cause havoc if demoted, must be carefully weighed against the public perceiving the Government as not being able to keep its house in order.

Ministry reshuffle built on paranoia not progress

Tony Abbott’s ministry reshuffle may appear to be a reset in preparation for 2015, but in reality it is more about the PM’s paranoia and tenuous leadership than it is about his Government’s rejuvenation.

A full 12 months earlier than it’s customary to do so, Tony Abbott has reshuffled his ministry. This is what governments usually do one year out from an election to prove they’re not stuck in a rut but capable of the regeneration that brings vigour and fresh ideas.

PM Abbott brought the activity forward a year as part of his attempt to scrape off the Government’s barnacles before Australian voters turn their attention to the beach and the barbie.

The move finally brought to an end the PM’s insistence that the ministry’s continuity was necessary to create a sense of political stability, a stubbornness demonstrated by 20 members of Abbott’s ministry having served in the last ministry of the Howard government.

The most intriguing thing about the reshuffle is not Abbott’s belated recognition of the need to do it, but his concession to the demands of critics while handing poisoned chalices to dud ministers and potential competitors.

The young guns in the Victorian Liberal MPs have essentially been rewarded for their years of agitation and complaint about having to cool their heels on the backbench. This group is responsible for a proportion of the grumbles about the PM’s chief of staff Peta Credlin, particularly her reported resistance to an early reshuffle.

While it could be argued that NSW Liberals benefited most from the reshuffle by getting another MP into Cabinet, they also lost a spot in the outer ministry with the resignation of stood-aside Assistant Treasurer Arthur Sinodinos. In fact, the Victorian young guns gained more than any other state, with two of their MPs being promoted.

Victorian MP Josh Frydenberg was elevated from parliamentary secretary to Assistant Treasurer, while his Victorian colleague Kelly O’Dwyer was brought from the backbench to the rank of parliamentary secretary. In doing so, the PM has made considerable concessions to the ambitious Victorians, even going so far as to make Frydenberg Assistant Treasurer instead of Hockey’s preferred candidate, the Queenslander Steve Ciobo.

Whether this will be enough to quell the Victorians’ noisy agitation over Credlin is yet to be seen.

Many of the other ministerial changes are better understood if viewed through the lens of Abbott’s leadership.

While the PM made no changes to the stellar Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s portfolio, he did remove her friend and ally, the poorly performing David Johnston, from Cabinet. That leaves Bishop with only one Western Australian colleague, Mathias Cormann, at the big table.

No changes were made to Turnbull’s portfolio either, suggesting Abbott is content with leaving the former Liberal leader to disappoint his progressive fan-base with the Government’s cut-rate NBN.

And then there is Scott Morrison’s promotion from Immigration and Border Protection to a revamped Social Services portfolio, which the PM says is essentially a ministry for economic participation. Morrison is also tasked with producing a holistic families package that Abbott described as being “an important part of our political and economic agenda in the first half of next year”.

Political commentators are calling this a big win for Morrison, who is keen to broaden his experience with an economic portfolio, thereby strengthening his leadership credentials. But a closer look at the appointment does not bear out this interpretation.

Much of Morrison’s success in the Immigration portfolio was built on the Australian community’s antipathy for asylum seekers. His willingness to do whatever it took, and unwillingness to talk about it, essentially gave Australian voters permission to turn a blind eye to the human cost of border protection while giving him kudos for “solving” the asylum seeker issue.

However, Morrison will not be able to deploy the same tactics in Social Services. While asylum seekers are for most voters a distant concept, pretty much everyone knows someone who is dependent on the welfare system. As a result, the impacts of welfare reform are seen, felt and known, and there will be no glory for Morrison having “stopped the dole” in the way he “stopped the boats”.

It’s therefore likely Morrison’s promotion is a poisoned chalice, and a way for Abbott to push through one of his toughest reform agendas while also reducing the appeal of one of his competitors.

Curiously, Morrison was not the only minister to receive a dubious and potentially career-limited promotion in the reshuffle.

Kevin Andrews’ move to Defence will likely see him begging to be let go by the next election, for the Department is known for chewing up and spitting out their civilian “masters”. The future doesn’t look particularly rosy for former Health Minister Peter Dutton either. Dutton may be a retired policeman but it’s difficult to see him bring the same steely resolve that served Morrison so well in the Immigration and Border Protection portfolio.

And then there is the welcome appointment of NSW’s Sussan Ley to Cabinet, thereby doubling the number of women to two. Clearly the representation of women in the Cabinet is unacceptably low, and not due so much to a lack of merit as the arcane balance of states, factions, and parties that make up the Coalition’s ministry. Abbott at least did the right thing in appointing two more women as parliamentary secretaries, so they can become ministers-in-training.

Prime ministers usually reshuffle their ministry to provide a fresh aspect on their government while hopefully also evoking a sense of stability through the regeneration. But with one or two exceptions, like the promotion of Ley, Abbott’s reshuffle is characterised by concessions to antagonists, throwing competitors in the deep end, and leaving the deadwood to atrophy.

Abbott’s reshuffle may superficially appear to be a reset in preparation for 2015, but in reality it is more about the PM’s paranoia and tenuous leadership than it is about his Government’s rejuvenation.