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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.