Guest Notes

Australian notes

20 February 2016

9:00 AM

20 February 2016

9:00 AM

This is the last reshuffle before the election, we promise. No more resignations, no more scandals, no more inter-party warfare. This is the team. Well, Malcolm Turnbull hopes so.

The start to the parliamentary year has been nothing less than a complete and utter shambles for the Government. It was bad enough that a bumpy summer gap had left the Prime Minister minus two ministers, Jamie Briggs and Mal Brough, but then Stuart Robert popped up. Robert was generally considered to be an up-and-comer: a good media performer, mates (well, roommates actually) with Treasurer Scott Morrison, a nice meaty portfolio with Human Services and Veterans’ Affairs. But then we learned that on his very personal, totally casual, 2014 holiday, he found himself at a mining deal between the company owned by a Liberal Party donor and a firm which belonged to the Chinese government. Oh and he had shares in that Aussie company. Now, yes, the PM’s decision to review all this through the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet was all good and proper and very much in the nice tradition of ‘I’m the new, lovely Malcolm and I talk to everyone and their granny before I actually make a decision’. But the Government’s actual handling of the Roberts affair was worse than poor. It was pretty clear he had breached ministerial standards from the outset. Attempts to ignore this in Parliament gave Labor a chance to shine (Mark Dreyfus, the shadow Attorney General performed particularly well and, oh, Bill Shorten showed the mouse could roar). Some Turnbull backers – Cabinet Secretary Arthur Sinodinos among them – lay blame at the feet of Tony Abbott and Peta Credlin for signing off on Robert’s holiday. But it was later made clear that the Abbott office were told nothing about Robert’s commercial endeveours when his permission for leave documents surfaced. Those very documents somehow found their way from the old Abbott office to the desk of the Leader of the Opposition, who was quoting the document numbers and pages with glee. Are there Rudd-Gillard levels of toxicity in the coalition? No, but they’re not far off. The wounds aren’t healing as fast as everyone would like and pressure on Turnbull to do something big and bold and stray from his narrow path will only rile up the combatants more. And if poll numbers drop any further (as they did in the recent Fairfax/Ipsos poll) then, oh boy, we’re in for fireworks. And the departure of two wise men – however expected – was a blow. Warren Truss is no firecracker of a politician but he’s led the National Party steadily during a tumultuous period. And Andrew Robb is the best minister in this government (sorry Best Minister in the World, Greg Hunt). Four historic trade deals stitched up, one with India on the way slowly but surely. And for anyone close to mental health issues, Robb’s professional triumph despite his depression makes him a beacon of hope for thousands of Australians.

But to be fair to the PM, the reshuffle he didn’t want is looking like the reshuffle he should have had in the first place. High achievers Dan Tehan and Angus Taylor have at last been put in the ministry, two young Abbott backers with big policy brains and media talent to boot. The hard right senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells was rewarded for her stellar work in multicultural affairs (and perhaps spared from a preselection nightmare). And Queenslander Steve Ciobo is finally in cabinet after a long apprenticeship, taking on Trade and Andrew Robb’s formidable legacy. Of course, the Nationals have ridden into town triumphant. Fiona Nash – who had a shaky start in Rural Health – is now deputy leader and takes a super-regional portfolio. The popular Darren Chester jumps into Warren Truss’s old job of transport and infrastructure (a huge winner from this reshuffle).

And then there’s Barnaby. Barnaby Deputy PM, Malcolm PM. It’s like a game of fantasy cabinet come true. There may not be two politicians in any political coalition anywhere more different in background and world-view and temperament than the Prince of Point Piper and this Wild Man of the New England Bush. But this pairing demonstrates the great strength of the Coalition which must be treasured above all else. The Coalition is still the big tent of Australian politics: it represents the widest range of philosophies and backgrounds of any party and can truly claim to govern for a diverse Australia. To limit its wide appeal as the Labor Party has done to itself in recent years would be deadly. Mal and Barn may be an odd couple but that could result in some magic. The summer has been a shocker but it’s not over yet. The chances of a shock Labor win at the next election are still slim. But this reshuffle has presented both a warning and an opportunity to the Prime Minister. It has shown that the leadership divisions are still there, that his first reshuffle had its errors in judgement and also exposed the lack of any real depth policy-wise in his government. If we hadn’t been talking about Stuart Robert and the reshuffle, what would we be talking about? A tax plan that doesn’t exist?

Turnbull – like his centrist buddies Angela Merkel and David Cameron and even the ever-faltering Hillary Clinton – is facing the accusation that he might be a very good pilot as long you don’t care where the plane lands. Turnbull has not used his political capital to take any really big gambles. He needs to act, he needs to excite us, he just needs to do something that makes us understand what the point of a Turnbull Government is. The do-nothing tag is settling in and the PM can’t afford another fortnight like this. With the two party-preferred divide tightening but Turnbull still miles ahead as preferred PM, his biggest nightmare must be leading a weak government against a Labor leader who isn’t Shorten, one who actually stands for something.It’s still a long way off but Turnbull has to hope this reshuffle will keep those Plibersek and Albanese-shaped demons at bay.

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