Malcolm Turnbull’s latest ministry – his third in less than a year – was announced on Monday.
True to his promise, the PM didn’t make big personnel changes to his frontbench team. No cabinet minister lost their jobs but one, the Nationals’ talented Matt Canavan, was added. The outer ministry also remained unchanged, the only real churn happening in the Parliamentary Secretary ranks.
The real fascination was in responsibilities that were reallocated, which was the real guide to winners and losers. The Liberals’ immaculately-coiffed Vicar of Bray, Julie Bishop, remains Foreign Minister, although her talents for retail politics would be better used in a crucial domestic portfolio like Health. The ever-ambitious Christopher Pyne prised Defence Industry from the stolid Marise Payne to become Minister for Saving South Australian Coalition Seats from Nick Xenophon. Well, he is a political genius.
Kelly O’Dwyer lost Small Business, perhaps unfairly taking the rap for the Government’s poor super sell, and small business was banished from cabinet by big business’s Turnbull. Having helped make the Coalition electable in 2010 and 2013, Greg Hunt was given a fresh Industry and Innovation challenge after the slog of Environment, handing it to the effervescent Josh Frydenberg, someone whose tree-hugging tendencies mercifully are absent.
Health minister Sussan Ley, however, is the biggest cabinet winner simply because her portfolio responsibilities are unchanged. As Minister for Medicare, she was missing in action when Bill Shorten and his Mediscare ran rampant, her relations in her portfolio are poor, and the Coalition’s failure to have a coherent health policy – for the first time since Peter Shack fessed up in 1990 – gave then nothing with which to respond to Shorten’s blatant lies. Sometimes it’s good to be a woman?
Arthur Sinodinos remaining Cabinet Secretary hopefully means he can advise the underwhelming Treasurer, Scott Morrison, on matters economic. In the outer ministry, Scott Ryan was moved upwards to become Special Minister of State, putting this preternaturally psephologically-minded senator in charge of the electoral system.
This reshuffle is also a missed opportunity for merit-based renewal. After much speculation, Turnbull brought only one backbench conservative, ACT senator Zed Seselja, into the parliamentary secretary ranks. Another, Victorian MP Michael Sukkar, actually showed moaning Minnie colleagues up by winning a three per cent swing to him, was left in the cold with another conservative of note, Tony Abbott. Abbott was pointedly left to languish: presumably Turnbull drew on his own experience on and assumes former leaders in cabinet habitually leak, background against and undermine their successors.
As for other former Abbott ministers like Eric Abetz and Kevin Andrews, if they’re disappointed they were passed over, they truly are delcons. They are yesterday’s men with no way back. Abetz’s lament in a media statement that Tasmania is now bereft of ministers is a tad rich, given he manipulated that state’s one minister, Richard Colbeck, into an unwinnable position on the Senate ticket.
Abbott’s exclusion, however, also highlights the wealth of talent Turnbull left on the Coalition backbench or, like fellow Rhodes Scholar Angus Taylor, on the fringe. With an election result putting the Coalition on a knife edge, needing outstanding policy and political performances not to be overwhelmed this term by Labor and a difficult Senate of the PM’s own making, Turnbull would have been wiser to dump underperformers and bring in fresh talent right away.
After an election campaign in which just one Liberal minister, Mathias Cormann, performed outstandingly throughout, top-quality newcomer young MPs and Senators such as James Patterson, Tim Wilson, Julian Leeser, Nicolle Flint and Jane Hume can (shock, horror!) think for themselves and evade capture by Sir Humphrey, are highly-articulate and are the future.
Promoting them now would have upset far self-regarding backbench plodders with delusions of grandeur, but greatly improved the team’s overall quality for the survival challenges it faces.
This is a Ministry of Some Talent, not the needed Ministry of All the Talents.