Last year I was invited to a private fundraising dinner for a backbench Liberal senator featuring then minister for employment, Michaelia Cash. I was happy to be touched $500 to support the senator and the greater Liberal cause, and in so doing have an opportunity to get a close look at a senior Cabinet minister.
I left totally unimpressed by Cash. The industrial relations insiders who attended certainly got her time and attention. But in me and another supporter who coughed up but were not part of her portfolio constituency, she was uninterested. She completely blanked me. Indeed, on her arrival one could see her eyes looking around the room: who are these people, what do they want and, above all, do they matter to me? Loyalty to the greater cause counted for nothing: what benefited her was what mattered.
At least the meal itself was of a quality worthy of the price. And it wasn’t the first time my going to dinner with a woman was a waste of my time and money.
Getting blanked didn’t bother me, I was simply there as a Liberal supporter with a modest chequebook. But as an insight into the minister’s character and motivations, it was instructive. I’ve been at similar events with other Coalition frontbenchers, and in my time as an adviser accompanied my then minister, Tony Abbott, to more than a few. Indeed, Abbott excelled at them. Whatever you may think of Abbott, he understood that people don’t come to these events for the fun of it, that everyone attending deserved something of his time and attention, and he made a point of engaging everyone present either around the table, or in conversation. Even people who weren’t Abbott admirers gave him his due, and in return he gathered useful political intelligence from his conversations and interactions.
Cash, on the other hand, treated it as graciously granting an audience with her, that she was only there on sufferance. She left at the earliest opportunity. A skilled politician, like Abbott, may feel exactly the same about these political frontbench chores but at least makes an effort to mask his feelings. They know that in their business good impressions matter, and you never know when someone you meet may do you a needed good turn. That night she allowed me to conclude she had an exaggerated sense of her own worth, and a tin ear politically.
Cash’s self-inflicted wounds this week, therefore, were unsurprising to me. She may have been goaded by Labor’s Glasgow kisser, Doug Cameron, but her un-called for and utterly unwise attack on Bill Shorten’s staffers was pointlessly vicious and totally unnecessary. That her antics derailed her team’s attempts to regroup after the Barnaby Joyce fiasco, putting Bill Shorten on the spot over his declared interests and his weathervaneing on Adani and coal, added insult to the Coalition’s injury and cost them any momentum from putting the Joyce mess behind them. The added farce of Parliament House staff screening her arrival at a later Estimates hearing by concealing her behind a rolling whiteboard deserved every ounce of derision it got.
The Prime Minister’s question time Gillard-esque defence of Cash as a woman ‘bullied’ by Cameron was as absurd as it was wrong. A good cabinet minister stays above the fray and doesn’t take the bait of an attack dog and gutter-dweller. If an insignificant grub like Cameron drives Cash to impetuous stupidity, God help us if she’s ever in the hot seat in a real crisis.
But gender politics (mis)applies here. The only thing keeping Cash in post after this is that she’s a woman. A male minister making the same comments, with the same venom, would have been punted from the Min Wing within the hour. Cash’s conduct this week reinforces how her net contribution to the government since her elevation to Cabinet in September 2015’s Turnbull coup has been negative – her abysmal handling of media tip-offs of a raid on CFMEU offices last year was a big black mark on her judgment, not least in the way she cast her staff to the wolves to protect herself. The fact the Turnbull government that called a double dissolution on industrial relations – her then portfolio – has all but vacated the IR policy field doesn’t speak well for her as being a compelling figure around the Cabinet table. This week’s performance simply confirmed Cash as an ongoing liability for the Coalition, and a gleeful Labor won’t forget it, however retchingly hypocritical an insincere their sanctimoniousness over Cash’s thoughtless remarks.
Had Michaelia Cash been a man she would not have survived last December’s ministerial reshuffle after the CFMEU raid balls-up, and no one would have blinked. But survived she did. Well, that’s turned out well, hasn’t it?
Illustration: ABC Television/YouTube.
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