Guest Notes

Dis-con notes

4 April 2020

9:00 AM

4 April 2020

9:00 AM

Time for a re-shuffle, Mr Morrison

Since its re-election the Morrison government has been beset by one ‘crisis’, real or confected, after another. Starting with Scott Morrison’s Hawaiian family holiday – which, whatever its rights and wrongs, was not a good look – there followed the bushfires, the long-standing drought and now the coronavirus. Meanwhile, the frenzied drumbeat of the bogus ‘climate change crisis’, since elevated to the ‘climate emergency’ fantasy, continued. Throughout, Morrison has been a rock of stability in the sea of Twitterverse ‘outrage’. However, with his attention so diverted, the Coalition has shown scant interest in policy reform. With parliament up now for some time, a breathing space exists to reflect on that deficiency.

Adventitious circumstances apart, the most obvious reason for the government’s labouring is that, while the Ministry contains many competent people, there are also many duds. Captured by their bureaucrats (think Marise Payne in foreign affairs and Linda Reynolds defending our indefensible submarine fiasco), they hang on to enjoy incomes they couldn’t earn elsewhere and in some cases to increase their parliamentary pensions on retirement. In truth, the Coalition’s back bench talent far exceeds much of its front bench’s. So, as Lenin said, what is to be done?

The key response should be a Ministerial reshuffle, dumping the duds and replacing them with talented backbenchers. That done, the new, much stronger government should turn its collective mind to potential policy reforms, of which there is no lack.

In urging a reshuffle, I accept that in forming governments Coalition prime ministers face several constraints. The Nationals first require their ‘quota’ of posts. Then there are the ‘balances’ to be observed between the House and Senate and representation from each state. Given the election outcome, this last is particularly important for Morrison. While those ‘quiet Australians’ to whom he attributed his ‘miracle’ victory played their part, that resulted much more from two other factors: the electoral unacceptability of then Opposition leader Bill Shorten, and the Coalition’s outstanding performances in Queensland (winning seats) and Western Australia (denying any Opposition wins). Keep these constraints in mind when considering the reshuffle. Now to the detail.

There are 41 Ministers, Ministers Assisting and Assistant Ministers (previously Parliamentary Secretaries) among the 111 members and senators on the Coalition side of the parliament (excluding the Speaker and Senate President). Put aside the six National party ones; that leaves 35 who are Liberals or LNP. I don’t pretend to have studied everyone, but I have studied 25 of them sufficiently to be confident of the following assessments (readers will judge for themselves).

I divide these 35 into 17 ‘Competents’, 7 ‘Duds’ and 11 ‘Don’t Knows’. Morrison apart, seven among the ‘Competents’ whom I regard as ‘Outstanding’ are, alphabetically: Senator Mathias Cormann, Peter Dutton, Josh Frydenberg, Greg Hunt, Christian Porter, Angus Taylor and Alan Tudge. The other ‘Competents’ comprise alphabetically: Senator Simon Birmingham, Michaelia Cash (barely!), David Coleman, Senator Jonathan Duniam, Alex Hawke, Michelle Landry, Ben Morton, Senator Zed Seselja and Michael Sukkar.

And the ‘Duds’? There is no kind way of answering, but names must be named. My seven (alphabetically) comprise: Paul Fletcher (NSW), Sussan Ley (NSW), Senator Marise Payne (NSW) (an ambassadorial consolation prize?), Melissa Price (WA) , Senator Linda Reynolds (WA), Senator Dan Tehan (Vic) and Ken Wyatt (WA). Of these seven, four are ‘Outstanding Duds’: Paul Fletcher, Melissa Price, Senator Dan Tehan and Ken Wyatt (a consolation prize for him also? Communing with the Maori as High Commissioner to New Zealand?).

To replace those ‘Duds’ there are actually 12 ‘Talented Backbenchers’. However, that includes Senator Eric Abetz and Kevin Andrews. Both were clearly passed over by Morrison when forming his first post-Turnbull government and I assume that, whatever his reasons then they will not have changed. My remaining 10, therefore, comprise (alphabetically): Senator David Fawcett (SA), Nicolle Flint (SA), Celia Hammond (WA), Andrew Hastie (WA), Craig Kelly (NSW), Senator James McGrath (Qld), Senator Jim Molan (NSW), Senator James Paterson (Vic), Senator Amanda Stoker (Qld) and Phillip Thompson (Qld). Since we only have seven ‘Duds’ (though those 11 ‘Don’t Knows’ may well include some more), only seven of these can (subject to that parenthetical caveat) find places. My choices therefore are: Nicolle Flint, Andrew Hastie, Craig Kelly, Senator James McGrath, Senator Jim Molan, Senator James Paterson and Senator Amanda Stoker.

How would these changes measure up to the aforementioned constraints? First, four members and three senators leave the ministry, and three members and four senators join it, so no significant change. Second, on state representation, the seven ‘Duds’ come from NSW (3), Victoria (1) and WA (3), and their replacements from NSW (2), Victoria (1), Queensland (2), WA (1) and SA (1). NSW aside (losing one), the changes would involve WA losing two representatives, Queensland gaining two, and SA gaining one. For reasons noted earlier, the Queensland gain would be desirable; as for WA, including Andrew Hastie more than makes up for losing Ken Wyatt and Melissa Price combined. If that’s not sufficiently persuasive to the Western Australians, Celia Hammond (WA) could be substituted for Nicolle Flint. Or Morrison might simply judge (after consulting with Mathias Cormann) that WA is so strong that it could bear the loss, and not worry about SA anyway. These proposals would also mean two fewer female Ministers (losing four and gaining two), which would raise the usual howls. Morrison would need to ignore them, accepting that merit should always prevail over incompetence.

A reshuffle now would catch Albo off guard. It would give new ministers time to settle in while parliament is in abeyance and underline Morrison’s strong leadership. I rest my case.

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