For what was already a fairly right-wing shadow ministry, Tony Abbott shifted it a couple of paces further to the right yesterday, and entrenched two remarkable conflicts of interest that have gone under the radar in the past nine months.
The clearest winners are a clutch of hard Right up-and-comers such as Mathias Cormann, who comes into the ministry, and Michaelia Cash, elevated to a Parliamentary Secretaryship. The vapid burqa-banner Cory Bernardi continues as Abbott’s own Parliamentary Secretary. And far from euthanasing the career of Bronwyn Bishop, Abbott has promoted her by giving her Special Minister of State.
Moderates have had mixed success. Sussan Ley has been given two junior ministries. But the gifted Simon Birmingham has been confined to the ranks of Parliamentary Secretary. The sensible, moderate Steve Ciobo, in a particularly shabby act by Abbott, has been punished a second time for being a Turnbull supporter — he was initially demoted to Tourism by Abbott and has now been sacked from the ministry altogether. Sharman Stone, too, has been sent packing. Key Turnbull backer Michael Ronaldson has also been punished a second time — demoted out of shadow cabinet initially by Abbott, he’s now been dumped in Veteran’s Affairs.
There’s merit, though, in Mitch Fifield finally getting a gig, and while Jamie Briggs should have got something much better than Guy Barnett’s old “waste watch” job (courtesy of the rout of the Liberals in Tasmania on 21 August, Barnett won’t be joining us for the rest of his career), it’s a start. On the other hand, Kelly O’Dwyer and Paul Fletcher might be wondering how deep the Liberals’ commitment to generational change really is, particularly when Teresa Gambaro comes straight back onto the frontbench.
So a step to the right, backers of the former leader punished, a hint of merit — throw in the return of an ex-leader and it’s rather a lot like Julia Gillard’s new ministry.
Barnaby Joyce will continue in the role of Regional Development, Local Government and Water (Birmingham, for his sins, will continue as Parliamentary Secretary for the MDB under Joyce). Joyce is deeply conflicted in relation to water and should not under any circumstances have ministerial responsibility for the issue. He is virtually the senator for Cubbie Station, a long-term advocate of Cubbie, its rapacious approach to water management and its backers. So strongly committed to Cubbie is Joyce that in October last year he called a press conference in Parliament House to launch an attack on Bill Heffernan and Nick Xenophon, emotionally accusing them of being responsible for the Station’s financial problems (Heffernan was so angered by the attack he went down to a Nationals’ function looking for Joyce to confront him).
Joyce has also agreed to being flown by Murray Irrigation, revealing in June this year via the Pecuniary Interests Register that he had accepted flights from Australia’s largest private irrigation company in May. He did this while Murray was being pursued by the ACCC over its imposition of termination fees on customers who wanted to sell their water rights, which shortly afterward led to Murray agreeing to an enforceable undertaking to stop the practice.
Another shadow minister with a significant conflict of interest is Kevin Andrews, a man whose record as both minister and shadow minister is unblighted by evidence of talent. Shortly after the reshuffle, Andrews rushed out a press release boasting of his expanded portfolio of Families, Housing and Human Services. Andrews and his wife are hardline Catholic marriage counsellors (his wife has long edited the Catholic marriage journal Threshold) and Andrews maintains his membership of Catholic bodies such as Marriage Education and the Australian Catholic Marriage and Family Council, putting him in a hopelessly conflicted position in the event the Coalition should attain government and Andrews has responsibility for the Family portfolio and funding for family services.
Neither Andrews nor Joyce, whose nine-month career as a shadow minister has been serially maladroit, should be on the Liberal frontbench when backbenchers of quality are twiddling their thumbs. But under no interpretation of the basic notion of conflict should they hold their current roles, given the Coalition is only two seats away from government.