Laurie Oakes told Nine News viewers last night: “In the light of that,
you wonder how long Mr Abbott can continue as minister.” With
heavyweights like Oakes and constituent groups like the AMA coming down
hard against the absent Abbott, the possibility of a ministerial
reshuffle looms.

John Howard will not sack, or demote his health minister over
yesterday’s spectacular backflip. Abbott is a handy bulwark against the
leadership ambitions of Peter Costello, and the Medicare Safety Net did
its job: it helped get the government re-elected.

But there was talk earlier this year that Abbott may be looking for a
new challenge – maybe swapping health for industrial relations, as the
government moves to ramp up its IR reforms post-July. The
shredding of the Safety Net surely makes the prospect of a fresh
portfolio more appetising. Abbott’s “ironclad commitment” to sustain
the thresholds will haunt him as long as he remains health minister.

It’s not as simple as that, or course. Howard will be keen to be seen
running his own agenda, not bending to outsiders. But a window of
opportunity approaches midyear: 1 July ushers in his new domination of
the Senate, a good time for the introduction of fresh faces to the
frontbench. Waiting on the sidelines are Malcolm Turnbull and Andrew
Robb, both eager to sample the ministerial blue carpet.

Incidentally, Abbott’s shadow, Julia Gillard, is also away from the
action. She’s in the UK, presumably looking for a replacement for that
other unsustainable white elephant masquerading as a health policy –
Medicare Gold. Kim Beazley, too, would welcome a Howard reshuffle as a
chance to refresh his front bench – a desperately needed measure to
remove some of the dead wood he inherited from the Latham shadow
ministry.

Peter Fray

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