“Howard rules out Cabinet reshuffle,” headlines said after the PM appeared on the 7:30 Report last night. But did he? Look at the transcript:

KERRY O’BRIEN: There’s talk of a Cabinet reshuffle before
Christmas as you’re well aware. If that’s true you must have already
begun to consider it. Is it true and what would you seek to achieve by
a reshuffle?

JOHN HOWARD: Kerry, I’m not currently contemplating a reshuffle.

KERRY
O’BRIEN: Have you asked your Defence Minister and Senate leader Robert
Hill to consider a diplomatic appointment, as has been reported?

JOHN HOWARD: I’m not going to respond to a whole lot of speculation except to say this, that I am not contemplating a reshuffle.

Those
last words – “I am not contemplating a reshuffle” – are ambiguous, and
we know how John Howard uses language. The Prime Minister isn’t saying
that there won’t be one forced upon him, say, by Robert Hill resigning.
There is massive speculation over the Defence Minister’s future – and a
very neat scenario has already been sketched out.

His fellow
South Australian Senator, Jeannie Ferris, has had health issues.
There’s a state election in South Australia on 18 March. The state
parliament has risen and will not sit until after the poll. A casual
Senate vacancy could not be filled until the state parliament resumes,
probably April at the earliest. The SA Liberal Party is hopelessly
riven by factional divides. They are lagging hopelessly in all the
polls. A brawl over a Senate place during a campaign is the last thing
they need. Yet the Senate and the Reps will both start sitting again on 7 February next year.

So… the talk around Adelaide is that both
Hill and Ferris will go. Hill is a moderate, Ferris is from the right.
That frees up a Senate spot for both factions and avoids a brawl. The
lead candidates are already widely known – wine lobbyist and former
federal candidate Simon Birmingham from the moderates and staffer
Rebecca Rosser from the right.

If there’s a truce between
factions that looks as if it will hold, Hill and Ferris may go any time
before the Commonwealth Parliament sits again – so a new ministry can
be in place when it resumes.

“I am not contemplating a reshuffle” doesn’t mean there won’t be one.

Peter Fray

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Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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