With a number of his MPs retiring (more or less willingly) at next
year’s election, it made sense for Victorian Liberal leader Robert
Doyle to reshuffle his shadow ministry.
And it made sense to do it just before Christmas, so that people would
have time to settle into their new jobs. But the changes he announced
yesterday have just added to speculation about Doyle’s uncertain future.

Some background explanation first. After the last Victorian election,
there were so few Liberal MPs remaining (32, since reduced by one with
the expulsion of Andrew Olexander) that Doyle decided to give them all
jobs. Sixteen of them constituted the shadow ministry (plus Andrew
Brideson as secretary); the rest had portfolios as spokespeople for
various things but were not part of the front bench.

Yesterday’s reshuffle dropped from portfolio responsibilities all the
MPs who won’t be contesting November’s election. That created two
vacancies in the shadow ministry, and Doyle has increased its size by
one, adding Bruce Atkinson, Martin Dixon and Gordon Rich-Phillips.

The three new shadow ministers would be lucky to muster 10% public
recognition between them. Conspicuously absent from the list is
corrections spokesperson Richard Dalla-Riva, who also loses his
scrutiny of government role. Dalla-Riva is no Einstein, but he has been
a hard worker and would be an obvious candidate for a frontbench role
were it not for the fact that he is one of the most active of the
anti-Doyle members.

There has also been some reallocation of portfolios. Most of the senior
frontbenchers – including potential leadership challenger Ted Baillieu
– retain their old jobs, but another prominent Doyle opponent, David
Davis, has been moved from health to environment. Winners from the
reshuffle include Helen Shardey (who takes health), Philip Davis (state
development) and deputy leader and figure of fun Phil Honeywood
(scrutiny of government).

This morning’s papers portray it as an attempt by Doyle to sideline two of his enemies. The Australian
quotes a “party insider” saying “both David and Richard have been sent
to purgatory until after the next election,” while anti-Doyle sources
have told The Age
that “the preselectors had rewarded Mr Davis and Mr Dalla-Riva based on
merit, but Mr Doyle had punished them based on ‘factional payback’.”

Like most such moves, it risks backfiring. The Australian says
Doyle must worry that “the two will turn their attention to unseating
him rather than attacking the Bracks Government”, but he obviously
believes that they were doing that anyway. Either way, pressure will
now mount on Baillieu to launch a challenge in the first half of next
year.

Peter Fray

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