Defence Minister Robert Hill is “expected to announce his resignation from
politics within days, possibly tomorrow,” the Adelaide Advertiserreports today.

Combine that with the
hyping of the PM’s National Press Club speech next Wednesday
and you have a very interesting mix.

We’re a few weeks
short of marking the tenth anniversary of the election of the Howard
Government. This is a time for
consolidation. For renewal. For absolutely anything that dispels the impression
that the Government or the man who leads it is tired.

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That means it’s time
for a major reshuffle – and the departure of Hill, the leader of the Liberal
Party in the Senate since 1990, would provide the perfect opportunity.

The deputy leader in
the Senate, Nick Minchin, would move up a place on the red leather benches –
but don’t take it as a given that he will succeed Hill in Defence.

For all his hard-right
rhetoric – libertarian at times – Minchin has been a wimp as Finance Minister,
a key collaborator in the PM’s tax and bribe approach to government.

As Britain approached sclerosis in the 1970s, the term
“Spanish practices” came into use to describe illogical, inefficient workplace
arrangements. The public service remains full of them – and multiply the public
service’s problems by ten, add a veneer of God knows how many years of
absurdity described as military tradition and you have the money pit that is
Defence.

The department needs a
hard head. Tony Abbott?

The logical frontbench
replacement from South Australia is Hill’s fellow moderate, Christopher Pyne.

That would also let
the PM make another South Australian, David Fawcett,
a parliamentary secretary. Fawcett is a first-term MP in a marginal seat who
has caught the PM’s eye and shown some ability with media – just the sort of
person the Prime Minister likes to reward and assist with extra staff, resources
and profile.

It’s harder to tell
which Senator might be promoted to the Ministry. All the obvious contenders –
George Brandis, Brett Mason, Mitch Fifield and Michael Ronaldson – are, like
Pyne, wholly-owned subsidiaries of Peter Costello’s.

In all the talk over
Malcolm Turnbull and Andrew Robb, it’s been odd that no-one’s mentioned the
idea of making Robb environment minister – a logical choice, after his genius
wrapping up the Telstra sale in the green cloak of the Natural Heritage Trust
as federal director back in 1996, a move that even got Wilderness Society
support.

There are a mess of
mediocrities on the outer fringes of the Ministry in the lower house who
deserve to be dumped – John Cobb, Fran Bailey and Jim Lloyd leap to mind
immediately. Sharman Stone, Greg Hunt, Bruce Billson and – if she promises to
play nicely – Sophie Panopoulos are all serious contenders for promotion.

The AWB scandal,
however, may have restricted the PM’s options.

If he’s staying, it makes sense to give the
Treasurer some fresh fields. Foreign Affairs is about the only portfolio that
wouldn’t be a demotion. Swapping Peter Costello and Alexander Downer would also
encourage creative tensions in the Government, since Downer still very much
sees himself as a contender.

Will this look like an admission that
things have gone badly wrong on Downer’s watch?

Or will he stick with the Admiral Fisher maxim – never apologise, never explain.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief
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