The first gallery hack to stand up at the National Press Club today and throw John Howard a question after his speech could do worse than to ask: “Your reshuffle appears to be very clever politics, once again, Prime Minister. Amazingly, you’ve locked out Peter Costello’s supporters with barely a murmur of dissent – have you made a deal with the Treasurer that he wait just a little longer in return for a smooth transfer to The Lodge before the next election?”
At first glance, yesterday’s ministerial reshuffle is a slap in the face to the Costello forces. Apart from Julie Bishop’s promotion to Cabinet – which everyone was tipping and can’t be seen as part of the leadership mix – none of Costello’s footsoldiers, people like George Brandis, Christopher Pyne, Brett Mason et al, got a look in.
Yet none of the Costello camp is agitating – or has been, recently. If this reshuffle was really an attempt to shore up Howard for the long(er) haul, there would be snippets of dissent and yet, there aren’t any. So far, the only Coalition members getting upset, very understandably, are the Nationals.
That smells of either extraordinary discipline from Costello and his disciples who now, on the face of it, must wait until 2008 at the earliest for Howard to go. Or it smacks of a deal; an understanding brokered between Howard and Costello over the quiet weeks of Christmas and the New Year that Costello will bide his time, in return for an orderly transfer of power at an agreed time.
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An agreement that there will be room for Costello to promote his supporters when he takes over, in return for a halt to further leadership agitation from his camp.
Maybe, rather than being an “anti-Costello” reshuffle, what this does, in effect, is leave the door open for Howard to stand aside midyear, after a decade in the job, and allow Costello to put his own stamp on the ministry?
Howard, despite promoting 17 Coalition MPs, has left enough dead wood in there to be pruned by a new leader – giving him the opportunity to promote some of his own talented supporters and to boost the ministry by giving people like Andrew Robb and Malcolm Turnbull “real” jobs, midyear or thereabouts.
As Dennis Shanahan points out today, the minimalist changes and the feel of the new ministry match the Howard personality and style: “yet it could have been better if he had been prepared to make more people unhappy and ignore the ruthless arithmetic of state and senate balances.”
Shanahan concludes: “In that sense it could be a sign that Mr Howard intends to stay longer, but then again he would not, and should not, cast a Cabinet with a Costello succession in mind.”
Admittedly, there’s not much to support the notion that a change at the top is in the wind. And yes, this might be wishful thinking, but there is something a little empty about this reshuffle, as if a key element is missing. And there is: the reshuffle spectacularly fails to address the Government’s elephant in the loungeroom, the delicate matter of the frustrated Treasurer’s thwarted ambition.