Long-serving West Australian Liberal senator Chris Ellison announced his retirement from politics a short time ago. Ellison has been in the Senate since 1993 and served in a number of ministries in the Howard Government, including serving as Justice and Customs Minister from 2001-07. Ellison cited his young family and the extensive travel required by coming from Perth as the primary reason for his decision, speaking with emotion about having the opportunity to have a greater involvement in his children’s schooling. Ellison is from the hard right of Liberal Party, with conservative social values and a strong law and order stance, but said new leader Malcolm Turnbull had told him he would have retained his position in the new line-up.

Ellison’s departure further weakens Turnbull’s frontbench with Ellison joining Brendan Nelson and Peter Costello on the backbench until he leaves the Senate in the next few months. However, it will free up Turnbull to make a more extensive reshuffle than anticipated, given he now has Ellison’s senior shadow ministry of immigration to offer.

Meanwhile: You might recall, if you’re a political tragic like me, that when Andrew Peacock dislodged John Howard in 1989, the Nationals took advantage of the distraction to dump their own leader, replacing Ian Sinclair with Charles Blunt.

Blunt was not exactly a huge success, but that’s another story.

It’s not quite that dramatic, but last night Barnaby Joyce replaced Nigel Scullion as Nationals leader in the Senate.

Being leader of the Nats in the Senate is a bit all-chiefs-no-Indians territory. There’s only five of them, counting the Solo Man-lookalike Scullion. Actually, that’s not strictly true, because with the merger in Queensland, technically all Liberal senators from Queensland are in the National-Liberal-We Will Sell Your Building Party, but for the moment everyone sits with their original parties.

Scullion has — at least until Malcolm Turnbull announces otherwise — the Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry portfolio. According to a Nationals source, it was felt that having such a big portfolio as well as the leadership in the Senate was a bit much for him. But he’s also from the NT and the power in the Nats is in Queensland.

Joyce has the profile and cut-through (that term again!) that might give the Nats a bit more oomph in the Senate. Joyce doesn’t have a portfolio, so he has a lot more time on his hands — Ron Boswell was Senate leader for years (in fact his website still reckons he is) despite not having a portfolio.

There might also be a few Liberals hoping that with a bit more responsibility, Joyce will be more of a team player, although the opportunities to cross the floor in Opposition are less than when you’re in Government. At the very least, it will give the Nats more media space.

Peter Fray

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