The appointment of Chris Kenny, an Adelaide journalist, and Liberal Party apparatchik, as Malcolm Turnbull’s Chief of Staff is a curious one. It is also fundamentally disappointing.
Kenny has spent time in recent years as a Liberal Party spin doctor, would-be candidate, and now a populist rightwing commentator (which these days naturally includes being a climate change skeptic) in South Australia. He is not renowned for his deep knowledge of public policy. Unlike other Liberal Party staffer heavyweights of yesteryear — like Petro Georgiou and Andrew Robb or Graeme Morris — there is no evidence suggesting that Kenny has a great track record in running election campaigns, or in the art of marginal seat campaigning.
What Kenny might do is what he has always done — spin a yarn, get a headline, and maybe kick a few heads on the way through. But surely an Opposition Leader, particularly one facing the formidable talents of Mr Rudd and his team of staffers, needs someone who has a political profile of some gravitas, not a journalist/commentator/spin doctor who came to prominence in the mid 1990s by helping to destroy the career of Keating government Aboriginal Affairs Minister Robert Tickner over Aboriginal objections to a development on Hindmarsh Island, south of Adelaide.
In the past, Turnbull has surrounded himself with bright and capable thinkers and operators. He wisely hired Mark Ryan, who was Paul Keating’s Press Secretary, to run the Australian Republican Movement, got now Liberal Senator Marise Payne on board the ARM, and included in the Republic Referendum campaign team luminaries like Rod Cameron, Peter Barron and Andrew Robb.
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And when Turnbull took over chairmanship of the Liberal Party think-tank — the Menzies Research Centre — he hired some bright young things to do some excellent work on housing affordability.
In this context, the Kenny appointment is seriously weird. If Turnbull and the Liberal Party think they need advice from someone of Kenny’s ilk then they are simply wrong. The community, particularly in these times of economic uncertainty, and environmental and global insecurity, will surely be looking at Turnbull and the Liberal Party to see if they could form a viable alternative to the Rudd government when it comes to facing up to these complex challenges. Developing good policy and engaging Rudd at the policy level is what is required from Turnbull and the Liberal Party.
And is the Liberal Party so bereft of talent that the best person for the job as chief of staff to the alternative Prime Minister is a voice from the past — a man who worked for Howard government Foreign Minister Alexander Downer? Is now not the time for the Liberal Party to be harnessing new talent instead of recycling people like Kenny who have been kicking around the Liberal Party and Canberra to no great end for a number of years?
Does Malcolm, an Obama supporter, really want as his Chief of Staff someone who wrote as recently as 5 November last year in the Adelaide Advertiser that he suspects “Mr Bush’s presidency will be marked higher by historians than it is now — indeed it could hardly be marked lower. History is likely to recognize the sense in Mr Bush’s unrelenting dedication and uncompromising approach to confronting international terrorism”?