Full credit to the Coalition: it’s getting better at falling apart.

Last year, Brendan Nelson’s leadership — which was “embattled” from about five minutes after he beat Turnbull — was allowed to damage the party for months on end before Nelson himself did the honourable thing and invited his party to off him. Even then they barely managed to vote him out. After the whole saga of John Howard in 2007, when the bloke virtually invited his Cabinet to knock him off, it seemed to suggest the Liberals were so overawed by anyone they installed as leader as to be incapable of simple acts of self-preservation.

But Julie Bishop has shown them how to do it. Rather than let speculation continue to dog her and detract from the Coalition’s performance yet again, she’s retired to the obscurity of Foreign Affairs. A class act, and a selfless one. This time the navel-gazing and self-obsession has only lasted a weekend.

Bishop had plenty of problems but some of them weren’t of her own making. Being Malcolm Turnbull’s shadow Treasurer — he originally wanted Downer for the role before he became leader and Downer was still in Parliament — is a tough gig. Like Kevin Rudd and foreign affairs, the primary task in the role is to be a cipher for your leader. Being stuck in Perth, from where she had difficulty injecting herself into the east coast news cycle, compounded her difficulties. It always seemed like she was filling in the bits around Turnbull.

Now Hockey will have to play that role. I’ve long suggested Andrew Robb would be better. He has substance — Hockey seems filled with air — and actually knows a lot of economics, having worked as an economist for much of his pre-political career. He also — and virtually no one noticed this — neatly got the Coalition off the hook on the Government’s ETS in December through the simple act of flicking it to a review, letting the Government take all the heat for it. He’s not — as he’d acknowledge — the flashest performer in Parliament or on TV, but we’re in the middle of the biggest economic crisis in decades, so flashiness is about the last thing we need.

Still, given the real shadow Treasurer will always be Turnbull himself, perhaps Hockey will fill in admirably, baiting Wayne Swan, grunting with mock-outrage in Question Time, doing the political chat shows. Unlike Robb, he’s unlikely to have too many ideas of his own with which to challenge Turnbull.

Meantime Helen Coonan, who seems to have become the human scrabble blank of the Coalition frontbench, gets shunted to Finance, having barely got her feet under the desk with foreign affairs.

Yesterday’s man, Peter Costello, looks more irrelevant than ever, despite his recent theatrics. So much for notion he’d replace Bishop that some cheerleaders were pushing. In fact it’s been a bad weekend for The Oz all round as Liberal backbenchers chose SMH’s Phil Coorey to leak to, and The Australian was backing Bishop to stay this morning.

However, none of this fixes the Coalition’s bigger problem that the Prime Minister is having a good economic crisis and they seem to be wilfully insisting on making themselves irrelevant. They need to get back in the policy game. Can Hockey do that? Unlikely.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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