They might only be parliamentary secretaries, but the first reshuffle announced late yesterday by the Prime Minister has attracted a lot of tea-leaf reading from commentators. Given the tight control Rudd exerts over his Government, that’s fair enough. This is a disciplined, almost locked-down Government and any management signs from the sphinx-like Rudd have to be examined closely.

There are two losers from the reshuffle: Penny Wong and Joel Fitzgibbon.

Some of us have long been arguing Penny Wong was out of her depth, but she was drawing high praise even from conservatives last year — Glenn Milne bizarrely suggested she replace Belinda Neal in Robertson. The pointy end of the ETS process, however, appears to have taken some of the shine off her. So we see Greg Combet, widely seen as one of the best junior talents, move over to become Parliamentary Secretary for Climate Change. Rudd stressed Combet’s coal mining background and his links with business in the announcement. Presumably Combet will take over the role of leading discussions with industry, giving business a friendlier face to talk to than Wong’s.

Because, I think we all agree, business hasn’t had enough of a say in the design of the ETS.

And just to underline that Rudd thinks Wong needs all the help she can get, he’s also given her the services of Mike Kelly, who remains Parl Sec for Defence Support but also takes on Water, where Wong has, in her deliberate fashion, developed a reputation for not getting much done.

Now, ostensibly Fitzgibbon is a winner, because Combet, who impressed so strongly that some in the defence community wanted him elevated to ministerial status, has moved on. But Combet’s procurement responsibilities have been given to Fitzgibbon, who apparently didn’t have enough to do as Minister for Defence. And now he only has half of Mike Kelly.

Some in the defence community are appalled. One of their long-running complaints is that competent junior ministers in the defence portfolio — themselves rare enough — never stay there long, but get promoted out to other ministries. Neil James of the Australia Defence Association expressed exactly this fear about Combet to Crikey last year and he was right on the money. Even worse, there’s no replacement for Combet.

It couldn’t send a worse signal at a time when Fitzgibbon’s competence has been under the microscope in Parliament and the SAS pay saga has laid bare the difficulties with both the vast and labyrinthine nature of Defence and getting an appropriately prompt response from the ADF to ministerial direction. As Fitzgibbon explained — in inept fashion — yesterday, the same overpayment problem occurred in 2006 under the previous Government. Defence needs more ministerial oversight, not less.

Bill Shorten, though, has done well, getting a high-profile role as Parl Sec for Bushfire Recovery. Shorten keeps his current role in Disabilities and Children’s Services, which is not exactly where all the action is but Shorten has taken it seriously and worked hard. He may still have plenty of enemies willing to smear him about his personal affairs but it wasn’t too long ago that he was the Next Big Thing and, now that factional peace of a kind has been secured within the Victorian ALP, he can use the bushfires role to further build his public image — oh, and help bushfire victims as well.

Alex Mitchell yesterday suggested Mark Arbib’s role within the Prime Minister’s portfolio would be akin to that of a gatekeeper for Rudd. The new role of “Government Service Delivery” is not so much that of gatekeeper as enabling Rudd to keep tabs on the running of politically-critical programs. Arbib will have licence to roam across portfolios, checking to ensure program rollouts are going smoothly and that embarrassments are kept to a minimum and that someone keeps a strategic overview of government services. There’s already a Cabinet Implementation Unit within Prime Minister and Cabinet — it was established by the Howard Government — with the role of ensuring that Cabinet decisions were implemented according to the timetables Cabinet agreed, and identify emerging problems. Arbib will have a similar role at a political level.

The flipside of Arbib’s licence to roam, however, is that he will wear the blame for any foul-ups, and unless he carries out his enforcer role carefully, he will upset ministers and potential supporters.

Those in ministers’ offices and the Public Service hoping that Rudd will stop micro-managing are doomed to disappointment.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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