The Opposition has taken a dramatic lurch to the right with the announcement of one of the most conservative frontbenches since the 1980s battles between Liberal moderates and conservatives.
Right-wingers Kevin Andrews, Bronwyn Bishop, Cory Bernardi, Barnaby Joyce, Sophie Mirabella, Connie Fierravanti-Wells and Philip Ruddock have been promoted, making the new coalition line-up the most socially conservative in a generation. Eric Abetz has also been promoted into the key industrial relations portfolio, a clear sign that labour market deregulation is now back on the agenda for the Opposition.
There were some minor wins for party moderates. The party’s most talented backbencher, South Australian Simon Birmingham, has at last won a parliamentary secretaryship, working with Greg Hunt on climate change. The impressive Scott Morrison has been moved into Immigration, in a continuation of the strategy of using a moderate to front a hardline policy. Marise Payne, long a target of the NSW right of her party, has received a shadow ministry, for COAG. Sussan Ley moves into the shadow treasurership and Gary Humphries also gets a shadow parliamentary secretaryship. But these have been balanced by promotions of right-wingers, including Corey Bernardi from SA, who becomes Abbott’s parliamentary secretary, and Connie Fierravanti-Wells, who becomes shadow for ageing.
However, several Turnbull supporters have been punished: Ian Macfarlane has been demoted to Infrastructure and Water (which will grieve him, as he has a passion for resources issues); Sharman Stone has been demoted to Early Childhood Education and Childcare and the Status of Women, and Steve Ciobo has been given Tourism, Youth and Sport.
The most remarkable promotions, however, are the two most expected: Barnaby Joyce’s elevation to Finance and the return of the apparently unkillable Bronwyn Bishop, who takes the peculiar portfolio of “seniors”, on the basis, Abbott said at his press conference, that she is “one of them”.
The handing of a senior economic portfolio to a National is unheard of since the 1970s when the Country Party occupied a far greater proportion of coalition seats than the rump they currently form. According to Abbott, Joyce has been given the portfolio because he is an accountant.
He will surely come to rue this decision. Joyce is an economic illiterate and irrationalist, who has promoted causes such as a Sinophobic investment policy, geographically discriminatory tax policies and bans on competition when small business might be harmed. He has also repeatedly demonstrated in his campaign against the government’s CPRS that he doesn’t understand what a tax is. At least it will makes Lindsay Tanner’s question time answers more fun.
And then there’s Bishop, who will bring the tell-tale scent of kerosene to any interaction with seniors groups.
Hunt will now have sole responsibility for “climate action”, presumably a denialist version of “climate change”, although Minchin, as shadow for Resources and Energy and Regent of the Abbott leadership, remains the one in charge on that issue.
In the event of an Abbott election victory, this line-up would almost certainly drive action on abortion and other social policy touchstones in government. Eric Abetz tried to stop Medicare funding for abortions in the last term of the Howard government. Hardline Catholic Kevin Andrews first came to prominence striking down the Northern Territory’s euthanasia laws. Barnaby Joyce, another Catholic, has described abortion as “carnage” and has said he wants sexual assault victims to take a resulting pregnancy full-term. Bronwyn Bishop, Phillip Ruddock and Sophie Mirabella all voted in support of retaining the ban on RU-486.
The demotion of Sharman Stone and the departure of Helen Coonan for the backbench (whether forced or, as she says, not) weakens the presence of moderate Liberal women on the frontbench, although Julie Bishop remains in place.
Abbott described his frontbench as a “campaigning” one, evidently more intended to attack the government that run policy. That’s clear from the economic line-up that, centred on Joe Hockey and Barnaby Joyce, is perhaps the weakest since the early Labor Opposition years in the 1990s. The handing of Communications to Tony Smith is also inexplicable — Paul Fletcher was and is the stand-out candidate for such a role, but this was not a reshuffle for moderates.
At his first press conference as leader, Abbott promised all shades of opinion would be represented on his frontbench. They are, but it is dominated by denialists and right-wingers, and simply doesn’t look competitive with the government.