Nick Minchin was an indifferent minister. He was promoted from Special Minister of State to Industry after the 1998 election, and then after 2001 replaced John Fahey as Finance Minister. While he oversaw some substantial public sector reforms like those flowing from the Uhrig Report, he was fated to be Finance Minister during the two terms when John Howard gradually lost all capacity for fiscal discipline, leaving Minchin’s Dr No role irrelevant.
But Minchin’s real interest lay in pure politics, and particularly defeating his opponents, whether in the ALP or in his own party, and in particular within the South Australian Liberal Party. His maiden speech, after entering the Senate straight from being South Australian state director and campaign director, was ferociously partisan, but acknowledged Labor’s nous in targeting the GST, prompting him to conclude – incorrectly as John Howard would later show – that bipartisanship was critical for tax reform.
And ascension to the Senate gave him a strong position from which to pursue his quiet war with the moderate elements of the state party. Having seen off, eventually, both Amanda Vanstone and Robert Hill, Minchin might be inclined to think he bested his most powerful foes, although despite some interesting tactics, he never succeeded in crushing Christopher Pyne, who can now claim to have outlasted his long-standing factional opponent. Pyne entered Parliament at the 1993 election like Minchin himself.
Minchin’s greatest coup, though, was the right-wing putsch that saw off – whether permanently or merely for the time being remains to be seen – Malcolm Turnbull from the party leadership and installed Tony Abbott. Given Abbott’s Big Government tendencies, that may yet prove to be an eccentric decision, but Minchin had already engineered a defeat of Turnbull once, managing a narrow victory for Brendan Nelson over Turnbull in the aftermath of the 2007 election. The ETS issue provided the basis for another effort late last year, but while Minchin was proud of his climate denialist credentials, you always had the sense it was merely the pretext for Minchin’s desire to send the far more moderate Turnbull packing.
Minchin, however, was no staid reactionary. Even at his most partisan, you could never avoid the sense that he was a lively, humorous, intelligent politician, never more so than when he declared he couldn’t remember whether he had smoked marijuana with Peter Garrett when they were both at ANU, on the basis that “the room was too cloudy.” Minchin also didn’t hide his guarded admiration for Labor’s Robert Ray, whom he recognised as a true factional warlord and political hard man.
Minchin’s departure isn’t the only one of a long-serving politician in recent days. Labor’s House of Representatives Chief Whip Roger Price declared last week he wouldn’t be contesting the next election. Price has been in Parliament since 1984 and his departure will leave a huge hole in Labor backbench ranks. Price is a mentor to younger MPs and an important tactician and strategist in Caucus. Both Price and Minchin will be missed, although one suspects Price will be missed by more of his party colleagues than Minchin will.