First, the good parts of Julia Gillard’s reshuffle.
1.While he merited a senior economic portfolio over the likes of Penny Wong (see below), Chris Bowen’s shift to Immigration signals a more aggressive line from the government on asylum seekers and immigration and puts Bowen’s undoubted political skills to much better use than they would have got in Finance. His match-up with the loathsome Scott Morrison will be thoroughly enjoyable.
2. Kevin Rudd. There were undoubtedly plenty of long faces at DFAT on Saturday but, contrary to what a number of foreign affairs commentators seem to think, Rudd’s the best person for the job. His period as PM was marked by an understanding that Australia could have complex relationships with major powers — an understanding beyond a number of foreign affairs commentators who appear to think foreign policy needs to be some checklist where relationships are marked with either a tick or a cross. And his willingness to be blunt with China while his opponents oscillated between complaints of Sinophilia and warnings he had offended the Middle Kingdom was admirable. Better yet, those long absences from the country will make it easier for everyone around the Cabinet table.
3. Craig Emerson to Trade. Two for two for Labor — first Simon Crean in that portfolio, now Emerson, both strong free traders, after more than a decade of the National Party running the portfolio as a sort of central clearing house for ag policy. As a bonus, it will make it harder for the government to manufacture a reason for Emerson to give his stand-up performances at the end of Question Time.
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4. Having just managed to hang onto his seat — due in part to the NSW Liberal Party’s staggering ineptitude in not preselecting a candidate for Lindsay until after the election had actually been called — former tax lawyer David Bradbury should make a good contribution as a parliamentary secretary in Treasury.
And the bad?
1. Penny Wong.
2. Penny Wong.
3. Penny Wong. Which part of this picture does not make sense? In 2007, Wong was given portfolio responsibility for climate change, described by Rudd as the great moral and economic challenge of our time. Over the next two-and-a-half years, the government proceeds to use climate change as a club to assail the Coalition and dispatches two leaders, until in a neat reversal Tony Abbott snatches the issue from Labor and proceeds to belt them back and dispatches Rudd. For her role in this unmitigated disaster, Wong is promoted to one of the most senior economic portfolios?
Yes, it’s true much of the climate change debacle can be laid at the door of Rudd. But a key problem for Labor was its inability or unwillingness to sell the urgent need for climate action and the CPRS to voters. That was Wong’s job above anyone else’s, and she utterly failed in it. Chris Uhlmann said on the weekend that he thought we hadn’t seen the best of Wong. I suspect that with her droning refusal to ever answer questions or to deviate from her talking points, her reliance on pat phrases like how she has “got the balance right” and her politicisation, and lack, of genuine engagement on a high-profile issue, we have indeed seen all of what Wong has to offer. Maybe she’s been kicked upstairs to Finance where her lack of political skills won’t be on display to voters, but the equation (-Tanner, +Wong) significantly weakens the government’s economic credentials.
4. While the promotion of Bill Shorten is on merit, the elevation of Don Farrell and David Feeney to parliamentary secretaryships is a blatant reward for their role in the Rudd execution. The plotters have indeed been rewarded. Worse, Rudd associates have been punished: the (deliberately) low-profile Victorian MP Anthony Byrne, who was Rudd’s parliamentary secretary, was shafted in the reshuffle for his links with the former leader, despite quickly accepting the coup-night logic and switching sides to Gillard (Crikey sought comment from Byrne but he did not return phone calls).
The promotion of Farrell, a senior figure in Australia’s most reactionary union, the right-wing Catholic SDA, and best known for knifing predecessor Linda Kirk over her support for stem cell research, is particularly bizarre given his performance since arriving in the Senate in 2008. Despite being on seven committees for various shorter and longer stints in the last two years, Farrell’s committee contributions, either at Estimates or in inquiries, have been few and far between, and on some committees no record of any Farrell contribution can be found. But it was a great weekend for the Shoppies — Jacinta Collins , another hardline Catholic, also got a parliamentary secretaryship.
5. Neil James is right: the complete replacement of ministerial personnel other than Warren Snowdon at Defence is inexplicable. The very able Mike Kelly should have been retained there in his previous role (or even given a junior ministry). Instead, much of the momentum generated by John Faulkner’s too-short period at Defence may be dissipated. That was always inevitable once he opted to go to the backbench but a near full-turnover of the ministerial line-up doesn’t help as our presence in Afghanistan slowly comes to the boil as a key political and strategic issue.
At some point the public attitude toward the steady drip of fatalities in that conflict will reach a tipping point beyond which there will be trouble for the major parties but, particularly, the government. It will be hard to pick when that happens — the treatment of David Hicks went almost overnight from being a background issue to one that genuinely angered voters — but if the current rate of casualties continues, it will.