Let’s navigate our way through all the lamentations about frontbenches on both sides of politics.

First, Labor Leader Bill Shorten isn’t the pick of a majority of the party membership, runs the complaint. He’s a factional powerbroker installed because of factional control within caucus. Except, the only reason he won was because the Left’s factional control wasn’t strong enough and leaked votes from his opponent, Anthony Albanese (including some from Albanese’s intra-factional rivals in the NSW Left — what goes around comes around in Labor). So in fact Shorten is leader in spite of factional control, which is supposed to be a good thing, or maybe factional control is good when you want it to be?

However, the factions have provided his frontbench, and demonstrated the problems of factional control. The most egregious example is that the frontbench includes Don Farrell, the SDA reactionary and powerbroker from South Australia who lost his Senate spot at the election and who is now, like some sort of malign spirit in a horror movie, said to be looking for another host to keep him in politics (Farrell of course is the victim of the South Australian Right’s misjudgment that they could drop Farrell to number two in favour of Penny Wong on the Senate ticket without worrying about the impact of Nick Xenophon’s support). That’s before you get to frontbenchers like David Feeney and Joel Fitzgibbon, who like Farrell didn’t demonstrate much in the way of talent during Labor’s time in government; Fitzgibbon was the only minister during six years to resign over allegations he breached the government’s code of conduct.

Then there’s the gender balance issue, with Anna Burke and Jacinta Collins missing out. Collins was briefly elevated into Cabinet from a parliamentary secretary role after she scored the deputy leadership in the Senate amid the chaos of Kevin Rudd’s return. She’s now back to right-wing obscurity, which she richly deserves. Anna Burke is unhappy that, as former speaker, she missed out on being whip because of deals done before the ballot. But Burke only became speaker in the first place because Peter Slipper, engineered into the speakership in a particularly grubby deal by Julia Gillard, bailed out.

The lack of gender diversity haunts Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s all-but-one male Cabinet, with no women other than Julie Bishop judged deserving of Cabinet status and a decided dearth of women in the junior ministry and parliamentary secretary ranks. But Abbott more or less translated his shadow cabinet into government, as he promised. He too is plagued by factionalism, even though the Coalition aren’t supposed to have them. His frontbench has always been a carefully constructed mechanism intended to reward the hard right-wingers who supported him, like Bronwyn Bishop and Kevin Andrews, at the expense of those with genuine talent, with Abbott too scared to dump them lest they undermine his partyroom support. In the end, Bronwyn Bishop was bought off with the Speakership.

That’s the reverse of the problem the Rudd government notionally had, that ministers were too dependent on the leader’s grace and favour to do their jobs properly, which was the excuse for giving the power of frontbench selection back to caucus and thus to the factions.

How should a frontbench be assembled? Should it reflect merit? Well, you want the best people running the country. But what sort of merit? Administrative skill? Intellectual firepower? Political smarts? Experience? Will a champion frontbench beat a frontbench of champions? The answer differs in government and opposition too, remember.

Should it be representative? In the Australian Public Service — a highly monocultural institution, even more so than politics — it’s held that the more closely the public service resembles the community the better it will be. The clearest example is gender balance. But a frontbench can only be representative of the parliamentary party. The Coalition frontbench at the moment is guaranteed to be a total mismatch with Australian society due to the decline in the number of women in its parliamentary ranks compared to Labor since the 1990s. Realpolitik also demands geographic diversity and state representation regardless of merit or gender.

Who should select a frontbench? A Labor leader that ministers will be scared to cross for fear of losing their spot? A Coalition leader that can’t sack dead wood because of his narrow hold on the leadership? Factions and pseudo-factions that promote duds like Don Farrell or Kevin Andrews?

In short, once you get beyond the core of senior talent in a party, whom you think should be a frontbencher depends heavily on your overall theory of politics — if you have one. It’s unclear many people do, including many journalists and some MPs. Labor has resolved it one way, the Liberals another; both ways have significant flaws. The question to ask is who’s got the magic solution, the alchemy, that somehow combines representation, different forms of talent and balance with the leader? Likely, no one.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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