With a flatlining economy, key budget measures stalled in the Senate, a budget blowout, sources openly backgrounding against senior ministers, and trust in the government at rock-bottom, Tony Abbott’s effort to press the reset button at the start of the week looks to have failed. The Prime Minister needs a bigger, redder button to hit, and that button is a reshuffle. A ministerial reallocation could remove the non-performers, provide some ambitious juniors with something more to do than playing internal games, and enable the government to more effectively play to its strengths.
The first and most important change needed is at Treasury. Joe Hockey has been politically wounded for months and has this week continued his gaffe-prone ways, declaring the government didn’t have time to conduct a proper tender process for the next generation of submarines — an astonishing remark for a Treasurer who insists Australia faces a major fiscal challenge. Hockey’s self-inflicted woes have occurred at the point where the economy needs effective stewardship and the government has a major economic agenda ahead of it involving the Murray inquiry recommendations on the financial industry and taxation reform. Sorry, Joe.
Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull is the most often-mentioned replacement as Treasurer, but it’s an appointment fraught with risk for Abbott, as it will give Turnbull the opportunity to shine on a much more important stage than Communications, where he primarily has responsibility for turning the NBN into a cups-and-string operation, nodding politely while the Attorney-General’s Department declares war on the internet, and cutting the ABC. However, it will also enmesh Turnbull more deeply in the government, preventing him from pursuing his favoured strategy of trying to appear above the idiocies of his colleagues, and it would free up a meaty portfolio for an ambitious junior minister like Jamie Briggs. If Turnbull’s too much, Finance Minister Mathias Cormann is the obvious choice. His belated failure on FOFA aside, Cormann has been an effective Finance Minister, has carried the Assistant Treasurership as well for much of the year and achieved a big win with his successful privatisation of Medibank Private. Better yet, he’s across the financial sector, where much of the government’s economic focus in 2015 will be.
The other obvious change is Defence. David Johnston doesn’t have quite the gaffe-rate of Hockey, but he makes up for the lack of quantity with the remarkable quality of his outbursts. With even the Australia Defence Association suggesting he’s not up to the job, and at a time when we’re — whatever word games ministers want to play — at war, dumping Johnston can’t come soon enough. Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, who is virtually minister for defence anyway, is the obvious replacement. Morrison’s switch to Russell Hill, a reward for stopping the boats, would be welcomed by his colleagues, given Defence is a political graveyard and Morrison’s painfully unsubtle ambitions have grated with so many of them.
From these two changes a number of consequences flow. Another Western Australian MP must be found to replace Johnston on the frontbench — WA is an extraordinarily successful state for the government, so it won’t do to reduce its representation. Moving Cormann to Treasury would require a new Finance Minister, which should be Andrew Robb; the trade portfolio is in any event primarily run by DFAT officials who trip around the world, business class, pursuing their damaging and economically medieval mercantilism and tugging the forelock to US trade negotiators. Maybe it could be a consolation prize for Hockey, although he’s unlikely to enjoy the travel — maybe an ambassadorship might encourage him to go quietly. It also requires a new Immigration Minister, which should be Christopher Pyne, who has had an unsuccessful stint as Education Minister but who has the persistence and tough hide to survive Immigration.
That would enable his junior minister, Sussan Ley, to take over Education and move into cabinet. Ley has held the difficult and often controversial child care and early education portfolio, but she has successfully kept the sector out of the headlines while pursuing the government’s agenda, an impressive feat for a government more often marked by ineptitude.
The other notable failure has been George Brandis as Attorney-General. Brandis was responsible for the debacle of the government’s overhaul of the Racial Discrimination Act, humiliated himself with that interview on metadata, failed to deliver with the royal commission witchhunts on trade unions and pink batts, and appears to regard any legitimate parliamentary scrutiny of his raft of counter-terrorism legislation as an affront. Brett Mason, who has a legal and privacy background, can move into the Attorney-General role; Brandis can perhaps keep Arts, which he enjoys, and as Deputy Leader in the Senate would need to be given something else to do. Peter Dutton should also be moved out of Health, where he has been a conspicuous failure at selling the GP co-payment, perhaps in favour of Marise Payne, who who been handling the vast engine of Commonwealth service delivery, Human Services; this would have the added bonus of increasing the number of women in cabinet to a mighty three.
And in a gesture to small government, Greg Hunt could be dropped from cabinet while keeping his portfolio: it would deprive his colleagues of the pleasure of regularly rolling him, but the government doesn’t take environmental or climate issues seriously, so Hunt’s presence in the cabinet room is irrelevant anyway. Meanwhile, Mitch Fifield, who among other roles has quietly shepherded disability issues through the maelstrom of budget cuts, deserves elevation.
Of course, most of these suggestions are merely of what ought to be, rather than what would be, but they would give the government more steel at its centre — Bishop continuing at Foreign Affairs, a more effective and potent Treasurer, a Defence Minister with competence and presence, and a less abrasive and abusive Attorney-General, as well as more women in cabinet. It would set the Abbott government up to make its case far more effectively in 2015.