Long-time readers will be aware of my uncanny knack for spectacularly wrong predictions. In my Best and Worst of 2013 piece this time last year, I saluted, among others, Joe Hockey and Tony Abbott, and declared that the new government’s troubled start to its term in office was unlikely to continue. “Abbott has consistently demonstrated a capacity to adapt his political tactics to changing circumstances. It is likely he will return in 2014 a more adept and effective leader. As the last four years have displayed, he’s too good a politician not to.”
Oops. Mea, as they say in the classics, culpa.
Instead, the successes of the government have come from unexpected sources. Surprising at the time, Abbott’s promotion of Mathias Cormann into the Finance portfolio when establishing his ministry, while moving Andrew Robb to Trade, has been vindicated. Cormann has performed strongly in the Finance portfolio, delivered the repeal of the Future of Financial Advice legislation before being undone by a change of heart on the crossbenches, and managed the highly successful sale of Medibank Private. Robb, too, has delivered exactly what he was asked as Trade Minister.
The most effective minister, however, has been Julie Bishop. Her stint as Foreign Minister has not been one of international triumph. Rather, it has been simply one of quiet but noticeable competence in implementing the government’s foreign policy agenda in a year in which Australia has found itself, for reasons both positive and tragic, more engaged diplomatically than normal. That’s another surprise, given her maladroit performance in opposition — especially during her disastrous stint as shadow treasurer. But her emergence as a now obvious point of tension with the Prime Minister and his office signals the extent to which her competence has elevated her above her colleagues.
It is significant, however, that Robb, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison and Bishop have all primarily operated outside domestic politics, where the government has floundered throughout the year. The contest for least effective minister is a Melbourne Cup field, an embarrassment of riches for gaffes, dud policies, incompetence and stumbles. Where to start? There’s David “Tippecanoe” Johnston, the Defence Minister with a taste for fine dining who publicly declared he had nothing to offer the National Security Committee of cabinet. Or George Brandis, who buggered up amending the Racial Discrimination Act, made a joke of himself on metadata and couldn’t even organise a witch-hunt to go after Julia Gillard properly. Then there’s Peter Dutton, whose stolid silence and blatant factual errors undermined any effort to sell a Medicare co-payment.
But if you stumble in Health or Defence or as Attorney-General, you mainly damage the government. If you stumble in Treasury, you can inflict real-world damage. And Joe Hockey‘s performance as Treasurer has undermined both business and consumer confidence, with the 2014 budget marking a clear inflection point in Australia’s economic fortunes this year as growth fell significantly from April onwards. That makes him a clear winner.
Most effective shadow minister: On the Labor side, 2014 has been a year of criticism and cruising, with the government painstakingly delivering opportunity after opportunity for opposition to portray itself as the protector of voters against unfairness. Given the government’s accident-prone ways and dud budget, it didn’t require great skills from shadow ministers to score points. But Anthony Albanese deserves credit for demolishing what was supposed to be a major plank of the government’s budget story, its commitment to infrastructure, which was intended to provide economic stimulus. Albanese has doggedly and successfully challenged virtually every project the government of “infrastructure Prime Minister Tony Abbott” has put its name to, demonstrating that they have all been Labor-initiated works. So successful has Albo been that even The Australian has admitted the government has no infrastructure program to call its own.
Special mention: he’s not a frontbencher, but NSW Senator Sam Dastyari‘s engineering of the blocking of the government’s repeal of FOFA was an outstanding achievement that will make a demonstrable difference to the lives of millions of Australians over the long run.
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Least effective shadow minister: That doesn’t mean all was easy going for Labor. In February, Labor was gifted another opportunity by the government with the murder on Manus Island of Iranian asylum seeker Reza Barati and Scott Morrison’s attempt to exploit the death — he initially blamed Barati for bringing his murder on himself by escaping, before admitting he had misled Australians about the circumstances in which Barati died. But Labor and its immigration spokesman Richard Marles almost entirely ignored the issue, asking just nine questions, always at the back end of question time, over the course of the following week. Throughout the year we discovered that asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island were being denied the most basic health services — one died from an infected foot left untended — and being knowingly subjected to conditions that foster mental health problems with minimal mental health services. Moreover, the Immigration Department tried to suppress such information. Labor adopted a clear policy throughout the year of trying to avoid mentioning asylum seekers at all, in order to neutralise an issue on which the Coalition is so dominant. But in failing to adequately scrutinise the government over the murder, abuse and ill-treatment of people in its care, Marles and Labor’s tacticians omitted their most basic duty as parliamentarians for political purposes.
Best parliamentary performer: Look, let’s just give this award to Malcolm Turnbull for the duration of his political career; he is far and away Australian politics’s best orator. This year’s highlight, his wonderful speech on Gough.
Politician of the year: Some readers don’t quite understand this category. I copped plenty of criticism last year for saying Abbott was the politician of the year, as though that amounted to an unquestioning endorsement of Abbott and all his policies. But Abbott had achieved a landslide win over Labor, destroying the prime ministership of Julia Gillard every bit as effectively as he’d destroyed Kevin Rudd’s prime ministership. In the craft of politics, which is what this category is about, it was a rare achievement, regardless of the policies or views that Abbott brought to office.
After a dismal 2014, of course, Abbott and his colleagues are anything but politicians of the year. And given Labor’s task has been a straightforward one, it’s hard to laud anyone in the opposition. Clive Palmer, cock of the walk in Parliament House mid-year, is increasingly looking irrelevant. Scott Ludlam is thus our politician of the year. It’s almost forgotten now, but Ludlam came within, literally, a handful of votes of losing his Senate spot in the 2013 election. When a rerun was called, Ludlam set his mind to ensuring such a fate wouldn’t befall him again. In a stroke of genius, in March he used a Senate adjournment debate to launch a ferocious attack on Tony Abbott. Ludlam is normally the Green you’d take home to meet mum — softly spoken, thoughtful, pleasant — but the speech contained real mongrel, intentionally so, because it was crafted with the intent of going viral online, which it promptly did. Predictably, enraged News Corp commentators frothed at the mouth at Ludlam, ensuring more coverage for the speech.
As the government ramped up its pre-budget rhetoric on the need for savage spending cuts, Ludlam was able to channel the gathering hostility toward the Coalition into a significantly bigger vote for the Greens in Western Australia, including a 60% rise in Ludlam’s personal vote, while Labor’s vote collapsed,. Since then, Ludlam has diligently defended basic rights against the national security encroachments of George Brandis and a government eager to hype up the terror threat to extend its powers of citizens. This was a breakthrough year for Ludlam, and a much-deserved one.