When it comes to the compilation of end of year lists, leadership coups are a huge pain: it’s hard to assess the performance of ministers when the reset button gets hit partway through and half the cabinet gets moved around. But given it’s now routine for PMs to be turfed out by their parties in their first term, we’ll have to get used to it.
So let’s talk about who did best and who worst in politics in 2015.
Most effective minister
While the benefits of preferential trade agreements are wildly overstated — you can tell, because governments refuse to let them be independently assessed — Andrew Robb has methodically implemented the only coherent element in the Coalition’s economic strategy since coming to office and concluded as many “free” trade agreements as possible. You can accuse Robb of rushing agreements and of being blind to the threat of of investor-state dispute settlement provisions, but no one can fault his hard work over the last two years. Better yet, his holding the line against US interests on pharmaceuticals might help achieve the best possible outcome on the Trans-Pacific Partnership — Congress refusing to ratify it. Robb also gets bonus points for his unstinting support for foreign investment, even against his some of his own, xenophobic, colleagues.
Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.
Least effective minister
Accusing an Abbott government minister of performing poorly is, pace Michael Herr’s Apocalypse Now narration, like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500. Last year’s winner, Joe Hockey, was sadly unable to maintain his strong 2014 form, with one real Hockey-standard gaffe (“get a good job that pays good money”), although the real state of his fiscal management was revealed by Scott Morrison, who admitted that Australia’s spending had surged beyond GFC stimulus levels under his predecessor. Kevin Andrews had the submarine “competitive evaluation process” debacle before his dummy spit on being dispatched to the backbench. There’s Eric Abetz suggesting we should be taking our lead from the likes of Malaysia on same-sex marriage, and Barnaby Joyce warning it would endanger our cattle industry. There’s Tony Abbott himself, of course, so bad at being prime minister his own party turfed him out even more quickly than Labor dumped Kevin Rudd. Then there’s serial nominee George Brandis, whose portfolio covered itself in glory on the Man Haron Monis letter, implementation of data retention and breaking the government’s promise on mandatory data breach notification, before we consider Peter Dutton and his department’s ongoing handling — or in fact non-handling — of the abuse of women and children on Nauru. Unable to split them, we’re handing out a joint award to the entire Abbott cabinet.
Most effective shadow minister
“Look, Senator Xenophon put a motion before the Senate to have an iron ore inquiry. It was going to turn into some sort of star chamber run by Sam Dastyari again.” Joe Hockey, May 19
When your political opponents start crafting their tactics to avoid you, you’re doing something right. Sam Dastyari only barely scrapes onto the shadow ministry list — he wasn’t appointed a parliamentary secretary until October, and this isn’t for his work on “school education and youth”, but for his transformation of the Senate Economics References Committee into the most significant parliamentary tool for exposing multinational tax rorting (and Dastyari’s political profile). The result of Dastyari’s work, along with the hard yakka of journalists like Michael West and Neil Chenoweth, is visible in the profile the issue now holds: the fairness of the tax system has now evolved into an important issue in influencing the way people vote, and forced the government to at least appear to take seriously the issue of multinational tax avoidance.
Honourable mentions: Anthony Albanese, albeit with the benefit of a collapse in infrastructure investment under the Abbott government.
Least effective shadow minister
Bill Shorten, with approval ratings stuck in the 20s, is a strong candidate here, but it’s a tough call for an opposition leader who seen off a PM and led his party with a handy poll lead for most of the year. Jason Clare, however, was gifted with a golden opportunity to target Malcolm Turnbull as Turnbull’s hand-picked NBN (apologies, nbn) and his personally approved multi-technology mix strategy turned into a debacle, but he struggled to make a mark on an issue that Labor should own. It’s a rare journalist who doesn’t have to remind themselves that Stephen Conroy, who carries the NBN brief at estimates, isn’t actually the responsible shadow.
Best of the crossbenchers
In May, there was another Greens leadership succession, and another infuriated press gallery whining about not being given the heads-up. After the puff of white smoke, or at least Rachel Siewert, emerged, Richard Di Natale was revealed as the successor to Christine Milne. While Di Natale, in a quest for mainstream acceptability, has made some dud policy calls — most particularly the recent cave-in to the Coalition on tax transparency — the transition to the little-known Victorian has caused the Greens’ electoral support to hold up, and his management of the sometimes fractious personalities and factions within Greens ranks has so far been successful. Bonus points for being accused by anti-vaccination nutjobs of being in a conspiracy with Rupert Murdoch.
Special mention: Ricky Muir gets the “most improved” award — from terrible beginnings, the senator for motor cars has developed into a thoughtful politician who takes his swing vote seriously and applies himself to the bills he is often in a crucial position to pass or halt, and all without a trace of the ratbag wingnuttery of Jacqui Lambie or David Leyonhjelm.
Best parliamentary performer
This is the broken record part of award — every year it’s Turnbull, and this year is no exception. One highlight was his disdainful mockery of Labor’s attack on his wealth, acknowledging his wealth was partly a result of luck and brains as well as hard work, and that plenty of people work harder than he did. “If the honourable member wants to go round wearing a sandwich board saying ‘Malcolm Turnbull’s got a lot of money’, feel free,” he told Tony Burke. “I think people know that I’ve got a lot of money.”
Honourable mentions: the other usual suspect, Anthony Albanese. And Clive Palmer should get some sort of award just for deigning to show up occasionally.
Politician of the year
Tactically, Malcolm Turnbull had an outstanding year. The bull-at-a-gate Turnbull of 2009 was replaced with a patient, calculating politician who had confidence in his judgement that Tony Abbott would be unable to alter the deep-seated flaws that were destroying his prime ministership. Knowing he probably didn’t have the numbers in February, he bided his time, even lavishly praising Abbott in the run-up to the leadership spill vote, convinced his own interests were best served by allowing Abbott to flame out naturally, rather than forcing the issue. Abbott asked for six months to turn things around, and was given that, and then Turnbull came for him. The contrast with the 2010 Rudd coup couldn’t have been greater — the electorate knew Abbott was on probation, it wanted rid of him, and it knew why he was ousted. Moreover, Turnbull has continued the New Malcolm political approach as PM, making a virtue of consulting with colleagues and downplaying the look-at-me antics of the Abbott loyalists. But how successful New Malcolm is in 2016 with the big challenges of the budget and climate policy ahead as well as an election remains to be seen.