Several questions present themselves in the wake of South Australia’s Opposition Leader Steven Marshall’s reshuffle today, a reshuffle so cosmetic as to be better described as a “reallocation”.
Indeed, the Liberal leader himself calls it a “reshaping” of his frontbench.
But the key question is: “Why?”
As if simply realigning portfolios will deliver any clearer enunciation of the Liberal vision for government.
It’s not, indeed, even realigning portfolios to better match up with the government frontbench, since the government frontbench could itself look very different in a few days’ time.
So, why now?
And it’s not just me asking the questions. Liberal insiders are pondering the same conundrums this morning. “We know what we’ve got currently isn’t working,” one tells me. “So why wouldn’t we try something new.”
So brimming with apparent talent are the Libs that there is no room on the frontbench for the relatively recently elected likes of Sam Duluk, Troy Bell, Vincent Tarzia, David Speirs, Stephan Knoll et al. (and that’s just in the lower house), although the latter four have been given various consolation prizes outside the shadow cabinet. The consolation might have been tempered by the fact Marshall’s media release misspelled two of their names.
But it’s worth noting that Marshall himself was elevated to the frontbench — and went on to lead his party — all within his first term.
And yet he continues to impede the progress of those elected with him, and after, who must be scratching their heads when they ponder why they can’t crack a frontbench that has the opposition mired behind a 14-year-old Labor government presiding over the nation’s highest unemployment figures.
So, why not?
The “reshaping” of Marshall’s frontbench coincides with the latest SA Newspoll published in The Australian.
Despite being painted as some kind of boost for the hapless Libs, it makes grim reading for the opposition.
In two-party terms, they lag two points behind the Weatherill government, 51 points to 49. They might say that is a narrowing of the gap, and that they are back in the race.
If that is so, they are in the race in the sense that Eric Moussambani was in the race at the Sydney Olympics.
Let’s just put this in perspective. Four years ago, the corresponding mid-term Newspoll had the Liberals leading Labor, 52-48 — and that was seen as a poor showing.
To quote Crikey’s Poll Bludger column at the time: “The poll makes grim reading for [then Liberal leader] Isobel Redmond. As well as not delivering the Liberals voting intention figures of they kind they’ve been growing accustomed to across the country … she has lost further ground to Weatherill as preferred premier.”
This time round, Weatherill’s own ratings have, not surprisingly, slumped — but so have Marshall’s.
More voters are uncommitted to either.
Four years ago, Redmond’s “disappointing” approval rating was 43%; Marshall’s today is 30%.
And let’s not forget that the Liberal brand, Australia-wide, has benefitted from the recent Turnbull bounce, nor that the SA Labor Party won the last two elections despite significantly losing the two-party vote.
So will this reorganisation of the frontbench help things?
Why would they? In all honesty, how many people knew who was doing what on the Liberal frontbench in any case?
Will Vickie Chapman taking the reins of State Development or Corey Wingard taking on Employment do anything to dramatically shift the Liberals’ fortunes?
Marshall tells us those who remain on the outer will have a chance over the next two years to “show us what they’ve got”.
What does the opposition have to fear from promoting them now?
If they stumble while trying to find their feet in the shadow ministry, wouldn’t you prefer they do it now than six months out from the 2018 election?
But the key question is this: if Marshall is insinuating that this isn’t the team he will take to the election, how serious are the Liberals about actually winning it?
How prepared will they be to form government if they somehow manage to turn their poll fortunes around to the point that they might actually win the thing?
We already know that Labor will have at least one new face in its ministry — right-faction golden-boy Peter Malinauskas — when Parliament resumes. It will certainly have one more, likely one of Katrine Hildyard or Leesa Vlahos.
There are others languishing on the Labor backbench who would more than match some of those that remain in the shadow cabinet.
The contrast is stark. A government well into its second decade is doing a more concerted job of renewal than the opposition, and doing so while retaining a relatively healthy poll lead.
As one Liberal source said today: “We desperately need new talent, and we need it now.”
There is angst verging on despair that Marshall seems more determined to avoid putting noses out of joint, with the phrase “better to die on your feet than live on your knees” mentioned in dispatches.
Marshall, unsurprisingly, has a different take.
“It’s almost half-time, and we’re in a competitive position,” he told reporters this morning.
“The election isn’t today, the election is in March 2018.
“In the Liberal Party the leader makes the decisions — and I’ve got the team that I want.”
The question is — why?
*This article was originally published at InDaily.