Feb 11, 2016

Losing Andrew Robb exacerbates the danger of Joyce

While the government's strongest supporter of foreign investment clears his desk, its greatest opponent will likely become deputy prime minister. It's a bad outcome for the government and Australia.

Bernard Keane — Politics editor

Bernard Keane

Politics editor

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull might do well to try to keep Andrew Robb on as Trade Minister for as long as possible. His departure will weaken cabinet at a point when Turnbull needs all the experience and good sense he can get. One of Tony Abbott's pitches in the lead-up to the 2013 election was that he had a team with ministerial experience from the Howard years. This made a virtue of the fact that he couldn't bring himself to cut out dead wood like Eric Abetz, Kevin Andrews and Bronwyn Bishop, but there was an element of truth to it -- Joe Hockey, Julie Bishop, Malcolm Turnbull himself and Abbott had all served as ministers under Howard. Turnbull, however, took the opposite approach, hacked out the dead wood and rusted-on Abbott supporters and went for new talent. The result is a cabinet with a handful of experienced ministers and the rest relatively inexperienced. Scott Morrison, in particular, has visibly struggled in the Treasury portfolio, having discovered that demonising refugees and hiding from scrutiny was a poor preparation for running fiscal and economic policy. When Morrison travelled to Perth so that Finance Minister Mathias Cormann could hold his hand for MYEFO in December, it spoke volumes about the relative capacity of the two ministers. Cormann was one of the few stars of the Abbott government, adeptly handling a complex privatisation process. Julie Bishop and Andrew Robb were the other two successes. Whether Robb actually believes the long litany of bullshit he has been offering about the benefits of preferential trade agreements over the last two and a bit years, he has gone about the task of signing them off with alacrity, providing the only successful component of the Abbott government's economic narrative. Robb, as a former federal Liberal director, agri-economist and a successful board director, also brought substance to the Coalition, even if the leadership ambitions he harboured might never have been realistic. He was also a strong counterweight to the xenophobic attitude to foreign investment harboured by the Nationals. But now, Barnaby Joyce, arch-opponent of foreign and particularly Chinese investment, is likely to become deputy prime minister, leading the Nationals in an even more investor-unfriendly direction, while Robb will be finishing up his career in politics. It's an unbalancing that Turnbull, and Australia, don't need. It's difficult to understate just how economically dangerous Barnaby Joyce is. He holds views far outside mainstream economic orthodoxy, not merely on foreign investment but on fiscal policy (remember his warning that Australia was going to default, when our net debt was a fraction of the size it has grown to under the Coalition), climate change and agricultural policy. As shadow finance minister under Tony Abbott -- an appointment that shocked and dismayed Liberals -- Joyce had to be dumped as his comments on investment and debt became ever more wild and damaging, not merely for the Coalition but for the economy. As deputy prime minister, even if he is confined to the backwater of agriculture, his toxic mix of crass populism and agrarian socialism will carry more weight, and he will speak with the authority of party leader. A Joyce deputy prime ministership will be bad news for foreign investors, especially if they're from China. And there'll be no Andrew Robb to counter him within cabinet, to confront like-minded media allies like Alan Jones, to make the case for the benefits to Australia of foreign investment. This will have consequences in terms of investment, in terms of jobs, in terms of growth -- none of them good. It also means Turnbull's cabinet will tilt decidedly in favour of inexperience, with a new National coming in while Robb clears his desk, and replacements for Jamie Briggs and, perhaps, Stuart Robert to be found, while Mal Brough continues to circle in limbo. Meantime, the Abbott forces will continue their destabilisation -- notice how Abbott unsubtly made a point of dragging Morrison into the story of Robert's 2013 dinner for Chinese businessman Li Ruipeng. Morrison's failure to make the most of his treasurership and his missteps on the GST compound the problem. Whatever plans Turnbull might have had for the first parliamentary fortnight of an election year have been blown away by his frontbenchers. At this rate, the shiny new Turnbull government of last September is going to be a battered wreck by the time it gets to an election in the second half of the year. Perhaps Turnbull really should go early rather than wait for more ministers to hit the fence.

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17 thoughts on “Losing Andrew Robb exacerbates the danger of Joyce

  1. zut alors

    Barnaby should enjoy the spotlight while he has the chance – beware Tony Windsor possibly running in New England in the 2016 election.

  2. Matthew Sullivan

    I’m still coming to grips with the Liberals’ explanation for accepting those watches. Essentially it boils down to Abbot et al thinking they were “only” accepting stolen Rolex intellectual property rather than a “proper” bribe.

  3. Dogs breakfast

    I agree that Robb is a comparatively effective Minister, however he is also an olde-worlde ideologue, still believing that climate change is crap, and signing us up to trade deals with the sovereignty destroying ISDS provisions.

    It remains to be explained why any sovereign nation would hand over powers to an unelected group of corporate lawyers, and how this benefits any country.

    It’s great to be effective, but if the only gear you have is reverse, you aren’t actually doing much good.

  4. Bo Gainsbourg

    Interesting to note that Barnaby is between a rock (of coal) and a very hard place given he seems to be doing bugger all to help farmers in the Liverpool plains who want to stop two mega coal mines from obliterating enormous areas of Australia’s most valuable agricultural land and likely causing permanent damage to the groundwater system of the Murray Darling which has toxic consequences for downstream. One to watch as indeed Tony Windsor contemplates whether to stand against him. His Schtick for farmers has typically been all bluster then simply siding with the big end of town against core regional and rural interests (eg telstra, coal mining, NBN etc) Most journo’s can’t get past the bluster though and mistake that for his actual stance.

  5. klewso

    Seems a bit extreme doing this, just to get away from the next “Deputy Prime Minister Cousin Jethro” – PM whenever Grand Mal is away …. “Welcome to Dogpatch SE Asia!”?
    …..Then again he has worked a lot closer with him than I have?

    [And yes Eric Abetz, Kevin Andrews, Bronwyn Bishop, Joe Hockey, Julie Bishop, Malcolm Turnbull himself and Abbott etc – all ministers in that Howard “Iraq war”/”East Timor buggery”/”NPA”/ “AWB” government.]

    As for Robb and his “success” – let’s wait a while, til those chooks come back, to judge that?

  6. sang froid

    Heaven forbid … Joyce has difficulty string a sentence together. Cringeworthy ….

  7. Jaybuoy

    According to clownshoes he speaks “bush” and he’s a retail politician here’s a sample…Barnaby Joyce is building on his claim the carbon tax will push the price of a Sunday roast to $100 by saying “a single cow or lamb could cost as much as a house.”

  8. old greybeard

    Speaks for the bush bullshit. Speaks for water thieves from Qld Yep. As for Robb, a pity he ever came back. HE has sold this nation’s workers and our sovereign rights over immigration. Border protection, what garbage. Cheap Chinese worker taking an Aussie job, NO WORRIES mate. Robb has betrayed the nations farmers, manufacturers and workers over free trade deals that are 1. Worthless and 2. Unenforceable because CHina has no rule of law. His whole concept is destroying workplaces where unions might be. He was a fool at the NFF and he remains one.

  9. Terry of Tuggeranong

    Immediately prior to toast federal election Joyce was on ‘late line’ with Tony Burke – he had the worst case of ‘asthma’ I have ever seen

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