As if there weren’t reasons enough to be depressed about the current state of Australian politics, the policy imperatives revealed in Malcolm Turnbull’s new, somewhat limited reshuffle yesterday are a new source for gloom, assuming we run out of resurgent bigotry and crass populism anytime soon.

Politically, the Prime Minister has done well. He’s accommodated the numerical need for greater representation of the Nationals, but kept the amiable clods confined to portfolios where they can’t cause a lot of economic trouble. He’s thrown a little red meat to the far right — Canberra’s Zed Seselja gets promoted, and rabid Queensland anti-abortion campaigner Matt Canavan comes into Cabinet, albeit in a portfolio where he can’t do a lot of damage, Resources and Northern Australia. But the right hasn’t done particularly well, and the (literally) Old Guard of Tony Abbott supporters received no succour. That has meant no representation at all for Tasmania, however, with the Apple Isle paying the price for turfing out such political luminaries as Andrew Nikolic.

In policy terms, however, the reshuffle says much about the lack of ideas in this government. Ignore the transfer of Greg Hunt to a pared-down Industry and the absorption of Environment by Josh Frydenberg’s Energy portfolio (don’t be fooled by the name “Environment and Energy” — this is Energy, with Environment left as a rump). Hunt has been junior Industry and Resources minister for years, steadfastly ignoring his responsibilities in the Environment portfolio in favour of killing off effective climate action measures and encouraging coal mining. His move merely formalises his actual role. The department that laboured under him — that’s the outfit responsible for the Carmichael approval bungle — simply shifts to the control of another fossil fuel fan, Frydenberg, who like Hunt is a nuclear power proselytiser (a sure sign he either can’t count, or believes in governments re-entering the power generation industry, or both) and advocate for the moral case for burning coal.

No, the key move is of Christopher Pyne to the new portfolio of Defence Industry. Turnbull spoke at length yesterday about the importance of this portfolio and it wasn’t the usual prime ministerial post-reshuffle rationalisation. Defence Industry is central to the government’s economic agenda because it is nearly all of that agenda. The corporate tax cuts for big companies that Turnbull pointedly distanced himself from during the campaign are unlikely to get up. Trade agreements will be talked up, but they take forever; the wretched Trans Pacific Partnership will with any luck be killed off by the Americans and even FTA spruikers within government must know they deliver virtually no net economic benefit.

So, pumping taxpayer dollars into building lots of defence equipment in Australia is pretty much it.

[Turnbull’s new ministry: Nationals, conservatives winners]

This is such a sad moment in Australian politics. That a man like Turnbull — who more than any other politician appeared to understand Australia’s transition away from traditional industries and the need to foster, yes, innovation; a man who promised new economic leadership and real reform; a man with at least a dash of vision — ends up presiding over good old-fashioned protectionism as his main economic agenda is profoundly depressing. We’re going to pay 30%, 40%, maybe 50% more than we need to, to build a bunch of boats to keep a few thousand people, mostly South Australians, in jobs — with much of the money flowing offshore to overseas contractors anyway.

“This is a key national economic development role. This program is vitally important for the future of Australian industry and especially advanced manufacturing,” Turnbull said yesterday, adding:

“… what we are doing in the defence industry is completely transformational. We are building a defence industry in Australia and this is not — this is a — people do not entirely recognise how big a change it is.”

It has all the “vision” of Labor propping up the car industry, except that had a couple fewer zeroes on the end of the cost-per-job price tag, albeit the same “strategic”, “advanced”, “high-value” buzzwords.

It’s appropriate that Pyne is here: for a man who might have ended up in the Labor Party, an SA Liberal MP worried he might have lost his seat to the resurgent protectionist forces of Nick Xenophon, it’s the perfect portfolio to shore up the government’s left-flank defences against both Xenophon and Labor on manufacturing.

There were reports this morning that Kim Carr has been dumped by his own faction from the Labor frontbench. But with Pyne running a portfolio dedicated to wasting tens of billions on local procurement, and Xenophon emerging as a key Senate gatekeeper, Carr — the industry minister and shadow minister who has long campaigned for ever greater government support for manufacturing — is no longer necessary. He’s won and can retire, a job well done.

Even the Turnbull government now sings from the same protectionist song sheet.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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