Prime Minister Scott Morrison at the virtual cabinet swearing-in ceremony in March (Image: Lukas Coch/AAP)

With Scott Morrison looking out of his depth amid a shambolic rollout and widespread lockdown, it’s clear that the Liberal Party’s leadership options beyond him are sparse — Josh Frydenberg or Peter Dutton, and both come with problems.

Some time back, we cheekily suggested Peter Dutton might do a better job than Morrison of leading the country through a difficult period (or, really, leading at all, compared to the incumbent), a proposition that made more than a few readers incandescent with rage. But the dearth of talent is broader than around the leadership. As the third anniversary of Malcolm Turnbull’s ouster looms, it’s striking just how poor the current cabinet is in comparison to the government that, until Peter Dutton decided to go after Turnbull with the help of News Corp, was leading the country in 2018.

When Turnbull was removed, there was an experienced core of senior ministers and rising talent. Julie Bishop had racked up five years as foreign minister on top of her time as a middle-ranking minister in the last years of Howard; Mathias Cormann had been finance minister for five years. Christopher Pyne, another Howard government veteran, had served in various roles and been leader of the house since 2013. The most talented Nationals MP, Darren Chester, had been returned to cabinet after Barnaby Joyce’s ouster over sexual harassment allegations. Marise Payne, if underwhelming presentationally, had considerable frontbench experience.

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Among the rising stars were Josh Frydenberg — put through the meat grinder over energy policy, but a survivor — and Simon Birmingham, as well as newer talent such as Kelly O’Dwyer, Craig Laundy, Ken Wyatt in the aged care and Indigenous health portfolios and Michael Keenan from the west. Moreover, Scott Morrison had performed competently as treasurer, even if inclined to front-run on policy and leak to the media — he presided over a jobs boom that saw a big rise in female participation.

If nothing else, Turnbull left the government with a strong blend of experience, the next generation of leaders and up-and-comers — the kind of mix a CEO would be pleased to leave behind at a major company.

But very rapidly, the Morrison government lost most of its experience and a major slice of its talent. Spurned by her party, Julie Bishop had had a gutful and quit immediately. Christopher Pyne bailed out at the next election. Mathias Cormann who, according to Turnbull, had long held a deep disregard for Morrison, remained, overtaking Nick Minchin as longest-serving finance minister, but announced in the middle of 2020 he was leaving.

Craig Laundy, disgusted as the antics in 2018, quite the ministry and then politics. Kelly O’Dwyer decided spending time with her family was a better option. Michael Keenan bailed out as well. Julia Banks, one of the backbench stars of the Turnbull government, left the party in disgust at bullying and Scott Morrison’s behaviour.

By that time, Josh Frydenberg had been elevated to treasurer and Payne to replace Bishop. Eventually Birmingham would replace Cormann as both finance minister and leader in the Senate. But did they step up? Frydenberg lacks Morrison’s presentational skills and prosecution of the economic narrative, but the government never had an economic narrative before the pandemic other than returning to surplus anyway.

Birmingham has been a bigger disappointment — the government is sorely missing Cormann’s capacity to pull off wins in the Senate, and the relative discipline that Cormann imposed as finance minister (at least, until Morrison sought to buy the 2019 election) has been lost. The sight of Birmingham endorsing the rorting of the car park fund recently would have had Peter Walsh and John Fahey rolling in their graves.

And in foreign affairs Marise Payne, never likely to match Bishop’s glamour, has been almost invisible, and barely less so as the alleged “Prime Minister for women”; casual voters would be forgiven for thinking far-right pro-lifer Amanda Stoker was the minister for women.

The other problem has been the failure to remove, or even stop promoting, poor performers. Peter Dutton — to whom Turnbull rightly has expressed regret about handing the Home Affairs portfolio — has moved to a bigger playground for bungling contracts at Defence. Michaelia Cash — in any average ministry of the last 30 years, a junior minister at best — has found herself attorney-general, replacing Christian Porter, meaning that portfolio now suffers from both inexperience and partisan vindictiveness. Climate denialist and scandal magnet Angus Taylor remains in energy; Greg Hunt has demonstrated his 10-point font competence in the disastrous rollout.

Worst of all, in a major blow to the average IQ of the ministry, this year the incompetent rorter Barnaby Joyce, like Mungo MacCallum’s famous unflushable turd, returned to cabinet and the deputy prime ministership, along the way expelling Chester from the frontbench along with his predecessor Michael McCormack, who as a minister was no more incompetent than most of his Nationals colleagues, while rorter Bridget McKenzie returned.

And the next generation of talent is barely seen. Andrew Hastie promises in a junior role in Defence; Michael Sukkar has done well as assistant treasurer though he was embroiled in a branch-stacking scandal. Beyond that, the cupboard is pretty bare.

The transformation in less than three years from the ministry Turnbull left behind is a testimony to talent wasted or driven out, solid performers who failed to step up, and experience that has fled for greener pastures. That didn’t look such a smart decision before the 2019 election, but now looks well-considered.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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