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The PM's taste for old blood


Former Abbott Ministry

Governments in trouble often reshuffle their ministry to introduce renewal and new blood. Sometimes they fall short and Tony Abbott’s reshuffle to begin 2015 is a case in point with one exception.

Sussan Ley, the new Health minister, is trying to cope with the shemozzle that she inherited from the Prime Minister and her predecessor, Peter Dutton. She cancelled the immediate implementation of the cut to the Medicare rebate and promised more consultation, while sticking to the general company line on reining in health costs.

Her performance has been nothing marvellous so far but her style is fresh and engaging; just what this federal government lacks.  It boasts a stack of experienced but boring ministers.

Ley, the member for Farrer, based in Albury, and formerly an air-traffic controller, farmer and public servant, may turn out to be one of the bright spots for the government this year. She is genuine new blood at the higher level and might even bring about some renewal in the government, at least in image.

This distinction between reshuffle, renewal and new blood is important.  Ley occupies her new position because of the Cabinet reshuffle in December, which also elevated Josh Frydenberg to Assistant Treasurer, replacing Arthur Sinodinos, tainted by political scandal at ICAC. Ley was Assistant Education Minister. The music stopped at Health for her because Scott Morrison moved to Social Services to replace Kevin Andrews who moved to Defence to replace David Johnston who was dropped from the ministry altogether. Dutton moved to Immigration.

It was not a serious effort at renewal. Abbott shuffled the existing deck of cards but didn’t introduce many new ones at the senior level. Even at the junior level there wasn’t much movement. Senator Simon Birmingham replaced Ley as the Assistant Education Minister. Brett Mason was dropped as a Parliamentary Secretary, apparently because of internal Queensland Liberal National Party politics rather than ability, leaving poor Johnston as the single casualty because of alleged poor performance. Clearly it was not a ministerial performance review or a serious effort to inject new blood into the Cabinet and the ministry.

This reshuffle moved some senior ministers from the portfolios they had spent fifteen months administering and getting to know. Most of them had also been shadow ministers in these portfolios while in Opposition. Andrews, for instance, had spent years getting to know the sector and thinking through what his approach to Social Services was going to be and now, after less than half a term in office, he is no longer minister.

Shuffling the ministerial deck can sometimes produce improved government performance. The new ministers may just click in their new portfolios. The whole exercise may produce new energy in the Cabinet. It may lead the way to changes in policy under the guise of the new minister putting their own stamp on the portfolio.

But this assumes that the central control of government policy allows room for flexibility by individual ministers. There has been little sign of this so far.

The limited renewal of the Cabinet and ministry embodied in the December reshuffle is characteristic of Abbott’s approach. He entered government promising that his government would be a continuation of the John Howard era. Therefore he stuck with those who had served as Howard ministers. He elevated little new blood when he came to government and he has compounded this error by his very cautious mid-term reshuffle.

One aspect of his first Cabinet was the almost complete absence of women with only Foreign Minister Julie Bishop among the 20 Cabinet ministers. Bishop has been one of the better performers, perhaps the best. Ley may also turn out to be more successful than the old hands.

Gender is part of the Cabinet’s problem but it is not the only one.  The whole Cabinet needs to be fresher and more engaging. Abbott will probably need a second Cabinet reshuffle by the end of the year.

In the meantime the Prime Minister needs to look to the future rather than the past; his preoccupation with knighthoods and his unilateral award of one to the Duke of Edinburgh is evidence of his attraction to old rather than new blood. Whatever the composition of the Cabinet he must bring them into his confidence and learn from them if their collective performance is to improve. 

John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and a Canberra Times columnist.


Topic tags: John Warhurst, Tony Abbott, Federal politics, Kevin Andrews, Sussan Ley, Peter Dutton



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Existing comments

Talk about Abbott engaging in genuine talent seeking and reshuffling his Cabinet in a major, proactive and more inclusive way for the good of the country reminds this rusted on Wallabies' supporter about what is needed and supposed to be happening on the national front with The Game they play in Heaven: a great deal of talk from intelligent critics but little seemingly happening at game level. When will Cheika deliver? When, or will, Abbott deliver? If the PM can't deliver, what next? It is a pity that there was no contingency plan for Howard's demise. Costello left the building and Malcolm Turnbull got done by the hyper-conservatives who wield power in the Liberal Party. I fear Abbott will leave a poisoned chalice for his successor.

Edward Fido | 29 January 2015  

"Abbott will probably need a second Cabinet reshuffle by the end of the year." Surely you mean "Turnbull will probably need ..." A politician can survive lots of things, but not ridicule. The Brian Matthews type on the other ES entry today is the polite version; imagine what they are saying in the pubs and clubs. s

Frank | 30 January 2015  

Perhaps Tony Abbott's attraction to the past more than to the future was influenced by his religious education. The Church has always had this attraction, rejecting or delaying attempts at 'aggiornamento'. As late as the reign of Benedict XVI, who wrote ''I trust the Gospels - that the Church takes as the basis of her teaching." Now it must be acknowledged that the Gospels were written by the Greek converts of St Paul, and that they distorted the story of the Life of Jesus to fit in with their own traditions, adding in the 'miracles' of their own pagan gods, despite Jesus saying, (Mark 8:12), 'NO sign (miracle) will be given to this generation', which would make no sense if he had been performing all those miracles. Thankfully reliance on miracles is being downgraded by Pope Francis, and now is seen not as 'interventions by God' , but as 'outcomes that cannot be explained by the present understanding of medical science.' Hopefully both the Church and Tony Abbott will finally and fully update.

Robert Liddy | 30 January 2015  

John, I thought your article weak to say the least. The problem with the parliaments in Australia is that more than 90% of parliamentarians are of Anglo Celtic Saxon origin, and of this more than 90% again has over 100 years of family history in Australia, ensuring the ethos and thinking of generations of old, are unequivocally passed down through permutation and permeation, intergenerationally. When parliaments and industries across the board in Australia includes other races besides those of Anglo Celtic Saxon origin, only then will the true identity of Australia be confirmed and only then will change, human rights, humanity and social justice be rightly understood, heard and acted upon. When a criticism is valid, it must be said. The lack of a Bill of Rights in Australia, the only Westerm democracy in the world not to have one - force highly educated unemployed professionals of color to rely on the adage "She'll be right mate" only to our detriment. The laws in Australia are made by whites for whites and so we that come here not as refugees but as skilled migrants from educated, high socio economic families are forcibly placed on trajectory of becoming economic refugees, as we have no protection and no recourse in the current law. As a Catholic, to know and deceive people is inexcusable. When are writers like yourself going to legitimise equality in Australia, push for affirmative action programs in your establishments etc Every year my comments relay the same intent but our pursuit of justice falls on deaf ears while the pursuit of injustice grows. We want the credit for our own work, we want to hold the rightful position and salary for the capabilities delivered, we want to take care of our families whatever color they may be, the way whites are so richly afforded. We want the right to acquire capital and equity. We want to live the life we were meant to live, not this small untenable life of handouts so readily promoted and acceptable by white Australia. I would like a reply.

Jackie | 31 January 2015  

Is it possible that Tony is just out of his depth and bored? After all, his whole career has been one of wrecking institutions rather than the long slow slog of building up anything of value which require collaboration and negotiation. Even in sport, he's a loner; boxing, swimming and cycling, at least as he does it, are hardly 'team sports'. Perhaps he's into 'shirt-fronting', knight-dubbing, and the rest of his one-man escapades because that is all he is capable of, and that cabinet governance is something that bores him because he can't always or immediately get his own way?

Ginger Meggs | 01 February 2015  

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