John Howard has paved the way for his own succession in the recent ministerial reshuffle – the biggest shake-up since he took government seven-and-a-half years ago.
While most attention has been focussed on the big moves – Tony Abbott’s shift into the health portfolio, Philip Ruddock’s move out of immigration, and Richard Alston’s imminent retirement plans, Mr Howard made three less publicised junior appointments.
These were the two Western Australian junior ministers: Julie Bishop into Ageing (formerly held by Kevin Andrews) and Ian Campbell into Territories, Local Government and Roads (formerly Wilson’s Tuckey’s job), and South Australian backbencher Christopher Pyne’s promotion to a Parliamentary Secretary’s job.
What linked all three names were that they were all strong and consistent supporters of the leadership aspirations of Peter Costello.
All are acknowledged even by their enemies as being of some talent and ability to perform executive duties, but they had in the past been party to leadership plotting and planning on behalf of Mr Costello.
Refusing to truck disloyalty of any kind, Mr Howard froze them out.
What has changed?
First of all, Mr Howard’s hold on the leadership is insurmountable, and the Liberal Party marginal seat holders to a man or woman know that they owe their jobs and lifetime Parliamentary pensions to the Prime Minister.
In other words, after three election wins he could afford to be generous.
Secondly, Mr Howard was running out of talent. The exit of Peter Reith, Michael Wooldridge, John Fahey and Richard Alston had taken big names and capable hands out of his team.
Replenishment was necessary, and it was becoming difficult to ignore the likes of Julie Bishop and Ian Campbell when other ministers like Wilson Tuckey had messed up so badly.
Finally, Mr Howard was quietly acknowledging that at some stage he will be succeeded by Mr Costello who would have promoted the trio to senior positions anyway.
Better to give them experience now, rather than let them make a hash of things as future Cabinet ministers.
Normally quite reluctant to unsettle his team by big reshuffles, the Prime Minister’s new-look ministry holds considerable risks, but to have done nothing would have been riskier.
Among those dumped were Mr Tuckey and Veterans Affairs Minister, Danna Vale, who was clipped of some of her responsibilities.
National Party Senator Ron Boswell will use his extra time and proven electoral talents to campaign full time for the coming election in the hope of keeping the Queensland Nationals competitive.
He was replaced by fellow Queenslander De-Anne Kelly as a similar form of succession planning in the National Party.
This would of course have been more extensive in the junior Coalition partner had Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson not gone back on his decision to quit, and it may have been an opportunity lost to move up some younger Nationals.
Mr Howard also demoted Health Minister Kay Patterson, but showed a form of loyalty by still keeping her in a big portfolio (Family and Community Services) and inside the Cabinet.
Senator Patterson was floundering badly in the quagmire of health, but is unlikely to find social security any better.
Tony Abbott has been given the “poisoned chalice” of health and it will surely be the job that makes or breaks him as a serious politician.
Previous responsibilties – employment services and workplace relations – were important but fairly predictable jobs for someone with Mr Abbott’s considerable skills as an advocate.
But health is different, it is a big money portfolio, with tough and intricate politics, with a thousand separate programs where something can and does regularly go wrong.
The militant doctors in their various forms are ruthless in taking on the politicians, as Bill Hayden can well attest.
The reason why Michael Wooldridge was such a success was that he knew how the doctors groups operated and was able to regularly call their bluff.
Despite the multitude of tasks, Mr Abbott though has just one job – to make enough quick improvements in health to fix it as a political negative before the next election.
Health is Labor’s one chance to win the next election.
With possibly less than six months this is no small order for Mr Abbott, but if he succeeds he will have the Prime Minister’s eternal gratitude.