Only days after Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced a major ministerial reshuffle – just five months after his first ministry was sworn in – the latest Newspoll reported a dramatic fall in the government’s popularity, with the Coalition and Labor now at level-pegging.
Malcolm Turnbull defies the elephants.
The reshuffle followed a few bad weeks for the government: a proposed GST hike was put into the “too hard” basket; and scandals forced the resignation of two ministers and the retirement of two others.
While proclaiming the youthful vigour, increased number of women and wide experience of his new line-up, Turnbull was completely silent on the most significant element of his reshuffle: the continued exclusion of former prime minister Tony Abbott and ex-cabinet members, former defence minister Kevin Andrews and former minister for industrial relations Eric Abetz, from his ministry.
The demotion of experienced senior ministers who were willing to serve under Turnbull was shocking, and deserved serious examination in the media.
Yet not one member of the Canberra press gallery, the self-styled Fourth Estate which keeps the politicians honest, had any question for Turnbull on the matter, or even thought it worthy of analysis.
Mr Turnbull used the opportunity presented to him to conduct a large-scale reorganisation of the Ministry, to try to get back onto the front foot.
The Canberra press gallery – the political filter through which we receive most information coming out of Canberra – was generally supportive of the changes.
Mark Kenny, chief correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald, which had conducted a relentless campaign against Mr Abbott, wrote: “By definition, the biggest question posed by Malcolm Turnbull’s emergency election-year reshuffle cannot be answered yet.
“Has he finally got it right?
“That will turn on whether the atmosphere of scandal and intrigue is truly over and whether this new team can suddenly function as a well-oiled machine, remaining intact right through to the election. On present form, that looks unlikely.”
The closest Kenny and other journalists came to the elephant in the room was to observe that Turnbull had promoted some people who had supported Mr Abbott in last year’s leadership contest. But as for the reasons for the exclusion of Mr Abbott and other senior ministers, there was almost complete silence.
The closest anyone came to the issue was in an opinion piece in The Australian by editor at large Paul Kelly, based in Sydney.
In a piece published before the reshuffle took place, Kelly – who disclosed details of Mr Turnbull’s dealings with Mr Abbott known only to Mr Turnbull – declared that “Turnbull, as Prime Minister, has no plan to bring Abbott back into the Cabinet in a senior role either before or after the election.” (The Australian, January 29, 2016)
Kelly added: “There is a strong sentiment among Turnbull backers that Abbott should not return to the Cabinet. Abbott, in turn, recognises that, if offered a genuinely senior portfolio by Turnbull, he would have no option but to accept and serve in a Turnbull Cabinet, not an easy accommodation for him. It is, however, not going to happen.”
The fact is that Mr Abbott, Kevin Andrews and Eric Abetz are among the most highly experienced MPs in Parliament, with an unrivalled wealth of parliamentary, ministerial and cabinet experience.
Abbott entered Parliament over 20 years ago, and was a cabinet member in John Howard’s government from 1998 to 2007.
He served first as minister for employment, workplace relations and small business, then as minister for health and ageing from 2003 to 2007.
Eric Abetz, for over 20 years a Senator, served in the Howard government as special minister for state, then as minister for fisheries, forestry and conservation (2006–07).
In the Abbott government, he was minister for employment and leader of the government in the Senate.
Kevin Andrews has been an MP for 25 years, serving in the Howard government as minister for the ageing, then as minister for industrial relations and later as minister for immigration. In the Abbott government, he served in the senior cabinet posts of social security and defence.
Although he indicated publicly his willingness to continue as defence minister under Malcolm Turnbull – he was about to release the Defence White Paper at the time Mr Abbott was deposed – he was dropped to the backbench.
At least the Defence White Paper has finally been issued; and none too soon given the momentous events on the Korean Peninsula and in the Middle East, and with China now placing missiles on man-made islands in the South China Sea, near the Philippines.
Although all of them have strong views, they have shown their willingness to work with others in the interests of their party and government.
The exclusion of these three men from the Turnbull ministry is a sign not of strength, but of paranoia … and weakness.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.