The press gallery reporting of the Abbott government ministry (the very phrase still rankles) has been poor, to say the least, and that bodes ill for the quality of reporting we might expect from it over the years ahead.
First, the generalities. The reason why the make-up of the Coalition ministry does not reflect the glorious diversity of Australia is because the Coalition parties don't. The average age of Liberal Party members is over 65. They remember an Australia run by white men, they tend to preselect white men, and Tony Abbott promised a return to John Howard's Australia. What did you expect? Abbott's frontbench is 80% the same as it was in opposition.
Anyone who is surprised by the gender and ethnic makeup of the Abbott ministry is a fool. Anyone who confects surprise in the hope of making political reporting more exciting than it is really doesn't know anything about politics or journalism, and to persist at both in that state is doubly foolish. When you get to something wilfully stupid like this, you just despair.
Not only is there only one female minister in the Cabinet, but that minister - the Foreign Minister - is the one most likely to miss any given meeting of Cabinet. Annabel Crabb is right when she says Julie Bishop is nobody's token, up to a point. Julie Bishop rose through the ranks of the legal profession, won the safest Liberal seat in Perth and fixed the wreckage of aged care policy left by her hapless namesake Bronwyn. Then she entered Cabinet (coincidentally, the point at which Julie Bishop was dragged out of her depth is also the point when Crabb began her career as a parliamentary theatre reviewer), where it all fell apart in every sense but the titular.
The whole idea of the Gillard government's education reforms was to address the utter failure of Amanda Vanstone, Brendan Nelson, and Julie Bishop in that ministry. They should've made more of that; when Bishop, Pyne and other senior Liberals insisted before the election that the way schools are funded now is perfectly adequate, someone should've asked Bishop to explain the current funding system. The response would have made Jaymes Diaz look like Rudd at his most programmatically specific.
Julie Bishop is, like most of us, a foreign policy moron. This blog has been down on her silly lecturing of Indonesia. While it's true that Greg Sheridan has also pointed this out, the fact that he and she have been on junkets to Sri Lanka and formed similar glowing judgments of that country's government shows that it takes one to know one. The real reason she survives as Deputy Leader is because none of the leaders she served view her as a threat. Press gallery journalists have no excuse not to know this. The Indonesians in particular will leak to them, but will they have the wit to use them against Bishop?
We're poorly served by our new foreign minister and she hasn't even been sworn in yet. That's what's missing from Crabb's piece. That, and the fact that her clumsy segue into Mirabella shows one of her starkest limitations: her imaginative failure. Just because Mirabella isn't in the Cabinet, it doesn't follow that no other woman can be. In Crabb's world it doesn't follow that any woman not even in the Parliament today might make a good and useful cabinet minister. If the options aren't on the table, according to Crabb, they aren't options. Watch Crabb rhapsodise about Bronwyn Bishop as Speaker.
This brings us to another hard truth that the press gallery can't face up to regarding Abbott. Good old Tone the media tart is a thing of the past, and the journos don't believe him when he says he wants a break from having to front them. Mirabella isn't out of Cabinet because she made an announcement - she's not in Cabinet because she lost a safe seat. If you think Twitter is down on her, go and talk to the Liberals in what are now the two or three most marginal Labor seats in Victoria. Press gallery is too lazy to go there and they don't have Twitter accounts, but the anger is both real and valid.
The minister who's next most likely to miss Cabinet meetings is the Trade Minister, Andrew Robb. Abbott's office can't stand Robb because he doesn't back down when they yell at him. He will be one of the better ministers in this government, sifting through the legalistic and ceremonial bullshit to get to the essence of the deal. He will probably help industries you mightn't expect in markets you mightn't expect. Robb is the first Liberal Minister for Trade since 1956 and only the second one ever. The Nats/Country Party have traditionally clung to the portfolio jealously, and stuffed it up; witness the dead hand of Black Jack McEwen (bloody Indi!), or Doug Anthony trying to jam his bloodied toe into the closing door of 1970s Europe, or Mark Vaile simpering before the Americans to land an empty "free trade agreement".
Kelly O'Dwyer is smarter and harder-working than Jamie Briggs, who came from a similar staffer background and entered Parliament before the last election replacing the ministers for whom they worked. She built her profile via the media whereas he worked behind the scenes. She missed out on a frontbench gig whereas Briggs didn't. I knew Dennis Jensen had no hope of anything once he started shooting his mouth off in the media. As with Howard, the worst thing you can do if you care about an issue and want the PM to address it, is to go to the media.
O'Dwyer made one of the cardinal mistakes in politics, a newbie error: never go on telly unless you have something to say (and no, talking points do not count as "something to say"). She was widely disparaged by people who follow politics closely for acting as a relay-station for what are clearly the thoughts of others, and poorly-considered thoughts at that. Keeping up the media availability would be a mistake - the next time she should appear on the media she should have something to say as a result of her own hard work and investigation, and should have cleared it with the relevant minister without merely being an echo of that minister. It is possible that she may not be elevated to a job befitting her talents until the Abbott Government has almost, or completely, run its course; this need not be a bad thing.
Compare O'Dwyer with Josh Frydenberg, who entered Parliament after her and who is again another ex-staffer. The deep humus of this blog has plenty to say about Frydenberg and what a sillyhead he is, yet in Liberal circles he has a reputation as a thinker, while she's just a talking head.
Both O'Dwyer and Briggs - and you, dear reader, for that matter - are smarter and harder-working than Peter Dutton. His contribution to this government's victory is zero. He did no work on policy or campaigning and should not have received so much as a cracker from Abbott. All Coalition arguments about merit and against quotas fail in the slack-jawed face of this utter waste of skin. As Minister for Sport he will spend the coming parliamentary term swanning around next year's One-Day Cricket World Cup here and in NZ, as well as the FIFA World Cup and Olympics in Brazil.
He will do bugger-all about ageing in a nation with a steadily-ageing demographic - one largely responsible for this government being elected at all. He will not even have the wit to fuse sports and health in some way, in a country with such an obesity problem. He is ill-served by having Fiona Nash as Assistant Minister. His successor as Shadow Minister for Health should be able to mess with his head pretty easily, if not claim his scalp.
The one thing Dutton will do is impose boards on hospitals. Studies show local hospital boards do nothing to improve health services, nor to improve the cost per delivery of services, nor tailor health services to local needs. We already know what this government thinks of studies and proof and facts, don't we. Local health boards will be stacked full of busybodies, lurk-merchants and resume-polishers, thanks to Dutton.
Among the many important issues about which Dutton will be doing bugger-all is disability services. One of the central ideas behind DisabilityCare is to deliver the same services for less money. Whether setting it up or abolishing it altogether, this area needs energy and vision - yes I know Dutton is palming this off to Mitch Fifield, I said energy and vision. Fifield is a grey bureaucrat who might keep some obscure corner of government from getting into the slow media, repelling journalists through his sheer dullness, but the wrong person to build anything and reach out to people. The right minister could be so successful that Labor would have trouble convincing future voters that it was their idea - Fifield is not that minister.
Matthias Cormann, like Stephen Conroy, doesn't give a damn what anyone thinks of him. He is the perfect counterfoil to Joe Hockey, who deep down wants people to think he's a good guy. When it came to the Gillard government's regulation of financial planners, Cormann showed both his mastery of detail and the ability to advocate dumb policy with a straight face - two rare and indispensable qualities for this government. It is Cormann who will snarl at aggrieved stakeholders about the need for budget cuts. The whole nation will think he's a prick, and he'll look like one until the entire WA government starts to implode (Cormann is largely to blame for the WA state government being like that), at which point he'll look like a doofus. Hated and smart is OK for a senior politician; hated and clumsy is political death.
Arthur Sinodinos is effectively Minister for Tax and Regulating Big Companies. It's complex and there are no real winners, but this is his chance to develop skills he doesn't have in actual politicking and dealing with the dumber journalists. Nobody doubts Sinodinos can handle the backroom nitty-gritty - hell, Julia Gillard could do that. If Sinodinos really is the complete package let's see him do the grassroots stuff without being able to invoke the authority of the PM's office. Abbott is also feebly trying to signal to Howard that he's his own man; let's see how long that lasts.
Kevin Andrews belongs in the bin with the rest of them, but for one factor: he is the conduit between the Liberal Party and the broad but largely obscure movement of Catholic conservatives. What Andrews lacks as an administrator of the common weal, or as a media performer, he more than makes up for as a tactician while keeping hidden conservative Catholic motivations and support. Next time abortion or euthanasia or gay marriage resurface as issues, it will be Andrews who does the behind-the-scenes work for this government to quietly but unequivocally suppress them. Andrews will do the dirty work to scupper the Royal Commission into Child Abuse, on which a smart opposition would raise hell.
Andrews, through Joe de Bruyn, is the backdoor channel into the ALP; when Liberals bag unionists, you can be sure they do not have de Bruyn in mind. Andrews was such a crap Workplace Relations Minister because he was so conflicted. In his current role he isn't conflicted, but he will be furtive. His shadow minister should be alert to his lack of attention to detail and avoid getting sucked into culture-war themes unless there's gross waste involved.
The reason why there is a Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Centenary of ANZAC is not some tokenistic "Minister for Anzac Day". Next year is the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. 25 April 2015 will be the centenary of the landings at Anzac Cove, and any Australian government would be into that up to its eyeballs; this stuff will not organise itself. In much the same way, there were ministers for the Olympic Games before and during the 1956 Melbourne Games and the 2000 Games in Sydney.
The fact that said minister is the non-entity Michael Ronaldson is not at all comforting. Veterans' affairs is too hard for him. Normally a sinecure, the fact that (for the first time since the 1960s) there are kids at school today whose fathers have been killed at war means that the portfolio needs careful management, if not reinvention. It involves more than patronising old diggers; the push for better mental health and disability services will be driven largely from this portfolio, whether or not the "all in good time" ethos of this government allows it. Young men of working age who got bent out of shape in Afghanistan won't be brushed aside by half-witted Liberals like the Vietnam vets were. Ronaldson should be an easy target for a shadow minister on top of his or her game.
Chris Pyne will persecute the culture war and knows his Adelaide honk annoys people; the correct way to deal with him is not to engage but to simply dismiss him as a know-nothing. He can handle being disliked but not having his bluff called. Sussan Ley will be a cracker of a minister; I pity her shadow, and she will not be able to help showing up Pyne. Michael Keenan is talked up by Liberals but I suspect he is full of shit; a shadow who goes him hard and early might rattle him.
Paul Fletcher was outed today as the genius who foisted an internet filter on Malcolm Turnbull, and the rest of us, on the day before the election. That should have ended his career; it has certainly ended the 'promising' aspect of it. The sillier members of the press gallery tout Fletcher as some sort of ICT policy genius as the basis for doing so gets more and more flimsy. Lumping him as Malcolm Turnbull's parly sec is cruel to both men, unless Turnbull has the sense to lump Fletcher with things like having to erect metal boxes in every street.
Ian Macfarlane thinks he has to be a spruiker for industry. That's what lobbyists are for; maybe he's making an early pitch for such a job. The former spokesperson for farmers has gone full circle in support of the frackers. If he really gets going he will hollow out the Nationals and give rise to dozens of Windsor-McGowan-style independents at the next election, which will finally end the Whitlam-era idea that the outer suburban seats determine government.
It was sensible of Abbott to drop the useless John Cobb from Agriculture. On every bit of public policy affecting agriculture over the past six years - beef to Indonesia, wheat sales, NZ apples - John Cobb managed to stuff it up and had to be rescued by Abbott's office. No press gallery journalist noted Cobb's ineptitude, preferring instead to let Barnaby Joyce complain about foreign-owned farms (Joyce can be quite sanguine about British and US interests owning farms; less so about Chinese and Filipino interests, for reasons no press gallery journalist has thought to explore). Now Joyce is well placed to do something about agriculture policy, but it isn't clear what - like Abbott himself, Joyce is like the dog that's caught the car he chased so ardently, and now he has to drive it.
Why was Warren Entsch dumped as Chief Whip? Along with the dumping of Senator Ian Macdonald from the front bench, you might assume that Abbott has something against far north Queensland. This is going to make it hard for the government to demonstrate that it's big on developing the deep north.
Eric Abetz will be rubbish at negotiating outcomes in the Senate. He's a culture warrior who'll beat up on enfeebled unions (except de Bruyn's, of course), devoting maximum energy to the irrelevant, assuming that everybody works in fulltime jobs within stable organisations with secure employee benefits. The Coalition message on workplace relations is all over the place, thanks to this gimlet-eyed knucklehead who hasn't had a new idea since the 1980s. He is both a liability for this government, and utterly irreplaceable.
Greg Hunt has so hollowed out his credibility that I hope he chokes on his reward. Scott Morrison never had any, and the rest of the Cabinet aren't worth their own weight in bottle-tops. Warren Truss didn't join the Nationals in order to build freeways in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Smart lawyers will run rings around Brandis, who won't have the good grace to admit his own mediocrity and try being affable instead. Brandis fancies himself as a champion of traditional freedoms but he has nothing to say and less to do on the subject; a tough, smart Senate should eviscerate him.
When a new government comes to office the administrative arrangement orders set out which minister is responsible for which legislation, and which departments. It's seriously wonky, but a) the market for that is bigger than you might imagine and b) there is much in that for political journalists to use in assessing ministers' performances. There are thousands of soon-to-be-unemployed public servants who understand these, and a few will be able to explain what they mean. Do you think the press gallery will reach out to such people? Me neither.
Labor's putative front bench are both younger and more experienced than this ministry. Consider two smart, hard-working and effective pols from NSW: Tanya Plibersek and Marise Payne. Plibersek has six years' ministerial experience, including a stint in Cabinet - even if Payne matches that record, and I wouldn't be surprised, she will still be five years older than Plibersek. At some point press gallery journalists will opine that 'the government is tired' and/or 'the opposition is invigorated', because Labor will offer greater relative experience, diversity, and youth.
Whenever a conservative writes a "w(h)ither Labor?" piece, it's almost always an attempt to mask a feared weakness in conservative ranks. This is why halfwits express their amazement that social media treats Abbott with similar contempt to that which the slow media showed Gillard. This is no exception. The internal democracy of the ALP seems very important to those within that organisation, and is neither here nor there to those outside it like Matthewson and me. Rudd was destabilising because he would never accept no for an answer, and neither would his acolytes. It may be that whoever loses the Labor leadership contest white-ants the winner, but it may also be that the loser turns his energy against the Coalition. It's hard to tell from this angle and Matthewson just looks like she's painting Labor in the worst possible light. She should leave that crap to Chris Kenny, or Mark Kenny, or any other member of the Kenny family really.
This government won with less than the thumping majority it had hoped (those pollsters who predicted Rudd and Bowen would lose their seats can just fuck off, and stick your statistical excuse-making). The lack of women and diverse personnel in this government has all but killed the honeymoon effect enjoyed by newly-elected governments (the best commentary on this is Tim Dunlop's article, because it's about Abbott and those who voted for him rather than those who didn't).
At the very point where this government starts the It's Worse Than We Thought pantomime and starts making Hard And Unpopular But Necessary Decisions, along will come the new Labor leader saying that it doesn't have to be this way. That's when the trouble will start for this government. They seriously assume that the opposition, in parliament and out, will let them get on with it with only the kind of quiescent embarrassment that people inside the Coalition who had doubts about Abbott showed toward him.
Labor assumes it will be able to go in hard over its two big strengths, education and health. The loss of government federally, and in four states with two more to come, suggests this would not be a good idea. Because nobody is listening to the opposition anyway at this point, it would be silly to expect them to feint and invite Abbott to engage them on their favourite issues. The opposition should meet this government where they're at, and shirtfront them on the things they care about. The government is all over the place on the economy; it should be possible to get in their faces before they can develop a narrative.
One of the central beliefs animating the Liberal/National base is that Canberra is full of shinybum bureaucrats cooking up plans to raise taxes and generally screw the country. Part of the reason why you so often see Abbott on a bike is to reassure the base - a man riding a bicycle is not trying to break anyone's business model. When Abbott said before the election "I've got a plan", I was waiting for the rejoinder "but he hasn't even got a clue", which never came. A few hard, early blows portraying Coalition figures as having been in Canberra way too long will sting.
The central problem facing this government is that its "all in good time" ethos will start to look complacent. Peter Hartcher has unwittingly admitted that this is a vacuous government, and that it doesn't yet know what aspects of its negative campaign are to be retained or dropped. This makes it enormously vulnerable, but not necessarily in the tu quoque way Hartcher seems to assume. This country has an enormous future provided the Coalition are prevented from applying their bonsai techniques to the mighty potential for social, artistic, and economic outcomes. When polls turn against this government the dopier commentators will assume that they are driving its decay, when in fact they will be reflecting it.
If you don't know why you're in government (other than for its own sake, or for the lurks) you won't be there long. Labor has to learn that lesson, but so too must the Coalition. Guess which is most receptive to learning hard lessons, has nothing to lose that it doesn't value, and has more time and more energy up its sleeve. Guess which is complacent and risk-averse, and confuses debate with dissent. The press gallery literally have a box seat in observing this new government, which isn't new to them; but they just can't tell what's going on.