The reshuffle is interesting for how this government sees itself.
First, it's limited in scope, which reinforces Abbott's idea that there isn't much wrong with the government that a bit of spin can't fix. It also reinforces the idea that shifting some of the government's alternative leaders - Bishop, Turnbull, and yes even Hockey - would be career-limiting for Abbott.
The only governments that have far-reaching changes to their ministerial line-ups are those in real trouble, like the two reshuffles Labor had in 2013. This government may well have a reshuffle or two on that scale, but not yet.
Abbott has not promoted any big thinkers because he does not want any profound transformations in the way policy is conducted. He does not want to have to defend any controversial ideas on matters about which he knows little and cares less.
Andrews in Defence We're sending our forces into Iraq at a time when warfare, like all other facets of human activity, requires fundamental reexamination of a number of basic assumptions. Australia's strategic environment is shifting fast. Kevin Andrews is not the man to handle that.
If you accept those limitations, then what is needed in that role is a program manager par excellence - someone who will ensure Australian warfighters go into mortal danger relying on kit from the cheapest bidder. He's not that, either.
Andrews holds the fate of a large chunk of the South Australian economy in his hands. He'll give them more than the bugger-all currently on the table now, but not much more. He won't be able to wrest any political credit for that away from the state's Labor Premier, Jay Weatherill, and will be deaf to the screams of SA Liberals on why that matters to them.
Defence is the death-seat of federal politics. Apart from genuine policy nerds like David Johnston and Kim Beazley, every minister for the past 40 years was appointed to that role in full knowledge that their career was over (apart from Joel Fitzgibbon, which demonstrated Rudd didn't get the role Defence plays in foreign policy). Andrews is being managed out of politics.
The mad scheme for Credlin to take his seat remains in place. Only Canberra insiders blithely assume the Victorian Libs will meekly comply with an order issued from Abbott's office. It also means that the constituency of paternalistic religious conservatives will have to be represented by someone else, which will mean someone like Bruce Billson, Tony Smith and/or Michael Ronaldson will come under threat, blood will beget blood, etc.
Morrison to Social Services This assumes Morrison has attained a reputation as a competent administrator, with some sort of magical touch to get things through the Senate. This portfolio covers 20% of the Budget and the fun ain't done in that portfolio. The people most impressed by his tough-guy antics against refugees are older people with few skills, who fret most about refugees taking their jobs, and who are also most affected by changes to pensions or unemployment.
It also assumes Senator Marise Payne, who has basically been responsible for executing policy in this area (and helping outmaneuver Andrews brainfarts like denying young unemployed people support for six months) hasn't done enough to warrant a promotion. Keep this in mind when you cheer Abbott's doubling of female representation in Cabinet (more below).
Dutton to Immigration This assumes the case for our current immigration policy has been made. It hasn't.
Conservatives confuse doltish obstinacy with firm consistency of purpose, which is why they rate Dutton more highly than his talents and record suggest. He was a political passenger, offering nothing against Nicola Roxon or Tanya Plibersek as ministers for health. As minister and now shadow, Catherine King ran rings around him. If Richard Marles takes the kid gloves off in dealing with the new boy, it could be the making of him.
Support for the current immigration regime seems strong but individual incidents puncture it. Polling does not capture this. Morrison starved journalists of detail and derided them for writing rubbish, but they love being put in that bind because they love Strong Narrative over anything else. Morrison, like Howard, had the ability to look plaintive while being inflexible - a tactic that fools journalists - but Dutton can't do that.
Dutton has only two political talents. He picked the Liberal leadership changes since Howard with great accuracy and extracted great deals for himself. He comes from a state that is crucial politically but which doesn't send talented people to Canberra.
Dutton will overreach the wide-ranging powers Morrison won for him. At exactly the wrong moment, Dutton will make a dumb and callous statement that leads to a policy rethink greater than he can handle.
He can plug, plug, plug a message regardless of facts or changing circumstances, a quality prized highly among those who regard politics as a sub-type of public relations. It won't be enough.
Ley in Health Of all the Coalition MPs not initially appointed to Abbott's cabinet, Ley had the strongest case for inclusion. Her appointment is less a what-if than a why-not. She is across the detail and can plug a line as well as anyone while also having a mind of her own. In short, she makes a stronger case for inclusion than almost anyone there now. If anyone is going to come up with a workable arrangement on state funding or NDIS she will do it. She will also counter some of King's work on regional health initiatives.
Ley's appointment is a tacit admission that Dutton failed in Health, and that his failure is politically costly. Peta Credlin had assured female Coalition MPs that there would be more opportunities for them but now we see what that means as far as Abbott is concerned: women tidy up after men.
Frydenberg as Assistant Treasurer This is reward for service to Abbott.
The Assistant Treasurer is basically Minister for Tax. The Budget has a revenue problem and this government will shy away from far-reaching tax reform. Therefore, the battle will be joined at the level of detail: the government will want to close lurks and loopholes while the lobbyists who pushed for them will want them kept open. The Assistant Treasurer will need an eagle eye for detail and a firm commitment to what's right for the country: the 2006 version of Arthur Sinodinos would have been perfect.
Unfortunately, we've got Josh, who has glided through life with a superficial charm designed to disguise his boredom with detail. He's an errand boy. Nobody wants this guy in the trenches when it gets tough, and this is one tough job. He doesn't complement Hockey's weaknesses, he compounds them.
He was in charge of not one but two of Abbott's so-called bonfires of red tape. Rather than do the hard work of identifying and costing (politically as well as economically) counterproductive regulations, Frydenberg slapped together a whole lot of straw men that impressed nobody but press gallery journalists. It was lazy stuff and this blog has had it in for him before he was first elected.
Others who might have done this job better - Little Jimmy Briggs, Kelly O'Dwyer, Christian Porter or even Steve Ciobo - are right to feel passed over for a lesser person. Briggs and Ciobo should be wangling invitations to Mal and Julie's supper club.
The Parly Secs
- Christian Porter (replacing the ousted Johnston from WA) rose fast and far with little competition in his native state, and it will be interesting to see what errands Abbott sends him on.
- Kelly O'Dwyer's investigation into foreign investment in Australian real estate looked like an audition for a higher role (along with hundreds of media appearances where she unblushingly recited the daily inanities), and so it has proven. She risks treading a narrow path with her Treasury background but nobody is obliged to pass up a promotion.
- Karen Andrews is a former Hockey staffer who has taken to the busywork of committees and generally kept her head down while other newbie MPs aare still coming to terms with how the joint works.
Abbott is sending the signal to ambitious MPs that Howard did: knuckle down and do the busywork and I'll call on you in my own good time. Howard regularly broke that rule, with Abbott and Mark Vaile and Petro Georgiou to name a few, but hey.
Abbott deserves all the meagre rewards that come from having taken meagre risks. You, my dear readers, deserve all the best that the festive season and 2015 can offer, so we'll see what happens then.