‘L’ Plate Cabinet or Safe Pairs of Hands?

There’s not going to be a blog about last week’s non-spill in the Labor Party. I considered it, but then … what was the point? Really? What could be said that wasn’t either pointing out the obvious, or banging my head against a wall of stupidity in both mainstream and social media?

So, in the immortal – and dreadfully twee – words of the Prime Minister’s last election campaign … this blog is ‘moving forward’. (Ugh. Who thought of that, anyway? Worst. Campaign slogan. EVER.) Last Friday, a slew of Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries offered their resignations, which the PM accepted (the exception being Simon Crean, who was sacked after he publicly called for the leadership spill and excoriated the government in the process of doing so). Martin Ferguson, Joel Fitzgibbon, Kim Carr, Janelle Saffin, Ed Husic, and Chris Bowen all went to the backbench, leaving the PM no choice but to reshuffle.

Usually, a reshuffle is not terribly good for headlines. Sometimes you get an unexpected inclusion (such as Gillard’s oft-criticised decision to appoint Rudd as Foreign Minister when he resigned), or a predicted punishment (sending Robert McLelland to the junior ministry after he supported Rudd in his challenge last year). This time, though, there are more than a few areas of interest.

First up, we’re only six months out from the September 14 election. That means any new Cabinet has a very short shake-down cruise. Second, Gillard has to show that the government has enough depth of talent to replace those who resigned – no easy task in the case of someone like Martin Ferguson.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott went on the attack almost before the ink was dry on the resignation letters. The depth simply wasn’t there, he proclaimed. Any new Cabinet would be on its ‘L’ plates – read: inexperienced, unable to do their job without the supervision of a ‘grown-up’, and potentially dangerous. He invited Australians to compare what’s left of the PM’s choices to his own, ‘stable’ front bench. There was simply no contest – and just by the way, he’ll be tabling a no confidence motion when Parliament resumes for the May Budget. (Not that this was any surprise to anyone.)

Leaving aside the posturing, Abbott did have a point. The PM was under pressure to show her Cabinet was not only competent, but experienced – and there weren’t really a lot of choices. Her solution was to side-step altogether the question of who to bring in from the backbench.

Her first announced appointment was Anthony Albanese, Minister for Infrastructure and Transport. Added to this is now Regional Development and Local Government. This is a resounding show of confidence in Albanese, whose support for Rudd is well-known. After last year’s failed challenge, he offered his resignation to the PM, who refused. Last week, he told media that he would not try to depose a sitting PM, and that he had, in fact, urged Rudd not to challenge. Nonetheless, many expected him to end up on the backbench.

In fact, this is a promotion – and a very pointed one, too. Albanese’s taken on part of Crean’s former responsibilities. It doesn’t take a political genius to see the subtext there.

Tony Burke picked up the other half of Crean’s portfolio – Arts. It’s a slightly odd fit with his current position as Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, but Burke has always had a great deal of interest in the Arts.

Craig Emerson adds Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research to the Trade portfolio. Even with two assisting junior Ministers, this is a huge amount of responsibility.

The Department for Climate Change is now merged with Industry and Innovation, all under the purview of Greg Combet. Again, somewhat strange bedfellows here – although, arguably, Combet is now in a position to drive policy encouraging business to innovate in ways that mitigate the effects of climate change. The Greens may not see it that way, however. It will be interesting to see if Christine Milne considers this merger an irreconcilable conflict of interests.

Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus also picked up extra responsibilities, adding Special Minister of State, Public Service and Integrity.

The appointment of Gary Gray to Resources, Energy, Tourism and Small Business surprised exactly no one. He’s a West Australian, experienced in dealing with the Resources Sector.

Jan McLucas is the new Minister for Human Services, and Jason Clare remains Minister for Home Affairs and Justice, but becomes a full Cabinet member. Finally, the PM announced a number of new junior Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries, including Andrew Leigh, who will now serve as Parliamentary Secretary to Gillard.

In a way, this isn’t really a reshuffle at all. With the exception of Gray, McLucas and Clare, there are no new appointments, no moving around. Instead, Gillard’s largely loaded more responsibility onto existing Ministers, effectively creating super-portfolios.

And take a look at those Ministers – senior, highly experienced, without a breath of incompetence clinging to them. There’s no Peter Garrett here, forever tainted by the debacle with the insulation program. Yes, Combet’s linked with carbon pricing, and Albanese is associated with Rudd, but there’s no doubt that they have performed well in their positions. More importantly, perhaps, they project the image that they are safe pairs of hands.

Albanese, Dreyfus, Emerson, Burke and Combet are Gillard’s answer to the ‘L’ plate accusation. No one could argue these are ‘drivers’ in need of supervision. (Even if Emerson does have a tendency to occasionally quote Monty Python in Question Time, or filk old Skyhooks songs in Parliament House courtyards.)

Cleverly, Gillard has also managed to take some of the wind out of Abbott’s sails in regards to his assertion that there is not enough depth of talent on the government benches. (Dear me, the metaphors are mixing terribly today.) Appointing a whole group of new Parliamentary Secretaries and junior Ministers signals to the electorate that here is the next generation of Ministers, learning their trade while apprenticed to strong, competent mentors. It doesn’t entirely nullify Abbott’s suggestion, but it goes a long way to bringing new faces into public view without exposing them to potential problems.

Of course, these new responsibilities also leave the appointees open to questions and criticism regarding their ability to handle the increased workload. They have a little over six weeks to deal with that – and I’m sure there’ll be any number of announcements and media opportunities for them to demonstrate how well they’re doing before they head back to Canberra for the Budget sitting.

This is a purely political move for Gillard. She knows she has to demonstrate to the electorate not only unity, but also competence. She has to show that, even in the face of so many resignations, she has more than enough talent on which she can rely. She’s found the best possible way to do that.

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3 Responses to ‘L’ Plate Cabinet or Safe Pairs of Hands?

  1. Rockstar Philosopher says:

    I’m mainly worried about there being no Climate Change minister. After what the ALP have done with refugees and the libs not touching industrial relations for at least an election cycle I guess there’s now no reason to vote for them.*

    *I won’t be voting for either of them, but I understand the electoral system enough to know how to make a non-Lib/Lab vote actually count for something. Educate your friends on how to vote in the senate!

  2. Sandra Searle (@SandraSearle) says:

    Yes the Cabinet is in a safe pair of hands.
    The reason it is, will be that those that have been promoted, were actually working behind the scenes already.
    They actually just might have a good handle on things and can accept direction when & if it is needed.
    Everyone should stop with the ‘what ifs’ and get cracking on keeping the good policies coming out, looking after the finances and making sure that TA & his mob do not get their hands on the keys to the lodge.

  3. Loki says:

    You didn’t mention Conroy – I assume he retains Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy?

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