We now know the make-up of Prime Minister Elect Tony Abbott’s new Ministry – and if it’s a sign of things to come, there are some features that may well be warning signs. For the most part, Abbott made good on his promise to simply remove the word ‘Shadow’ from his front bench. There were a few surprises, however, on which I’ll elaborate below.
Prime Minister – Tony Abbott
Parliamentary Secretary – Josh Frydenberg
Parliamentary Secretary – Alan Tudge
Deputy Prime Minister; Infrastructure and Regional Development – Warren Truss
Assistant – Jamie Briggs
Treasurer – Joe Hockey
Assistant – Senator Arthur Sinodinos
Parliamentary Secretary – Steve Ciobo
Agriculture – Senator Barnaby Joyce
Parliamentary Secretary – Senator Richard Colbeck
Attorney-General; Arts – Senator George Brandis
Communications – Malcolm Turnbull
Parliamentary Secretary – Paul Fletcher
Defence – Senator David Johnston
Assistant – Stuart Robert
Parliamentary Secretary – Darren Chester
Education; Leader of Government Business in the House – Christopher Pyne
Assistant – Sussan Ley
Parliamentary Secretary – Senator Scott Ryan
Employment; Assisting the Prime Minister on the Public Service; Leader of the Senate – Senator Eric Abetz
Assistant – Luke Hartsuyker
Environment – Greg Hunt
Parliamentary Secretary – Senator Simon Birmingham
Finance – Senator Mathias Cormann
Parliamentary Secretary – Michael McCormack
Foreign Affairs – Julie Bishop
Parliamentary Secretary – Brett Mason
Health and Sport – Peter Dutton
Assistant – Senator Fiona Nash
Immigration and Border Protection – Scott Morrison
Assistant; Assisting the Prime Minister for Women – Michaelia Cash
Indigenous Affairs – Senator Nigel Scullion
Industry – Ian McFarlane
Parliamentary Secretary – Bob Baldwin
Small Business – Bruce Billson
Social Services – Kevin Andrews
Assistant – Senator Mitch Fifield
Parliamentary Secretary – Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells
Trade and Investment – Andrew Robb
Speaker – Bronwyn Bishop
Whip – Philip Ruddock
Assisting Ministers, plus:
Veterans Affairs; Assisting the Prime Minister on the Century of ANZAC; Special Minister for State – Senator Michael Ronaldson
Human Services – Marise Payne
Justice – Michael Keenan
The first, and most glaring, issue is the lack of women in the Cabinet. Out of 20 Ministers, there is only one, Julie Bishop, who stays with Foreign Affairs. In the Outer Ministry there are three ‘Assistant Ministers’ (positions that, under Labor, were called ‘Junior Ministries’), one Parliamentary Secretary, and one Minister – and, of course, Bronwyn Bishop is Abbott’s Speaker-designate. That’s still only 7 appointments out of 42 positions.
When it was in Opposition, the Coalition made much of Labor’s supposed betrayal of its commitment to relatively equal representation, both on its front bench and in its Caucus. Now in government, Abbott could only say he ‘wished’ there could be at least two women in his Cabinet, and mentioned his regret at losing Sophie Mirabella (who looks increasingly likely to lose her seat of Indi). He added that there were many talented women ‘knocking at the door’, but that in the end, he was faced with a wealth of talent and a dearth of positions, and reminded us that the Coalition chooses its representatives based on merit, rather than ‘quotas’ or any other system.
But how true is that? Take a look at the case of Senator Fierravanti-Wells. She was apparently talented enough to serve in Abbott’s Shadow Ministry, in the portfolios of Ageing and Mental Health. She has a strong background in law, was a Policy Advisor for the New South Wales Shadow Minister for Policy and Regional Development, and served as Senior Private Secretary to John Fahey, then NSW Premier. How is she less qualified to fulfil a Cabinet role – or even a Junior, sorry, Assistant Ministry – than, say, Luke Hartsuyker, who was never elected to state government (managing his family’s tourism business before entering federal politics, and then also serving as a Shadow Minister under Abbott)?
For that matter, how is Fierravanti-Wells less qualified to serve than Paul Fletcher, he of the ‘opt-out internet filter’ debacle just prior to the election? He kept his job as Parliamentary Secretary to Malcolm Turnbull, while Fierravanti-Wells was effectively demoted. Does that sound like a meritocracy at work?
Abbott says he’s ‘disappointed’ at the lack of women in Cabinet. This is enormously disingenuous. He is the one person responsible for choosing his Ministers, beholden to neither Caucus nor colleagues. For him to shake his head and feign regret about his own choices is inexcusable.
Oh, and just in case the message wasn’t clear enough – under Abbott there will be no Minister for the Status of Women. Instead, he’ll be advised by Parliamentary Secretary Michaelia Cash, when she’s not helping Scott Morrison turn back the boats. Or was it buy back the boats?
Then there’s the Curious Case of the Missing Portfolios. Where is Science? Housing? Mental Health? Ageing? Higher and Early Childhood Education? Disabilities? Resources and Energy?
Abbott had an explanation for some of these absences. He wanted to institute ‘title deflation’, he said, mocking the long Ministerial titles under the outgoing Labor government. For example, the Education portfolio would encompass Higher and Early Childhood Education, with specific responsibilities divided up as Christopher Pyne directed. Mental Health would be folded into Health, and Disabilities and Ageing into Social Services (in the Outer Ministry). Science, it seems, is to be ‘deflated’ almost out of existence. Abbott said that it would largely be taken care of by the Industry Minister.
On the face of it, these seem like reasonable propositions – set up ‘umbrella’ Ministries, under which similar issues can rest, with a single Minister overseeing all. Cast your mind back to the election campaign, though. (I know, I know, we’ve all tried to move on, but bear with me.) On several occasions, the Coalition emphasised the importance of mental health, including allocating significant funds for new beds, and programs such as Headspace. In fact, Abbott suggested that it would be one of its top health priorities – yet there is not even an Outer Ministry assigned to it.
Abbott also announced a number of initiatives aimed at assisting seniors, and improving aged care facilities. With his Shadow Minister for Ageing, Bronwyn Bishop, beside him, he castigated Labor’s handling of the issue and signalled his intention to restructure the aged care system. These are significant, complex initiatives, but again, apparently not complex enough to require the undivided attention of a Minister.
The situation is even worse with disabilities. The Coalition has promised to establish the National Disability Insurance Scheme, arguably the most sweeping reform in the sector. As with ageing, however, Abbott seems to believe that it can be handled by an Outer Minister responsible for the entire Social Services portfolio.
Then there’s Science. Of course, there is overlap between industry and science, but the two are hardly in lockstep. While industry looks to science for innovation, the processes of research, theoretical and experimental sciences are not necessarily driven by industry needs. Consider much of astrophysics, for example. There may be, eventually, practical applications for the study of quasars or the search for planets capable of sustaining life, but these are so far into the future that they are effectively unforeseeable. Even a great deal of medical science is exploratory, rather than focused on a problem-solving, industry-applicable approach. To be blunt, innovation and application depends on theory and experimentation.
And, of course, having Science swallowed up by Industry will take those pesky climate change concerns out of the equation. Or is that too cynical? You be the judge.
The decision to subsume important areas of governance into larger Ministries sends clear signals that conflict with the Coalition’s stated election priorities. That in itself is a huge cause for concern. There is, however, another consequence that may hold the key to why Abbott is willing to field criticism for these moves, and it lies in another election promise – to axe more than 12,000 jobs in the Public Service.
When asked how he would decide which jobs would go, Abbott spoke vaguely of ‘natural attrition’, a remarkably slippery phrase. Often, attrition occurs when someone retires and their position is not filled by a new employee. In this case, however, the new Ministry structure leaves entire departments without a Minister or a portfolio. Undoubtedly, some of the employees will need to move across (say, from Mental Health and Ageing to Health) – but there is no faster way to shed jobs than the kind of restructuring that will need to take place in order to put the Coalition’s proposed ‘streamlined’ and ‘deflated’ Ministry into effect. No one needs to be sacked – the jobs just don’t exist anymore, so sorry, thanks for your service.
So what do we have?
A Cabinet of 20 with one woman.
A claim that there are simply not enough talented women in the Coalition, which is nothing short of a slap in the face to a highly experienced former Shadow Minister.
A series of portfolios that have disappeared, with an unconvincing assurance that Ministers will make the right decisions as to how to properly oversee the issues they addressed.
A slaving of science to industry.
The groundwork laid for potentially thousands of job losses under the guise of ‘natural attrition’ and ‘restructuring’, all overseen by Senator Eric Abetz’s ‘assistance’ on the Public Service.
The Ministry is set to be sworn in on Wednesday. This, according to Abbott, will be ‘Day One’ – and we will, he says, see a difference immediately.
He’s right. Whether it’s a difference that will benefit us, however, is another story.