The new Cabinet – repositioning the Government

| September 20, 2015

Will Malcolm Turnbull succeed as Prime Minister where Abbott, Rudd and Gillard ultimately failed? Dominic O’Sullivan comments on the new Cabinet, the Canning by-election and the Labor party’s future.

In his first public remarks as Prime Minister-elect Malcolm Turnbull emphasised ‘proper Cabinet government’ as a point that would distinguish his administration from Tony Abbott’s. He would refute presidential style leadership, in favour of the traditional Westminster model, where the Prime Minister is simply, but importantly, ‘first among equals’. That is good for democracy and for public policy making; it leaves no space for ‘captain’s picks’.

The 24-hour news cycle does, however, make considered Cabinet government difficult. The Rudd Government’s obsessive focus on policy ‘announcements’ over policy substance, was illustrative. Government was principally concerned with the next news bulletin, leaving little time for proper consultation and the considered development of policy ideas. Policy shallowness meant that Tony Abbott could successfully lead the Opposition with only the intellectual depth that three word populist slogans required.

As Malcolm Turnbull noted, after taking the Liberal party leadership; this was not an adequate basis for government and was the underlying factor leading to last week’s appointment of Australia’s fifth Prime Minister in five years.

The Weekend Australian columnist, Niki Savva, has correctly observed that this does not indicate flaws in the political system, itself, but that Abbott shared with Rudd and Gillard an inherent unsuitability for the job. Abbott and Rudd took presidential approaches, with their governments’ successes and failures distinguished not by policy but by slogan in Abbott’s case and manipulation of the news cycle in Rudd’s. ‘Proper Cabinet government’ protects Prime Ministers from the ultimate political failure that inevitably follows either approach to political leadership.

The new Prime Minister will need to be as careful in his appointment of a Chief of Staff as he has been in the selection of his ministry. His three immediate predecessors were successful at neither of these essential tasks of prime ministerial leadership. ‘Proper Cabinet government’ protects the Prime Minister from Chiefs of Staff overstepping the proper competence of their positions and, in the cases of all three of Rudd, Gillard and Abbott, showing a strategic ineptitude contributing to each Prime Minister’s ultimate failure.

It is significant, then, that Arthur Sinodinos, Chief of Staff to John Howard, the last Prime Minister to serve a full parliamentary term, and more, has been appointed Turnbull’s Cabinet Secretary. The appointment of three additional women to the Cabinet is not tokenistic ‘political correctness’, but recognition of the point that Tony Abbott was unable to admit, that competence may be found among both sexes. It is also significant that for the first time, since Federation, an indigenous person has been appointed to a ministerial position.

Until now, Australia has been unique among comparable neo-colonial jurisdictions in not providing for Indigenous decision-making at the highest level of government. The appointment of an Indigenous Assistant Minister of Health will not on its own correct the consequences of more than 200 years of considered political exclusion, but it does mean that policy decisions contributing to improved Indigenous health and well-being can, at least theoretically, be made by an Indigenous person. Nevertheless, these measures will only allow the new Prime Minister to confirm his government as one for the ‘future’ if he is able to manage the tensions of a party room of deep philosophical divisions. Repositioning the Government inevitably required the removal of some ministers closely associated with Tony Abbott’s conservative preferences – ministers such as Eric Abetz and Kevin Andrews whose constituencies remain important but at odds with the classical liberalism that distinguishes Turnbull’s politics.

Malcolm Turnbull is the first Prime Minister to face an electoral test just four days into his appointment. Indeed, it was the prospect of losing the seat of Canning, held by a margin of just over 12%, that finally prompted the challenge to Abbott. The swing to the ALP, in the order of 6.5%, is a victory of sorts to both sides. The Liberals held the seat, but the swing to Labor would, if replicated across the country see the Coalition’s defeat. Yet, coupled with public opinion polls showing the national margin closing between the Coalition and ALP, the Canning result must give the Liberal party greater confidence than it enjoyed just one week ago.

The Labor party can no longer rely just on prime ministerial unpopularity for its competitiveness at the next general election. Until now, its leader has not had to compete and it is widely expected that the findings of the Royal Commission into Trade Union Corruption will not be to his advantage. While his leadership is presently safe, one might still reasonably add to the speculation that it will be Anthony Albanese, not Bill Shorten, who will lead the ALP into the next election. Albanese’s address to the annual Ben Chifley memorial ‘Light on the Hill’ dinner was, at the weekend, of prime ministerial quality and set out a distinctively ‘Labor’ policy vision, not easily reduced to three word slogans, but providing a basis for considered development under ‘proper Cabinet government’.

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  1. Max Thomas

    Max Thomas

    September 21, 2015 at 10:19 pm

    The new Cabinet – repositioning the Government

    Dominic O'Sullivan asks: Will Malcolm Turnbull succeed as Prime Minister where Abbott, Rudd and Gillard ultimately failed? I think so, if Mr Turnbull avoids the mistakes of his immediate predecessors who listened, not to the people, but to 'advisers' who surely did not. Like them or not, the likes of Hawke and Howard were able to read and navigate the deeper currents of public opinion. Moderating the expectations of a nation that, arguably, has been 'too much blessed' is an unenviable task. I wish Mr Turnbull success in restoring Cabinet government and in achieving a mandate to implement clearly articulated policies. This is an historic test, not only for our leaders, but for us, especially, who elect them.