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Front benches need new faces

7 May 2009 905 views No Comment

AFTER the budget, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd would do well to consider a reshuffle of his ministry, to drop the deadwood and give an opportunity to some who have performed well in junior roles.

While the pressure has been off Wayne Swan in recent months as the Opposition has been busy distracting itself, no Treasurer since the Depression has had to present a budget like the one that’s coming.

Swan’s task is to make it credible that a $70 billion-plus turnaround in 12months to the budget bottom line is entirely because of international bankers and not at all his fault. He is going to have to raise taxes and cut spending, while he reduces personal income tax and presides over the most profligate series of stimulus packages in our history.

The budget response will give Malcolm Turnbull and Joe Hockey the chance to demonstrate they have what it takes. Ironically, if they perform well, the biggest beneficiary of Swan’s difficulties might be Julia Gillard.

Last month I suggested that Gillard’s load as Deputy Prime Minister, Education Minister and Minister for Industrial Relations should be lightened, for her benefit as well as that of our educational institutions.

No doubt Gillard would consider the removal of some of her responsibilities a blow too great to countenance, but a solution must be found. Although Opposition industrial relations spokesman Michael Keenan has been close to invisible, in education Christopher Pyne is increasingly getting under Gillard’s skin. The $20billion she has been given to satisfy the sector should have been enough to guarantee political immunity for years to come. But the poor delivery of these programs is giving the Opposition ammunition with which to bother her.

Gillard would enjoy the opportunity to prove herself in Treasury. And for Rudd it would be a relief to have his strongest parliamentary performer in this most important role.

Alternatively, Lindsay Tanner in finance seems comfortable and assured – the sort of feeling you’d ideally like to see in a Treasurer – and he may yet get a chance. Certainly his latest shadow, Helen Coonan, has not come close to laying a glove on him.

For a long time, Joel Fitzgibbon has been ailing in Defence. A series of debacles was capped by an inability to effectively defend his position in the house. He has probably been saved thus far by his shadow’s apparent lack of interest. The attack on Fitzgibbon has mostly come from Deputy Leader Julie Bishop, whose recent rousing speeches may have strengthened her position among the Liberals.

At a time when the forces and their minister are barely on speaking terms, Turnbull might think about moving Tony Abbott into the shadow role. For all his faults, Abbott is a capable performer who, over the past 18 months, has contributed to the public debate in almost every policy area except the ones for which he has responsibility.

Brendan Nelson and Turnbull have both struggled to know what to do with Abbott. Promoting him might be seen as rewarding foolish behaviour. But while Jenny Macklin has had an easy ride because of Abbott’s lack of discipline, it does the Coalition no benefit to have as spokesman for families and community services. A move to Defence would give Abbott an opportunity to gratify his macho pretensions while the achievable goal of toppling Fitzgibbon might help him find focus.

In communications, Stephen Conroy has presided over the Government’s failure to deliver a core election promise: an effective broadband network for Australia. In 2007, beyond Work Choices and the environment, it was Labor’s promise to bring our broadband infrastructure into the 21st century that defined John Howard as yesterday’s man.

By any reasonable measure, Conroy has been a monumental failure. Yet his shadow, Nick Minchin, has not managed to put the Coalition on the front foot in this area.

One match-up of particular interest to the gallery is the curiously titled Special Minister of State, at present held by John Faulkner, who is in charge of the process within Government: politicians’ pay, perks, ads, donations, Freedom of Information, everything down to staff phone bills. Rudd is lucky to have someone such as Faulkner in this role. He is intelligent, ruthless, and experienced enough to know every trick in the book. His opponent, Victorian senator Michael Ronaldson, has done well in the circumstances, getting some good press for shining a light on issues such as the Prime Minister’s valet, but Ronaldson has one of the toughest jobs in Canberra.

In the important area of immigration, the Government is represented by Chris Evans. When tragedy struck off Christmas Island recently, the Government was represented by the soon to retire Home Affairs Minister Bob Debus, who seemed much more at ease on the issue than the Immigration Minister. Evans may get to keep his job in a reshuffle, and for that he can probably thank his shadow, Sharman Stone, whose performances have been shrill and unsubtle, and who could have done much more on the issue of asylum seekers.

One match-up that must be giving Rudd considerable concern is in the area of climate change and the environment. The Penny Wong-Peter Garrett tag team is not working. Climate change had a marked effect on many voters at the 2007 election, yet Greg Hunt and Andrew Robb for the Coalition sound more sensible and more relevant than the Government. And the Government’s carbon pollution reduction scheme has faced brutal attacks from the Left and the Right alike. Garrett is shaping as a high-profile failure, and it wouldn’t come as a surprise if he soon decided to give up the day job. He looked so happy when reunited recently with his old chums from Midnight Oil.

Housing Minister Tanya Plibersek, Ageing Minister Justine Elliot, Employment Participation Minister Brendan O’Connor and Youth Minister Kate Ellis give the impression they are merely making up the numbers.

Along with Fitzgibbon and Garrett, and two others who appear set to retire, Debus and Attorney-General Robert McClelland, the PM has at least eight excellent opportunities to promote fresh talent to set the Government up for re-election.

High-profile former ACTU secretary Greg Combet is obvious for Defence, having impressed as parliamentary secretary in the area. Similarly, Mike Kelly would surely perform better than his boss, Garrett, in the environment. And wily Bob McMullan would have an eye for the sort of policy detail that has been slipping through the cracks in Gillard’s overloaded office: he would make a fine education minister.

Others whom Rudd might consider for promotion include NSW rising stars Mark Arbib and Jason Clare, Gary Gray and Melissa Parke from Western Australia, and especially the talented ex-union chief from Victoria, Bill Shorten.

On the other hand, Turnbull’s biggest challenge is to get his troops to focus their energies and attention on attacking the Government, rather than each other.

From The Australian, May 7, 2009