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Balancing enemies and allies, Malcolm Turnbull’s cabinet lays the groundwork for reform while holding the party together. By Sophie Morris.

Malcolm Turnbull: just a humble cabinet-maker

Malcolm Turnbull flanked by members of his new ministry.
Credit: AAP IMAGE

The wars, it seems, are over. The culture wars, the war on renewables, the repeated rhetorical flourishes about the “death cult”. Malcolm Turnbull delivered an entire speech at the Australian War Memorial on Wednesday without invoking it.

Turnbull’s new ministers, in their initial rounds of interviews, have positioned themselves as pragmatists, who want to consult, not fight. 

“I’m not someone who is in the business of picking fights for the sake of picking fights,” the new minister for communications and the arts, Mitch Fifield, told Radio National, extending an olive branch to the arts community.

New education minister Simon Birmingham was not wedded to the university fee deregulation that has twice been rejected by the senate.

“The Turnbull government will be a government that is, of course, true to our beliefs, but also is pragmatic and actually wants to get things done,” he told Triple J. 

“And so our focus, indeed, will have to be on the reforms that are achievable and attainable in the political environment that we face.”

New cabinet secretary Arthur Sinodinos said, regarding the environment, that it was important to move on from the “battles of the past”.

“I think you’ll see that there’ll be a bit of an end to the idea that the environment and development have to be at loggerheads, that somehow it’s a zero-sum game,” he told ABC’s Insiders.

Turnbull has not just reshuffled the frontbench, but reinvented the government. Cabinet is bigger, younger and includes moderates whose chances for promotion under Abbott had seemed slim. Conservatives are there, too, but moderates are no longer excluded. Turnbull’s closest backers have all been rewarded, but so too have some Abbott supporters.

Former Howard government cabinet minister Helen Coonan says the mix in cabinet has changed, but Turnbull has struck a good balance. 

“People who are more to the centre and the left of centre, well, the doors have been opened for them to walk through,” she says. “But in the end, you need two wings to fly. I think Malcolm has very effectively balanced the different wings of the party.” 

It may be too soon to judge how substantial the policy changes will be, but Turnbull has picked a team that is not hidebound by the Tony Abbott project.

Five of his cabinet’s 21 members are women, up from two of 19 in Abbott’s final cabinet. In a no-brainer, the minister for women is now a woman – West Australian senator Michaelia Cash, who is also employment minister. She joined Turnbull in launching a $100 million Women’s Safety Package on Thursday, in cabinet’s first major decision. “It is my dream,” the new prime minister said, “that Australia will in the future be known for respecting women.” 

Turnbull has gone some way already to reshaping Australia’s international image by appointing Marise Payne as defence minister. With Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, she will be one of the government’s senior representatives on the global stage.

Victorian Kelly O’Dwyer takes on jobs previously done by two men, as assistant treasurer and minister for small business. O’Dwyer is one of several parents of young children in cabinet. It was the photo of frontbench women, with O’Dwyer’s four-month-old daughter, that best symbolised Turnbull’s bid to shift to a “21st-century government and ministry for the future”.

The reshuffle included important symbolic as well as substantive changes. The ranks of assistant ministers, formerly known as parliamentary secretaries, include the first indigenous MP to serve on the executive, Ken Wyatt, as well as the youngest, 25-year-old Wyatt Roy.

Some of the old guard are gone, with Ian Macfarlane bowing out gracefully in the interest of renewal. Eric Abetz and Kevin Andrews also moved on, the latter not so quietly.

Even the ministers who stay in their portfolios have lost and gained various responsibilities. The details are telling. While Peter Dutton remains minister for immigration and border protection, he no longer sits as a permanent member of the powerful National Security Committee of cabinet. 

There was a shift of rhetoric, too, on asylum seekers. Turnbull said on Wednesday morning that he shared concerns about those stuck on Nauru and Manus Island and “close attention” was being paid to their plight. Within hours, though, he had repeated the government’s mantra that they will never settle in Australia.

As environment minister, Greg Hunt has gained the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, which had previously been in the industry portfolio and targeted unsuccessfully for abolition. This is viewed as a sign they have a future and that the war on renewables is over. 

Hunt’s environment department has also held on to the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder, even though other water responsibilities have gone to agriculture minister Barnaby Joyce. This has disappointed some Nationals and farmers, but still gives Joyce a greater say in managing the Murray-Darling Basin. South Australian Liberal senator Anne Ruston has been appointed assistant minister, to keep an eye on Joyce. This tension will be one to watch.

The shift of childcare to Birmingham’s education portfolio may also presage a focus on early learning, which has traditionally been more of a priority for Labor. 

As the Turnbull ministry was being sworn in, Labor was unveiling a $2.5 billion universities package to guarantee student funding, removing the need for higher fees. It was another downpayment on Labor leader Bill Shorten’s promise of a year ago to “make the next election a competition for the best university policy”.

Birmingham, a South Australian senator, says he will consult widely as he tries to find a university package that can secure senate support. He will be helped by the fact he is well liked by the crossbench. He is the one Liberal whom Ricky Muir has previously nominated as a decent bloke. And that is, indeed, Birmingham’s reputation across the parliament. His style is consultative, not aggressive. His manner is not hyper-partisan, even though he was a student politician at Adelaide University and was, for a time, a Liberal staffer. A moderate, he is also one of the Liberal’s strongest advocates for same-sex marriage.

George Brandis remains attorney-general and becomes senate leader, but loses the arts portfolio to Fifield. His exit occasioned much relief among those in the arts community who oppose his plans to strip $105 million from the Australia Council to create a new National Program for Excellence in the Arts overseen by the minister. Fifield has left the door open to changing these plans.

Scott Morrison’s initial positioning as treasurer has been interesting, harking back to his predecessor Joe Hockey’s early mantra that “we have a spending problem, not a revenue problem” and that he is not inclined to lift taxes. It’s an intriguing approach, given Turnbull has signalled all tax options are on the table, fuelling speculation there could be movement on the taxation of capital gains and superannuation earnings. Abbott’s unilateral decision to rule out changes to these policies cost him some support in the party room. 

Payne’s appointment to defence has already drawn flak from some of the old guard, with Greg Sheridan writing in The Australian that she was a “completely unsuitable choice for defence” and had “made almost no public impression on anything” during her parliamentary career.

There is truth in the statement that Payne, a senator since 1997 and in the outer ministry for the past two years, has had a low profile. She is not someone who has courted publicity. Three types of people sit on the senate’s oxblood leather: seat-warmers, schemers and diligent slogs. Payne is in that third category: a quiet achiever who has toiled away on the detail of legislation and on unglamorous committee work overseeing the bureaucracy.

Coonan says Payne is “an institution in the Liberal Party” and comes to defence with a thorough knowledge of the players and issues from her decade on the senate committee on foreign affairs, defence and trade.

“People who are saying she hasn’t had experience just don’t realise how deep her experience has been over a long and sustained period,” says Coonan.

Payne was marked as a moderate in the NSW Liberals long before joining parliament and had served as vice-chairwoman of the Turnbull-led Australian Republican Movement. In 2005, she pushed back against elements of her own government’s counterterrorism laws.

“She’s principled to the point where, rather than self-advancement, she’s always stuck to her guns and is admirable in that regard,” says Coonan, who also represented NSW in the senate. 

In a speech to the Sydney Institute in July, Payne talked about changes she was pursuing in her department of human services to support survivors and victims of family violence. It was an impressive speech, showing heart and humanity, but also hard-headed strategy. 

She recalled the moment last year when she learnt via email of the murder of one of her department’s staff. The killer was the husband.

“I read it several times. I know exactly where I was when it arrived. I sat in a car, uncomprehending,” she said. “But why was I so surprised? Family and domestic violence can and does affect anyone, anywhere.”

She went on to outline the human and economic costs, but also some pragmatic responses, concluding that: “If I can make it easier for just one of my staff members or one of my customers to speak up about their situation, and remove themselves from danger, then we’ve made a difference.”

As defence minister, she will be responsible for a vast civilian bureaucracy and thousands of Australian military personnel – some of whom are on dangerous deployment. It’s a huge role, but her approach to addressing family and domestic violence shows she does not shy from complex challenges.

Rewarding supporters

Turnbull relied, in the end, on the support of both moderates and conservatives to defeat Abbott. Labels can deceive in the Liberal Party, where factions are not as rigid as in Labor and views can vary on social and economic issues. Still, it is a fair observation that the core group who plotted the former prime minister’s downfall included moderates such as Birmingham and Roy, as well as staunch fiscal conservatives, such as Fifield, Scott Ryan and James McGrath. It was the shift of these conservatives to Turnbull that persuaded Julie Bishop they were serious.

It is notable that all of this group, who gathered in Queanbeyan on the eve of the challenge at the home of Peter Hendy, have been rewarded, whether in cabinet or the outer ministry or as assistant ministers. This is not without risk.

Sinodinos has been restored to cabinet as its secretary, even though an anti-corruption inquiry into a company he chaired is yet to report. “I’m willing to stand in the public square and defend myself in due course,” he says.

Queenslander Mal Brough, also one of the main plotters, has been made special minister of state, a role in the outer ministry that involves, among other things, overseeing parliamentary entitlements and electoral law. This could get awkward, given the AFP has this week confirmed it is still investigating allegations Brough illegally obtained a copy of Peter Slipper’s diary when he was preparing to seek preselection in the former speaker’s seat of Fisher. He won the seat in 2013, returning to parliament after a five-year absence following being voted out in 2007.

Brough appeared not to have got the memo on consultation rather than conflict. In his first days in the job, he angered senate crossbenchers by arguing for senate voting reform that would reduce the chances of minor parties being elected. Turnbull sought to hose it down, saying there were no concrete plans.

Along with Sinodinos and Brough, there are some other echoes from the Howard era, with the reappearance of John Howard’s advisers Tony Nutt and Tony O’Leary, who are helping with the transition to the new team.

Two cabinet ministers – Fifield and O’Dwyer – were staffers to Peter Costello. O’Dwyer succeeded her boss in his blue-ribbon seat of Higgins. And the former treasurer’s chief of staff, Phil Gaetjens, is taking on that same role for Morrison, who still seeks Costello’s counsel.

One of the olive branches Turnbull extended was to Abbott-backer and conservative Liberal Christian Porter, who joins cabinet as minister for social services, responsible for 36 per cent of budget spending. It’s a rapid rise, given he was only elected in 2013, but he has a solid CV as a former West Australian attorney-general and treasurer who was previously touted as a possible premier. He’s taking a treasurer’s approach.

“The bottom line is we inherited a position where the government spends considerably more than it earns and that has to be reversed,” Porter told ABC Radio. “There’s going to be intense pressure to continue to find savings.”

In these early days of the Turnbull government, there are some constants and some signs of change.

Amid the excitement that accompanies what is effectively a new government, it is worth remembering the noble sentiments that Abbott expressed two years ago, following his swearing-in ceremony. It is a reminder that good intentions can sometimes fail.

He promised his government would “strive to govern for all Australians”.

“We won’t forget those who are often marginalised: people with disabilities, Indigenous people and women struggling to combine career and family. We will do our best not to leave anyone behind,” Abbott said as new prime minister on September 18, 2013. 

“We hope to be judged by what we have done rather than by what we have said we will do.”

And so he was.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 26, 2015 as "Just a humble cabinet-maker". Subscribe here.

Sophie Morris
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.