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Scott Morrison’s ministerial reshuffle included a few surprises, and not a small amount of controversy. Ultimately, though, the faces remain the same. By Rachel Withers.

Morrison’s new cabinet

Scott Morrison following a virtual swearing-in ceremony at Government House on Tuesday.
Credit: AAP / Lukas Coch

On Monday, March 29, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced his much-anticipated cabinet reshuffle – the second in three months. The reshuffle was exactly that, with a number of switch-ups and new portfolios created, but no one promoted or demoted from the ministry.

The political purpose of Morrison’s “shake-up” was twofold: to move his scandal-plagued senior ministers out of their current portfolios, and to be seen to be addressing the sexism crisis engulfing his government, bringing in more women and creating a taskforce on women’s issues.

The headline changes of the reshuffle were to address the first point, with ministers moving in and out of the Defence portfolio and the Attorney-General/Industrial Relations dual portfolios.

Christian Porter, who was reported to be set to return from mental health leave this week, four weeks after coming forward as the subject of a historical rape allegation he vehemently denies, was moved from the latter, ostensibly to resolve the conflict of holding the role of attorney-general while suing the ABC for defamation. Porter was given the Industry, Science and Technology portfolio, keeping him in cabinet, though in a lesser role.

“This fully addresses all the issues that relate to the advice received from the solicitor-general, as well as the [Department of] Prime Minister and Cabinet regarding the ministerial guidelines,” Morrison said.

The deputy leader of the government in the senate, Michaelia Cash, became the new attorney-general and minister for Industrial Relations, after spending the past four weeks acting in those roles.

Fellow Western Australian senator Linda Reynolds, who remains on medical leave for a heart condition, was taken out of Defence, a position she was reported to be struggling with long before she was accused of mishandling a rape allegation within her office when she was Defence Industry minister. Reynolds was made minister for Government Services and the National Disability Insurance Scheme, also remaining in cabinet. Morrison said he had been in regular contact with Reynolds, and they had agreed a “domestic portfolio would be best” upon her return to work.

As was anticipated, Peter Dutton replaced Reynolds as the minister for Defence, a position he coveted, and also replaced Porter as the leader of the government in the house of representatives, a role he has been acting in.

But while Reynolds’ and Porter’s replacements were widely expected, Dutton’s was not. His Home Affairs mega portfolio, reported to be going to Morrison ally Stuart Robert, went instead to outgoing Technology minister Karen Andrews. Robert took over Employment, Workforce, Skills, Small and Family Business from Cash – to the relief of those with concerns over his performance overseeing Government Services and also over the many allegations of corruption he has faced in recent years.

Andrews’ elevation came as a surprise even to her. The Queensland MP says she did not lobby for the role, although Robert apparently did. Andrews had previously been in an economic portfolio, coming from an engineering and small business background. The week prior to her promotion she had spoken out on the ABC about having had “a gutful” of the Liberal Party’s boys’ club culture. She will become the first woman to lead Home Affairs and many are wondering if she will bring a more compassionate approach to issues ranging from asylum seekers and refugees to those surrounding the Australian Federal Police, Australian Border Force and cybersecurity.

Advocates for the Tamil family from Biloela being detained on Christmas Island have urged Andrews to look on the case with “fresh eyes”, while Labor Home Affairs spokesperson Kristina Keneally said the reshuffle creates an opportunity for the government to show compassion.

Asked on ABC Breakfast the following morning about the Biloela family’s case, Andrews said it would be unwise to comment before extensive briefings, noting there were a range of legal issues that still needed to be addressed. Asked about the lack of transparency and unfair rules surrounding which Australians currently get to come home from overseas, Andrews told Fran Kelly she believed herself to be someone who was “firm but fair” and believed in “transparency as much as possible” admitting her new role might involve some constraints.

Morrison has changed up two problematic portfolio-holders, without dumping either Reynolds or Porter from cabinet, and appears to have responded to pushback against Robert moving to Home Affairs, elevating Andrews instead. But his new frontbench line-up is not without controversies.

One of the most pressing revolves around Michaelia Cash as attorney-general, with many claiming she is unfit to hold the role. Questions still surround her role in tipping off the media over the 2017 police raids on the Australian Workers’ Union. Cash twice refused to provide answers to an Australian Federal Police investigation into the media leaks, despite her staffers being implicated, with the AFP believing text message evidence relating to the leaks may have been destroyed. She was also accused of misleading parliament, after repeatedly telling senate estimates her office had no involvement in the tipoff, only for her senior media adviser to confess to the leak amid growing reports the leak came from Cash’s office. (Cash continues to claim the tip-off was made without her knowledge).

In 2018, she was forced to withdraw controversial comments about Bill Shorten’s female staff, after threatening to publicise unfounded and salacious rumours. Like Porter, Cash is also now involved in a lawsuit of her own, with former Liberal staffer Rachelle Miller bringing a workplace harassment case against her and Education Minister Alan Tudge, over bullying Miller faced following a consensual affair with Tudge.

As attorney-general, Cash will be in charge of overseeing the Sex Discrimination Act, as well as implementing the findings of Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins’ Respect @ Work report, which has been with the attorney-general’s office for more than a year, without any response.

The promotions of Andrews and Cash bolstered Morrison’s other aim – of increasing women’s presence within the cabinet.

On that front, Morrison also announced the creation of a new cabinet taskforce on women’s equality, safety, economic security, health and wellbeing, to be chaired by him and Minister for Women Marise Payne. The taskforce was accompanied by the announcement of three new “women’s” portfolios: Social Services Minister Anne Ruston became minister for Women’s Safety, Superannuation Minister Jane Hume became minister for Women’s Economic Security, and the assistant minister to the attorney-general, Amanda Stoker, became assistant minister for Women. Payne said the taskforce would bring a “gender equality lens” to the whole-of-ministry approach, though its exact workings and structure are reportedly still being decided.

Defence Industry Minister Melissa Price, who was demoted in 2019 after becoming known as the “invisible minister” over her absence in the Environment portfolio, was also welcomed back into cabinet.

There are further concerns surrounding some of those women who have been elevated to the taskforce, in particular Amanda Stoker, a member of the Queensland far right who vocally opposes abortion and transgender rights, and who has accused women who call out harassment of being “weak” and “playing the gender card”.

Australian of the Year Grace Tame added fuel to the criticism on Tuesday night, noting on Instagram and in an interview that Stoker had supported Bettina Arndt’s “fake rape crisis tour, aimed at falsifying all counts of sexual abuse on [university] campuses across the nation”.

The new minister for Women’s Economic Security, Jane Hume, meanwhile, was a proponent of the government’s controversial policy to allow domestic violence victims to use their superannuation to flee their abusers, while the new minister for Women’s Safety, Anne Ruston, has publicly defended disgraced MP Andrew Laming’s right to remain in parliament and to take paid leave while he undertakes empathy training.

Many claim the fact this trio was chosen to advocate for women proves there aren’t enough women on the Coalition’s benches, yet alone enough with a strong feminist record.

And despite Morrison’s and Payne’s claims of “historic” female representation, on the numbers, women didn’t gain much from this reshuffle. Only one woman, Price, was added to the cabinet, with Morrison growing it by one rather than dropping any men. As the prime minister famously said in his 2019 International Women’s Day address: “We don’t want to see women rise only on the basis of others doing worse.” The seven women in cabinet still make up less than one-third of the 23-member cabinet, while no new women were added to the ministry overall.

With Morrison adamant he would not dump Reynolds or Porter from cabinet and also unwilling to demote anyone else, there was ultimately little room to do more than shuffle the deckchairs. Such a rearrangement appears to have made for a challenging puzzle, one that may have gone down to the line, with Morrison half an hour late to the press conference announcing it. Cash and Stoker’s controversial promotions – and Andrews’ unexpected one – may have been necessities of the reshuffle, as the only women in cabinet with the qualifications, seniority and factional standing to take on the vacant roles.

It also left no room for anyone new to be promoted, least of all men, with prominent backbencher Tim Wilson widely seen as having been overlooked. Dutton is considered the only male “winner” in the reshuffle, while Robert’s move was seen as lateral.

Grace Tame summed up Morrison’s ministry changes thus: “We need to be careful not to be naively misled by actions that are quite calculated distractions posing as solutions.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 3, 2021 as "Demotes on a scandal".

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Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Monthly Today.