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In assembling Labor’s first government cabinet for almost a decade, Anthony Albanese has struck a careful balance of factions, geography, merit and loyalty. By Karen Middleton.

Albanese promises ‘most experienced’ Labor cabinet since Federation

Anthony Albanese and members of the new ministry in Canberra this week.
Anthony Albanese and members of the new ministry in Canberra this week.
Credit: Jenny Evans / Getty Images

Australia’s new Education minister, Jason Clare, was almost dumped from the Labor frontbench three years ago after a lacklustre stint in a portfolio not best suited to his skills. But after a strong performance in Housing and during the campaign, he has been catapulted into the Albanese cabinet with a significant promotion.

Ahead of the May 21 election, when his leader succumbed to Covid-19, Clare shot to prominence as Labor’s spokesman with the words: “The boss’s got the bug so you’ve got me.” Now he has one of the new government’s key portfolios.

The career trajectory of Jason Clare is a good illustration of the complex matrix that goes into crafting a frontbench, covering factions, geography, merit and loyalty. Within Labor, the leader distributes the portfolios but the factions choose the candidates – although the views of a leader who’s just taken the party from opposition to government are seldom ignored, on either state and territory representation or personal characteristics.

There are a record 10 women among the 23 members of Albanese’s cabinet, another three in the seven-member outer ministry and six more among the 12 parliamentary secretaries, known as assistant ministers.

Despite former prime minister Scott Morrison’s insistence that the Labor team lacked experience – a mantra continued this week by his successor Peter Dutton – 14 members of the 23-strong cabinet have been ministers in government before.

“This is an exciting team,” Albanese declared, naming his ministry on Tuesday night, ahead of their swearing-in on Wednesday. “It’s a team which is overflowing, I think, with talent, with people who are absolutely committed to making a difference … It is the most experienced incoming Labor government in our history since Federation. And I think that will augur well for how the government functions.”

Jason Clare received one of the biggest promotions in the new ministry, alongside Victorian MP Clare O’Neil. She takes on the mega-department of Home Affairs – albeit with the Australian Federal Police now returned to the attorney-general’s portfolio, where it previously belonged.

Jason Clare has called his appointment in Education “a dream come true”. But he nearly wasn’t on the frontbench at all.

When Anthony Albanese became Labor leader in 2019, that matrix of factors meant one existing shadow minister from New South Wales had to give up their spot. Former NSW premier Kristina Keneally had entered parliament and Albanese insisted on including her.

It was a decision for the faction as a whole and the group was set to tap Clare for demotion when, to the surprise of many – apparently including Albanese himself – Ed Husic volunteered to go to the backbench instead. Promised the next vacancy, Husic finally returned two years later when Joel Fitzgibbon flagged his retirement.

Clare had been responsible for Resources and Northern Australia under Bill Shorten’s leadership and, according to colleagues, had struggled to make an impact. He had attracted the fury of those colleagues in 2013, when they accused him privately of using “overblown rhetoric” as Justice minister. At a news conference alongside then Sport minister Kate Lundy, Clare had made sweeping accusations about the extent of drug cheating in sport. His colleagues were appalled and his reputation suffered.

But after the 2019 election, Clare was saved by Husic’s decision and, among other portfolios, was given Housing, an area in which he has a strong interest. There he did better than many expected, developing a solid social housing policy and playing an instrumental role in drafting the “help-to-buy” housing policy Labor unveiled during the election campaign. It helped that Albanese is equally passionate about housing, although that set expectations high.

Senior colleagues say it is his three-year body of work – and not just his polished presentation and slick repartee during the campaign – that have earned Clare redemption and a significant cabinet post.

Likewise, Clare O’Neil has been promoted after a diligent stint in the junior shadow Aged Care portfolio, in which she successfully navigated policy development, engagement with stakeholders and the opposition’s expenditure review process, and proved to be a clear communicator.

With a background in law and a master’s degree from Harvard, O’Neil’s capacity for toughness and what was seen as a productive past period in the Justice portfolio are also understood to have influenced Albanese’s decision to give her Home Affairs and Cyber Security.

The new prime minister’s choices all involve merit. But none were made on merit alone.

Even former leader and past rival Bill Shorten and his former deputy leader, the popular Tanya Plibersek, have been given portfolios well suited to their skills, albeit in complex areas that will require hard slog and are not seen as ministerial prizes.

Shorten becomes minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme and Government Services, an opportunity to make a legacy contribution in an area for which he cares deeply. Plibersek becomes minister for the Environment and Water, replacing the less experienced Terri Butler, who lost her seat.

Senior Labor sources acknowledge Plibersek’s appointment is not a promotion from her former position in Education and may not be what she would have chosen. But they argue she is well placed to manage a portfolio in which the Greens are likely to take a strong interest, having persistently held off Greens challenges in her inner-Sydney seat. They also say her ministerial experience will be crucial in the Water portfolio, where sealing the Murray–Darling Basin Plan is a critical objective for this parliamentary term.

Despite these upsides, Plibersek’s allocation will be seen – not unreasonably – as a sidelining of someone who was once an Albanese protégé but teamed up with Shorten to further her own leadership ambitions. She is seen to still harbour those ambitions and is popular enough to cause unwelcome comparisons unless kept very busy. For all of Albanese’s genuine sentiment about elevating kindness in politics, he remains ruthlessly pragmatic.

The prime minister’s insistence on posing for ministerial photographs at Government House by state-and-territory jurisdiction, as well as all together, was a reminder of the importance of both geography and politics in his decisions.

Western Australia’s ministerial representation may not strictly reflect the significant role that state played in his election victory, but Albanese has ensured it is rewarded. One new ministerial position went to WA, with Anne Aly taking on Early Childhood Education and Youth. She and Husic become the first Muslims in the federal ministry, with Husic in cabinet as minister for Industry and Science.

Patrick Gorman, a former state secretary of the Labor Party in WA and an adviser to then prime minister Kevin Rudd, joins the ranks of parliamentary secretaries and will assist the prime minister directly – a further recognition of WA’s ongoing importance to Albanese.

At four, South Australia’s cabinet representation exceeds what it should be, on strict proportionality. But it includes experienced ministers Penny Wong in Foreign Affairs and Mark Butler in Health – both are Albanese’s close friends and factional allies – as well as Right faction leader Senator Don Farrell in Trade, Tourism and the Special Ministry of State, and Amanda Rishworth, a good performer, in Social Services. All were in the pre-election shadow ministry and Albanese was determined to minimise the upset that comes when people are dumped.

Queenslander Shayne Neumann, however, did make way for second-termer and rising star Anika Wells, on the basis of both gender – acceding to Labor’s affirmative action principles – and future promise. For going quietly, Neumann is likely to be rewarded some other way.

“I say to people, hang in there, be resilient, you have a lot to offer as a team,” Albanese said of those missing out. “And the team isn’t just the people who are in the leadership group, the ministry, the team is the entire caucus. I have an inclusive approach towards policy. There are other areas of the parliament as well in which people will contribute, particularly in a parliament which is much broader than we’ve seen in the past.”

Economist and former academic Dr Andrew Leigh remains stuck in the assistant ministry ranks, despite his significant contribution both in economic policy design and public advocacy.

Two factors will continue to hold back Leigh, at least for the time being: he is not aligned to a faction and he comes from Canberra. So does the Finance minister, Katy Gallagher, and it’s hard to justify two from the nation’s smallest jurisdiction.

Albanese has clearly underlined his government’s agenda in the shape and status of portfolios. He has reinstated a Climate Change department – abolished when the Coalition took office – and added Energy, the Environment and Water to it. It will be overseen by the Climate Change minister, Chris Bowen, and Plibersek.

And there will be a new department of Employment and Workplace Relations, with minister Tony Burke working across this and the further expanded Infrastructure department, which takes the Arts into its name. Burke, who shares a love of music with his friend the prime minister, retains that as a prize, along with his role as leader of the house.

Another of Albanese’s Sydney colleagues, close friend Linda Burney, becomes the first Indigenous woman in federal cabinet, taking on the stand-alone Indigenous Australians portfolio, with responsibility for implementing the Uluru Statement from the Heart, starting with a constitutionally enshrined Voice to Parliament. WA senator Pat Dodson, known as the father of reconciliation, becomes a special envoy for reconciliation and the Uluru statement’s implementation.

And Matt Thistlethwaite, from Sydney, becomes assistant minister for Defence, Veterans’ Affairs and “the Republic” – a first that has enraged monarchist lobbyists. They protest that the monarch’s representative has sworn in a minister – on the eve of the Queen’s platinum jubilee celebrations – whose job is to cut ties with her.

Along with those who helped him get the leadership and win government, Albanese has also rewarded those who have helped him stay there. Only just starting her first full term in office after winning the seat of Eden-Monaro at a byelection Labor feared it would lose, former Bega mayor Kristy McBain joins the ministerial ranks in Regional Development, Local Government and Territories.

Albanese personally recruited McBain and insisted on her preselection amid others’ concerns. At a time when his own leadership was under pressure, he staked a lot on her. “If we hadn’t won that seat of Eden-Monaro, politics might have been a bit different,” he mused this week.

In defending his promotion of McBain, Albanese urged his MPs not to see others’ promotions as being to their detriment – an almost impossible request. He quoted the lyrics of “To Have and to Have Not, by British singer-songwriter Billy Bragg: “Just because you’re going forwards / Doesn’t mean I’m going backwards”.

Bragg later tweeted his thanks – and congratulations. “The challenges he faces are daunting and I don’t envy him his success,” Bragg wrote, describing “Albo” as “my old mate” and revealing they had met many years earlier and kept in touch. “Some of us just sing about making the world a better place. He now has the responsibility of delivering on that promise.”

Albanese’s victory, via a sometimes counterintuitive strategy, has given him the authority to craft the ministry he wants, with two terms in government in mind. He’s increasingly unconcerned about downplaying either that authority or the confidence in his own judgement that delivered it.

As he told Sky News last weekend: “I’ve been underestimated my whole life.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 4, 2022 as "Albanese promises ‘most experienced’ Labor cabinet since Federation".

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Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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