Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
The ins and outs of Malcolm Turnbull’s expanded cabinet

The prime minister’s courtyard was bathed in mid-afternoon winter sunlight when Malcolm Turnbull proclaimed: “This is all about delivery. This is three years of delivery. In three years’ time, you will be asking me here about what we have delivered and that will be the KPIs [key performance indicators], because we have set out our plan.”

So far, so good. Though he had just scraped into majority government, Turnbull was claiming the electorate had given him a mandate to implement “the plan” and he intended to do just that. He even said the contentious superannuation changes would be presented to the parliament as they had been outlined in the budget. That budget was his election manifesto and, as such, “budget repair will be a front-of-mind issue for this entire parliament”.

But the rhetoric doesn’t quite match the reality. For a prime minister who had just won an election, Turnbull’s hold on authority is remarkably precarious. “He’s a sitting duck and he knows it,” was the way one of his MPs put it. The assessment is borne out by what he went on to announce at that same news conference: the biggest cabinet since Gough Whitlam’s four decades ago. Of his 30 ministers, 23 are in the engine room of the government. He was simply not game enough to upset any of his Liberal colleagues by replacing them with a National, as was demanded under the Coalition agreement. So instead he expanded the size of the executive.

Labor’s Tanya Plibersek zeroed in on this vulnerability, saying: “[Turnbull] has just won an election. But the make-up of his frontbench shows that he is worried that his colleagues are coming after him. He has to give jobs to the enemies as well as friends.”

As the saying goes, keep your friends close and your enemies closer. There was, however, a clutch of enemies he did not embrace. Tony Abbott was left languishing on the backbench, along with bitter Tasmanian powerbroker Senator Eric Abetz and the Victorian conservative Kevin Andrews. Abbott sounded statesmanlike at the Monday post-mortem when he told colleagues, “Now is not the time for recriminations; we have to move forward.” The proof of that particular pudding will definitely be in the eating. Remembering that revenge is a dish best served cold, Turnbull won’t be taking any chances on Abbott’s continuing goodwill.

A key plank of the prime minister’s survival strategy will be to limit as far as possible the trigger points for confrontation, challenge or defeat. As a cabinet minister told me: “We will just have to sit the parliament less often.” He even suggested the only legislation that would be brought forward would be bills that were judged to have support in the senate. 

On Tuesday, it was announced the parliament would sit for only seven weeks between August and the end of December. Already the Australian parliament sits far less than its equivalents in other democracies. A further diminution of parliamentary accountability is appalling. But if survival is your main focus, such concerns become secondary. If the parliament sits less often, it means the party room also has fewer opportunities to hack at the leader.

The party room meeting earlier this week was a celebration for the election’s survivors. Campaign director Tony Nutt told the Liberals that Malcolm Turnbull’s standing in the electorate was a major factor in its narrow victory. But amazingly, after the meeting, the party’s pollster, Mark Textor, told one of the few Liberal women to make it back that “in February the government was fucked”. That was when the government was all over the place on tax reform and Turnbull appeared clueless on policy direction. While the published opinion polls had documented his fall from the stratosphere in September, he personally stayed ahead of Bill Shorten. As the campaign progressed, however, that gap narrowed substantially. In the end enough voters were prepared to give him a second chance.

But what we now know is that second chance was in large part bought by Turnbull himself. The Australian reported that late in the campaign, with the party in big trouble in the marginals, he pumped $1 million of his own money into the campaign. There are now suggestions it was, in fact, twice that amount. 

There have been no denials from Turnbull himself. On 7.30 we saw yet another manifestation of hiding as a strategy. He told Leigh Sales, “All of the donations I’ve made in the past to the Liberal Party and any donations that will be made or have been made will all be disclosed in accordance with the Electoral Act.” So the nation will have to wait until the Liberals declare their funding in February. It simply is not good enough.

There are a couple of aspects to this. It highlights the shocking lack of transparency in our political donation laws and it reinforces the perception that wealthy individuals can buy their way to power. Think of Clive Palmer and the huge amounts of money he ploughed into his Palmer United Party. That helped provide the numbers in the senate to scrap the carbon tax, which was in Palmer’s own vested interest. In Turnbull’s case, does anyone doubt that if we had real-time disclosure laws, such a donation would have fed into the damaging “Mr Harbourside Mansion” that was playing as a negative, particularly in Western Sydney?

Whatever saved the Liberals’ campaign, the victory has left the government in as precarious a position as its leader. And midweek, straight out of right field, came a reminder from the Nationals’ George Christensen. He used Facebook to warn Turnbull and Treasurer Scott Morrison that he would cross the floor over superannuation, which he slammed as “Labor-style policies”. He singled out the $500,000 “retrospective” lifetime cap. And, echoing Tony Abbott and senator-elect Pauline Hanson, he wrote, “I hate it when government fiddles with super. It’s not the government’s money, it’s YOUR money. We in government need to remember that.” 

Morrison tried to hose down Christensen, saying implementation issues would be addressed. But Christensen would rob the government of its majority if he crossed the floor, especially if the recount in the Queensland seat of Herbert confirmed a Labor win. The fact of the matter is a scarce majority of one or even two is no buffer against a cabal of right wingers, Christensen included, who have warned Turnbull they will not brook any fiddling with the marriage equality plebiscite. In such a tight situation it only takes one rebel or rogue to make your government look very shabby. Just ask Julia Gillard. Hanging on to the crook Craig Thomson did her minority government irreparable damage.

Budget repair and same sex-marriage are just two potential landmines that could blow up the government. Then there’s climate change. Exit polling done for Sky News found it was one of the top four issues playing on voters’ minds. It’s clearly playing on the prime minister’s: in his ministerial reshuffle he relieved Greg Hunt of his decade-long hold on environment and gave it to Josh Frydenberg. In a bold stroke, welcomed by The Climate Institute, he also added energy to Frydenberg’s responsibilities. 

This can be read as preparing for the promised review of Australia’s emissions performance next year. And may even make it easier to morph Direct Action into something more cost effective, now that the father of that policy has been moved on. Frydenberg is already talking about transitioning to “more renewable electricity-generation sources”. But he is also aware of the need to address issues of energy sustainability in light of South Australia’s bitter experience with a perfect storm of failures in connection to the national grid, when nature robbed its wind farms of power and fossil fuel-generated electricity prices skyrocketed. With Victoria’s giant and dirty Hazelwood power station marked for closure, the transition to cleaner and affordable power will test his mettle. If it triggers sustained higher retail electricity prices, it spells electoral trouble.

But what is puzzling is Turnbull gifting the Nationals the prized resources portfolio. It doesn’t augur well for those hoping that his true self will prompt him to stare down the junior party’s resistance to change. The closeness of their leader, Barnaby Joyce, to the voracious mining magnate Gina Rinehart is a recipe for conflict over emissions policy. Of course, Turnbull, as Kevin Rudd did before him, may put his own political survival ahead of the planet’s. Environmentalists are nervously watching to see if the new minister, Matt Canavan, a climate change doubter, is prepared to fork out millions of taxpayers’ dollars to help develop the giant Adani coalmine.

Malcolm Turnbull may be committed to three years of strong, stable economic leadership. But to do it he will have to be bolder than he has been so far. If mere survival is what he settles for, his legacy will fall far short of the promise.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 23, 2016 as "Cabinet joinery". Subscribe here.

Paul Bongiorno
is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a regular commentator on ABC Radio National Breakfast.

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