Last week, Malcolm Turnbull missed his best opportunity to put a Coalition A-team on the ministerial paddock ahead of a desperate death struggle with both a resurgent Labor opposition and a virtually unmanageable Senate created by the PM’s rash and foolhardy determination to rush to a double-dissolution. But now Bill Shorten’s announced his shadow ministry, Turnbull can breathe easier. Handed a list of lucky dudes by the Right and Left factions, Shorten created a shadow ministry of such mediocrity that the Coalition team they face look titans by comparison. Like Turnbull, to win the next election from here Shorten needs not just a team of champions, but a champion team. But factional party games, and Shorten’s own poor judgment in matching key roles to frontbenchers who can out-perform the counterparts, has given Turnbull a big head-start. There are some good choices. Moving Richard Marles from Immigration to Defence rewards a border protection patriot who repelled many boarders of his own party, let alone garment-rending grandstanders like Sarah Hanson-Young. That he was promoted at the expense of Stephen ‘red underpants’ Conroy – the Con man in the Victorian Short-Con faction – is particularly delicious. Putting former Wayne Swan chief-of-staff Jim Chalmers into shadow cabinet in Finance is also deserved on merit, provided Chalmers doesn’t answer the phone when Swanny rings to share his, um, wisdom. Hopefully he’ll pay more attention to shadow treasurer Chris Bowen, who at least tries to think like a responsible keeper of the public purse while his leaders and colleagues foist populist but unfunded huge spending plans on him. Similarly, promoting some talented up-and-comers like Ed Husic, Sam Dastyari, Katy Gallagher and Clare O’Neil is a marked difference from Turnbull’s approach. All could be expected to be in a future cabinet as early as 2019 if the cards fall Labor’s way. Bumblers like the deservedly dumped David Feeney they aren’t. The half-baked instant elevation of Sydney MP and former NSW Labor minister Linda Burney, however, looks more like tokenism. Woman? Tick. Aboriginal? Tick. But beyond the bright spots the new Labor frontbench is a faction-beholden Leyland P76. Take Shorten’s deputy Tanya Plibersek. As deputy she can choose her own portfolio, and she out-pointed her erstwhile Foreign Affairs counterpart Julie Bishop in unselfishly leaving the champagne trail for a politically-sensitive domestic portfolio where her political and policy skills are valuable. In the light of Labor’s stunning Medi-scare success and making health and Medicare ground zero of this term’s struggle for supremacy, and where a weak minister in Sussan Ley has been re-installed, where did this former health minister go? To Education, where Labor’s only policy is chanting ‘Gonski’ like levitating transcendental meditationists futilely chant ‘Om’. What’s more, Plibersek faces Simon Birmingham, one of the Coalition’s better performers and someone who has a good policy brain. Crazy. In her Foreign Affairs place is Penny Wong. Given that the reality of the shadow FA portfolio is that the incumbent can do SFA, Wong will have lots of free time to agitate for her pet cause, same-sex marriage. When the Coalition’s SSM plebiscite received a voter mandate – whatever its merits as policy as opposed to a cumbersome internal Coalition political fix – the annoyingly self-righteous and uncompromising Wong will agitate against it till the cows come home, even at the risk of torpedoing the plebiscite’s likely delivering what she craves.
Feeney may have gone, but then there’s dinosaurs that no meteor strike can wipe out: factionally-protected Beazley-era survivors like Jenny Macklin, Doug Cameron, Stephen Conroy, Clare Moore, plodding left-winger Carol Brown and, of course, the mighty Kim Il Carr. To a resurgent Labor intent on renewal, Shorten and his factional warlords would have done better in tapping these brontosauruses on the shoulder but – oh wait – Carr and Conroy are said factional warlords, aren’t they? That Shorten felt compelled to expand his shadow cabinet to keep Carr suggests Medi-scare Bill isn’t the unassailable almost-conquering leader he’d like us to believe he is. As for the rank-and-file’s darling Lefty Anthony Albanese, pre-election hints of a post-election challenge to Shorten were noticed disapprovingly. Albo’s bogged in as Shadow Minister for Keynesian Pipe Dreams, overtaken in the Labor pecking order by the likes of Bowen, Chalmers and Mark Butler. Similarly, Jason Clare, much-touted as a potential future leader, is being conveniently buried in his Resources and Northern Australia portfolio.
Overall, the net result of Shorten’s reshuffle is inferior to even Turnbull’s patchy ministry. Little dead wood was culled and not enough talent promoted, especially at shadow cabinet level – Husic for one could have leapt straight in on merit, and able Eden-Monaro returnee Mike Kelly being made a mere parliamentary secretary says it all. What’s more, an ‘every other child wins a prize’ total frontbench size of 48 shadow ministers and parliamentary secretaries, in a Caucus of around 100 MPs and senators, merely highlights Shorten’s forced subservience to factional dictates and union loyalties. Shorten and Labor now foolishly sell their frontbench’s quantity for quality, but risk paying for its collective mediocrity come next election. But as reshuffle dust settles it’s hard not to be sorry for sole factional independent Andrew Leigh, a very rare Labor MP in that he can think and write original policy ideas all by himself. Leigh retains his frontbench place but missed deserved promotion to shadow cabinet. Worse, he’s taking a $40,000 annual pay cut because there are now more shadow ministers than paid places. Leigh therefore will be carrying far less competent colleagues for love not money, while union-supported has-beens and non-entities like Carr, Cameron and Brown trouser the extra salary and cabal in their offices like the useless factional hacks they are. Andrew Leigh is living proof it’s not what you know but who you know in climbing Labor’s greasy pole.
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