Guest Notes

Dis-con notes

1 August 2020

9:00 AM

1 August 2020

9:00 AM

Reshuffle revisited

On 5 July we learned that the Minister for Finance, Senator Mathias Cormann, will leave parliament towards the end of this year.

Coming just after the prime minister’s huge ($270 billion) announcement on defence spending, this news attracted less public notice, given Cormann’s vital role in the government’s performance, than it merited.

Readers may recall an earlier Dis-Con Note, ‘Time for a re-shuffle, Mr Morrison’ (4 April, 2020), which provided some unsolicited advice to the prime minister on the desirability of re-shuffling his ministry. (Those who watch the Sky News Outsiders program each week will have had their memories refreshed on 12 July, when a segment from it appeared in that program). The question is, how does Cormann’s prospective departure affect that earlier advice?

It is often said that nobody is irreplaceable; but Senator Cormann comes close to the exception that proves the rule. We now know he told Scott Morrison late last year he wished to resign then, but was prevailed upon to remain for another twelve months. It is hardly surprising that Morrison would want to retain him; but since he must be replaced in the pre-Christmas re-shuffle now accepted as inevitable, the question is, how?

To answer that question, let us ask another: what qualities make Cormann so hard to replace? They are, I suggest, two-fold. First, his lack of ambition for further advancement has allowed him to devote all his considerable energies to mastering the Finance portfolio. When Cormann puts his foot down, few would-be-spendthrift ministers (are there any other kind?) will contend the matter further.

Second, and in some ways even more importantly, he is a man whose word, once given, is his bond. It is this quality – acknowledged not only by the Senate crossbenchers but also even by the Opposition (though usually only in private!) – that has given him the personal authority that has made him such an outstanding Leader of the Government in the Senate. It’s no wonder that replacing him will present Morrison with such a problem: it’s almost as though he needs two people to do the work now being done by one.

Hold on: stop right there. Since no one else in the parliament possesses both qualities underlying Cormann’s performance, the coming re-shuffle will have to circumvent that difficulty by including two ministers to do so; a new Minister for Finance, and a new Leader of the Government in the Senate capable of winning the trust, as he did, of that chamber.

That earlier Note singled out eight ‘Outstandingly Competent’ Liberal members and senators, ten eligible ‘Talented Backbenchers’ and seven ‘Duds’. Apart from Cormann and Morrison himself, the other six ‘Outstandingly Competent’ ones comprised Peter Dutton, Josh Frydenberg, Greg Hunt, Christian Porter, Angus Taylor and Alan Tudge. Among these, Dutton’s name for the Finance appointment clearly stands out. Like Cormann, though for different reasons, he harbours no further ambitions for advancement (‘Been there, done that’ when he led the charge in what became Malcolm Turnbull’s dismissal). His outstanding Home Affairs record has demonstrated his capacity for the hard work and mastery of detail needed in Finance. True, having both Treasurer and Minister for Finance in the House is less than ideal, but with appropriate allocation of responsibilities for answering to their portfolios in the Senate, any problems will not be insuperable.

So let us turn to the Senate aspect of the Cormann replacement conundrum.

Since none of the others listed as ‘Outstandingly Competent’ is a senator, we must look elsewhere. Of the three senators among those merely ‘Competent’, only Senator Birmingham would have any claim, but he lacks the stature to lead the government in the Senate (or, for that matter, take over Finance there). Among the ‘Talented Backbenchers’, however, five of whom are senators, one name stands out: Senator James Molan.

Molan was named in that earlier Note as the obvious appointee-designate to replace the current Minister-for-Failing-to-Deal-With-our-Submarine-Problem, Senator Linda Reynolds; but that need not bar his concurrent appointment as Leader of the Government in the Senate. Like Cormann, his suitability lies in his combination of qualities – his work ethic not least. His integrity speaks for itself, while his military record before entering politics endows him with a personal authority rarely seen in Australian politics. When did we last see there a former Australian Army Major-General on whom the United States, following his service with US Armed Forces in Iraq, chose to bestow its Legion of Merit?

While dealing with such matters, I revert briefly to another earlier Dis-Con Note, ‘Some policy reforms, Mr Morrison’ (25 April, 2020), the first of three such Notes proposing, in all, 16 separate policy reforms for the prime minister’s consideration. Given the preoccupations of his office, even heavier because of the pandemic, the first of these reforms was, and remains, of particular importance, namely:

‘First,… Morrison should appoint, within his own portfolio umbrella, a new “Minister for Increasing Self-Reliance”, to initiate and co-ordinate actions by relevant ministers within their own portfolios to reduce Australia’s current dangerous reliance on foreign suppliers (particularly, but not only, China). This would be widely welcomed politically.’

The nature of this proposal is such that carrying it through need not wait upon the wider reshuffle. Certainly, Chinese behaviour since it was first advanced has not lessened the need for it.

As to a name, of those remaining four ‘Outstandingly Competent’ people (Greg Hunt, Christian Porter, Angus Taylor and Alan Tudge), Hunt cannot be spared from Health; Porter is already over-burdened; while Tudge, who has been doing an excellent job (beyond his own portfolio duties) as Acting Minister for Immigration during David Coleman’s illness-related absence, would slot well into Home Affairs on Dutton’s departure. Taylor, fortunately, would do the job well. Your move, Mr Morrison.

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