Do a word search of the transcript of the Prime Minister’s reshuffle press conference yesterday and you will find the word ‘women’ cropped up a mere 102 times.
Women’s safety. Women’s equality. Women’s economic security. Women’s health and well-being. Women in the key national security roles of Foreign Affairs and Home Affairs. Women in cabinet in record numbers. Women being given more responsibilities. Women previously booted out of cabinet being brought in from the Siberia of the outer ministry.
Scott Morrison talked about post-Covid positioning, and about having the right team to ‘stand up for Australia, whether it’s against big multinationals or in our region’.
And the reshuffle does reward some sound performers. Ministers like Karen Andrews, Anne Ruston and Jane Hume – who just happen to also be women – have been promoted or given greater responsibilities.
Really, this reshuffle was about two things, and two things only. First, cauterising the government’s wounds from the travails of outgoing Attorney-General Christian Porter and outgoing Defence minister Linda Reynolds. Both are remaining in cabinet, which leaves them with some dignity intact, but both have been demoted in terms of their portfolios. For the PM, the important thing is they are out of the firing line – to an extent – in much lower profile roles.
But above all, this was an exercise designed to look pro-active about the government’s woman problem, responding to an urgent need to show that a woman’s presence at the Cabinet table is to take on the toughest portfolios and add depth and heft to Cabinet’s deliberations.
Achieving this has, however, has sacrificed some quality at the expense of quantity. One suspects that Melissa Price, who failed at cabinet level first time round, is there only because she is a woman from Western Australia. If the Prime Minister wanted a quality performer from the outer ministry, he should have promoted Victorian Jane Hume, who has shone with every parliamentary secretary or junior minister’s job she has so far been given.
And it would have be greatly welcome if outgoing talented conservative MP, Nicolle Flint, had been persuaded to change her mind about leaving and brought into the ministry.
As for the men, Peter Dutton got Defence as predicted. As a Howard-era Assistant Treasurer, perhaps he can bring some rigour into the brass’s overindulged pet project procurement profligacy. But for Coalition ministers, Defence is the equivalent of Northern Ireland secretary in the UK: it is a place where ministerial careers either founder or go to die. Perhaps Dutton will be the exception who finally defies the rule.
Fortunately, Stuart Robert, the Prime Minister’s good friend and former flatmate, was not promoted to Home Affairs. That portfolio needs someone to whom not a breath of scandal has ever attached: that can be said of actual choice Karen Andrews, but not of Robert (who also makes a policeman reading from his notebook in a magistrate’s court sound like Cicero by comparison).
This reshuffle will stand or fall on how it is perceived by the government’s critics on its response to the women’s issues that have scarified it this past six weeks.
If it is seen as tokenistic, or a defensive overreaction, it will not get the Morrison government off the gender mat. But if it is accepted as not only giving some talented women a chance to shine, and the PM’s commitment to address the challenges that women face in terms of their safety, equality, prosperity and well-being is proven more than just rhetoric, it may – may – be in hindsight seen as a turning point that enables a badly shaken Coalition to stand with more confidence before the women voters of Australia who are accepting the narrative spun by the government’s implacable activist antagonists.
Terry Barnes edits our daily newsletter, the Morning Double Shot. You can sign up for your Morning Double Shot of news and comment here.
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