The Chosen Ones

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Kevin Rudd’s Cabinet delivers Australia a broader and more diverse ministry than the country has enjoyed for 11 years.

Rudd took some bold steps but also played safe in key areas. His Cabinet will include some old hands but also some comparative novices. Shadow Ministers who performed well in Opposition have generally been rewarded for their efforts by keeping their portfolios, but Rudd has also taken some big risks in what will amount to a substantial restructure of the Commonwealth bureaucracy. Interestingly, the new Cabinet also gives the ALP’s Left factions more influence than they have enjoyed in a generation.

Much has been written about Rudd’s determination to appoint Ministers on merit and to move beyond the old system of factional power-sharing. Given the challenges the new Government faces, this is just as well.

The clear winner is Julia Gillard, and by extension, the Left. Gillard will wear at least two hats in the new Cabinet, effectively assuming responsibility for both Education and Industrial Relations in a new ‘super-portfolio’ combining the existing departments of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations with a new brief termed ‘Social Inclusion.’

Criticism that the ‘super portfolio’ is too large is predictable, but over-cooked. Gillard has sensibly argued that the three departments are ‘all of a piece,’ with important policy synergies in terms of participation and productivity two of Treasury Secretary Ken Henry’s ‘three Ps‘ (the third was ‘population). Ministers don’t manage their departments in day-to-day terms anyway. Gillard’s real role will be to manage the top tiers of the bureaucracy to ensure they are working to implement Labor’s agenda. This will be no easy task.

Image thanks to Fiona Katauskas.

John Faulkner emerges as a key power broker in the new Government. Rudd is keeping the old stager close at hand to grease the machinery and head off impending crises that less experienced Ministers might miss. Expect Faulkner to keep a low public profile but be very active behind the scenes: consigliere to Rudd’s godfather.

The other really powerful figure in the new Government is Wayne Swan. The hard-as-nails Queensland power broker has the Treasury spot he has long craved, and he has Lindsay Tanner to help him with his razor gang. Swan will have no trouble kicking heads around the Cabinet table to ensure Labor keeps its spending under control. But his first real challenge will be the next economic crisis such as a meltdown in the world’s financial markets, or a recession in the US. At this point he will need all the help he can get. No wonder he’s signed up as a paid member to the Ken Henry fan club.

Swan and Rudd both realise that another Labor recession would quickly ruin their Government. Whether they can stop one is another matter especially now they’ve made such a fuss about fiscal conservatism. If the economy runs into trouble in a couple of years’ time, will Swan have the guts to run a deficit? Let’s hope we don’t have to find out.

Hard-working West Australian Stephen Smith has been given the fourth-most senior post in the Government – Foreign Affairs. It’s a big new job which will challenge even someone of Smith’s nous and political skills; his sole experience in the portfolio is a 12-month stint on the Joint Standing Committee for Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade 10 years ago. But Smith is also an experienced political operator who will be unlikely to embarrass Australia abroad.

Penny Wong is another high performer in Opposition who has been given a big reward and a huge challenge. With a new portfolio set up to deal with Climate Change and Water, she now has responsibility for two of the toughest problems Australia faces. One has to feel for the capable, talented Wong. Water policy is a minefield of Federal-State relations which can’t easily be manipulated from Canberra witness Victoria’s steadfast refusal to sign up to a national system. And while it would almost be impossible to do less on climate change than the Howard Government, the frightening scientific truth of global warming is enough to make any intelligent person despair.

Challenges? Steven Conroy in Communications has two of the biggest: broadband and Telstra. Neither will be easy and both are interrelated. The new fibre-to-the-node broadband roll-out is a centrepiece of Labor’s election platform. Labor is also beholden to Telstra, which by the end of the Howard Government was fighting a brutal war in the media and the courts to protect and extend the giant corporation’s interests. Conroy needs to decide quickly whether Telstra will build the new broadband roll-out. If Telstra does build it, Conroy will have to get it to deliver. If Telstra is left out of the tent, Conroy better start manning the barricades. He may eventually need to resort to his ultimate weapon: breaking up the giant telco in the interests of Australian consumers.

Robert McClelland becomes Australia’s Chief Officer of the Law at the Attorney-General’s Department. McClelland performed well as Labor’s Foreign Affairs spokesman, and looks a safe bet in his new portfolio. The Attorney-General has some of the best opportunities for reform in a new Government, as the Howard Government has left us with a legacy of many bad laws. Surely his number one priority should be working with Chris Evans to rewrite the complex and unwieldy Migration Act.

Speaking of immigration, Chris Evans has the second-toughest job in the new Cabinet after Wong. Immigration is a manifestly dysfunctional department, as several independent inquiries have shown. There is no reason to believe the ceaseless bungling and cover-ups in this troubled bureaucracy will stop simply because the Government has changed; Immigration had many different ministers under Howard, all of whom struggled. Still, we can all rejoice that Kevin Andrews is no longer in charge.

Contrary to the common perception, Peter Garrett is another winner. Although Climate Change and Water have been taken off him, his portfolio of Environment, Heritage and the Arts still puts him in Cabinet. It also affords Australia the remarkable and rare opportunity of having an artist as Arts Minister. Environment is another matter; Garrett will become the minister responsible for approving or blocking controversial developments like the Tamar Valley pulp mill. Garrett will be a target regardless of the decisions he makes. It’s never easy being in Government.

Labor veteran Jenny Macklin also has some difficult months in front of her. She’s been given Cabinet’s real super-portfolio of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, with a huge ambit of responsibility for social welfare across these diverse areas. While she does have some capable juniors to assist her the savvy Tanya Plibersek in Housing and the ambitious Bill Shorten for everything else this portfolio contains some of the nation’s most pressing social problems. Labor’s housing policies are unlikely to help housing affordability. And what to do about the Northern Territory intervention?

Despite the challenges, there are some welcome reforms in Rudd’s Cabinet announcement. For the first time in a decade, Australia has a Minister for Youth – a 30-year old, no less – South Australian Kate Ellis. Young voters helped deliver a Rudd Government, so this representation is only fair. But the inter-generational challenges facing Australia’s polity are far bigger than a junior minister can address. Let’s hope Ellis is more than a presence at National Youth Week, and that some policy emerges to address our nation’s growing inter-generational divide.

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