Behind the New Shadow Ministry

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Malcolm Turnbull’s new shadow ministry has rightly received a lot of comment, with the focus understandably on the major positions and the key people: Julie Bishop’s move to the Treasury portfolio, Andrew Robb’s shift from Foreign Affairs to the awkward-sounding but important-looking new role of Infrastructure, COAG and Emissions Trading Scheme design, and the somewhat surprising move of Helen Coonan to Foreign Affairs.

It’s also worth having a look at the overall picture, including what roles those in the full shadow ministry are expected to play. Like real-life shadows, they can serve different purposes. Some cling to the Government minister, following their every move and trying to point out their flaws. Some set about trying to carve out their own identity and policy niche without paying too much attention to their Government counterpart. Some seem to take the "shadow" part of their title literally, and lurk in the shadows where they hope no one can see them — either trying to cause trouble covertly or just trying to stay out of it.

For many in the minor shadow ministry and parliamentary secretary positions, they are not likely to gain much media attention unless they do something wrong. Their task is more of a background one, building contacts or waving the flag at a community level. Some are there more for their skill at being an attack dog in the parliamentary arena rather than for any great policy ability.

The reality of modern politics is that the vast bulk of the work in creating and building the public profile of the Opposition is done by the Leader, with only 10 or so of the wider ministry likely to play any significant role in sharing this task. That doesn’t mean the other jobs are irrelevant; just that they have a different role which is not so dependent on public profile.

There has been lots of comment on the "winners and losers" among the new shadow ministry. While there is some substance to this, there is also an element of sports commentary.

For example, some suggest Nick Minchin has been demoted because he is shifted from Defence to Communications. I’m no fan of many of Minchin’s political views, but he’s undoubtedly one of the sharpest policy brains in the Coalition. Communications impacts far more directly on the lives of most Australians than Defence does, and it’s also an area where both Labor and Liberal governments have struggled for decades. Powerful vested interests and short-term politics have produced dismal outcomes for a long time. I don’t know if Nick Minchin can break that trend, but he’s got a better chance than most.

Sharman Stone’s move from the junior Environment shadow to a senior role as Immigration shadow is also potentially significant. While I mourn that my pipe-dream of having Petro Georgiou in the role didn’t come to pass, immigration is a pivotal area. It may tend to be ignored by the media when there aren’t any boats of refugees appearing, but it is a central social and economic portfolio and we will all benefit from having a serious policy brain applied to it rather than shallow populism.

It is amazing how fraught and contested shadow ministries can be, given the fairly limited competition. There are 45 positions in the current (and previous) shadow ministry, currently divided between six Nationals and 39 Liberals.

There are 101 federal Coalition MPs: 87 Liberals and 14 Nationals — including the Country Liberal Party Senator from the Northern Territory. (This figure is correct unless we go with the view that all the MPs from Queensland are members of the Liberal National Party, in which case there are 72 Liberals, 20 LNP, 8 Nationals and 1 CLP. However the formal merger is yet to be reflected in the Federal Parliament in practice.) Of this total, 37 are in the Senate (32 Lib, 4 Nationals, 1 CLP) and 64 are Members of the Reps (55 Libs, 9 Nationals).

Out of those 101, I’d reckon about 36 could be left out of consideration due to being either too new, too close to the end of their parliamentary careers, have effectively ruled themselves out or just clearly not suited to this sort of role.

That only leaves 65 to 70 people to go into 45 or so positions. You might think that shouldn’t be too difficult a task — just look at the merits of each person and pick the best 45. But unfortunately, merit is only one of the criteria, and often it’s not the most important one. Party, state and factional balances all have a bearing on who’s picked, along with the need to maximise stability by minimising the number of seriously pissed off people, and the practice of building up favour banks for the future.

However, with the overarching goal of trying to attract enough public support to regain government, there is still a need to pick people who will be capable in their jobs, or will at least be able fill the role without embarrassing the party. Developing talent for the future is another important aim, especially for a party in a rebuilding phase.

Six people have been brought in, filling spaces created by four people being dropped plus the two retirements of Brendan Nelson and Chris Ellison.

Looking at the four people who have been dropped — Bronwyn Bishop, Pat Farmer, Joanna Gash and Mark Coulton — (coincidentally all from NSW), it’s hard to argue against the wisdom of those decisions. A couple more could have been dropped without any great loss, but presumably internal personal and political dynamics made that too problematic.

The six who are coming in certainly add up to a net increase in quality. NSW Nationals Senator Fiona Nash is a particularly worthwhile choice. Right wing NSW Liberal Concetta Fierravanti-Wells has a tendency to play the culture wars rhetoric, but having a significant policy area like Parliamentary Secretary for Immigration might give her a chance to get stuck into policy detail. Victorian MPs Chris Pearce and Jason Wood both have ability, and reports suggest that this is also true of new NSW MP Scott Morrison.

I can think of a couple of other Senators I would have promoted ahead of Mathias Cormann, but that’s not to say he doesn’t have potential.

It is a shame that the skills of Queensland Senator Russell Trood aren’t being made better use of. However his chances of being developed as front bench talent are very limited by the fact that he’s stuck in an unwinnable spot on the Liberal National Senate ticket as a result of the conservative merge in Queensland. I can only assume there’s a fair bit of teeth-grinding over the fact that the merger will give Barnaby "must differentiate the Nats from the Libs" Joyce an easy run back into the Senate at the expense of a genuine Liberal.

Senator Trood has shown he can use his expertise in the area of foreign affairs in a balanced but effective way. By contrast, while I think Helen Coonan is capable in some areas, I can’t say I found her overly impressive in the role of foreign affairs spokesperson in the Senate during the Howard era — but maybe it was the difficulty of trying to justify Alexander Downer’s ever more bizarre ideological frolics in the portfolio which weighed her down. Perhaps she’ll do better now that she has greater control over the area in her own right.

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