The Hostages In Abbott's Shadow Cabinet


Right now, senators Simon Birmingham and Gary Humphries may be thinking they have received promotions by being given jobs as shadow parliamentary secretaries. Tony Abbott is claiming not to have based the design of his front bench around rewarding those who supported him against Malcolm Turnbull in the recent party meltdown over emissions trading, and perhaps he’d point to the appointments of Birmingham and Humphries as proof of that. But the reality is that these two have been taken hostage.

The rationale behind this is the same one that underpins the wider preoccupations of the new-look Opposition. Media coverage and criticism of Abbott’s new frontbench has focused on the resurrection of old Howard acolytes such as Kevin Andrews, Bronwyn Bishop and Philip Ruddock. Their return — at various levels of the shadow executive hierarchy — does say much about the defiant defence Abbott intends to make of the Howard government’s legacy. This is an Opposition leader and frontbench that won’t be backing away from the policies and principles the Coalition espoused when they were in government.

The most interesting front bench appointments, however, weren’t relics of the Howard era. Further down the list, Abbott and the hardcore climate change sceptics who put him in office seem to have paid as much attention to the numbers and who-gets-what as any old-fashioned Labor factional warlord.

There were 14 Liberal senators who spoke in favour of supporting the Rudd Government’s emissions trading scheme in shadow cabinet or at the joint party room meeting of 24 November. They were Senators Brandis, Coonan, Johnston, Ronaldson, Fierravanti-Wells, Payne, Colbeck, Boyce, Troeth, Trood, Heffernan, Kroger, Birmingham and Humphries.

For the Government to get its legislation through the Senate at the third (and surely final) attempt, it needs seven of these senators to cross the floor. When the scheme was voted on last week, only two of these — Sue Boyce and the retiring Judith Troeth — did so. But Tony Abbott has taken precautions against too many of them giving into pressure to change their minds in February — whether that pressure comes from the blogging "humble backbencher" Malcolm Turnbull, the Government or anyone else.

Eight of the 14 have been found places on the new frontbench, and are thus bound by the convention of (shadow) cabinet solidarity, where to vote against the position of the Coalition would require them to resign their positions. That’s not one more — and not one less — than Abbott needs to force any Senator who might be thinking of becoming the seventh Liberal to cross the floor on the ETS to decide whether they want to be the person responsible for a re-ignition of the same sort of civil war that racked the party a fortnight ago. This Shadow Cabinet design has given just enough of those Liberal senators most likely to cross the floor a new vested interest in not doing so.

Coincidence? Perhaps. But that exact number of jobs for the pro-ETS senators is harder to dismiss when you look at what happened to Turnbull backers in the reshuffle as a whole. Michael Ronaldson, Michael Keenan, Steven Ciobo and Sharman Stone were demoted out of shadow cabinet. All are Liberal moderates. Ronaldson and Ciobo in particular were vocal supporters of Turnbull. They were replaced, along with one token Turnbull supporter in Scott Morrison, with Bruce Billson, Sophie Mirabella and Tony Smith. All opposed the ETS and the latter two helped launch the coup that delivered Abbott the leadership by resigning their portfolios.

On the next level down, Abbott has again promoted one token moderate to a junior shadow ministry — Marise Payne — and three hardcore conservatives. These changes on the most visible and important levels of the Coalition frontbench expose Abbott’s talk of re-building Liberal party unity as insincere. But it is the appointments of Senators Birmingham and Humphries — both very openly supportive of the ETS deal negotiated by Turnbull and Ian Macfarlane — as shadow parliamentary secretaries where the new leader has gotten most tricky.

Birmingham and Humphries will find that their work as shadow parliamentary secretaries isn’t very taxing. They will not ask questions during Question Time. They won’t be holding doorstop press conferences about their portfolios or crossing the country making speeches during an election campaign. There simply isn’t much work for a shadow parliamentary secretary to do.

Nor is there any real power. They may well be bound by shadow cabinet solidarity, but they won’t be invited in when shadow cabinet meets to deliberate on policy. They are members of the team — if "team" is a word that can be used to describe the Liberals at present — but about as influential as Wilson Tuckey.

If the liberals within the Liberal Party want to revisit the ETS — and the Government is giving them ample time to do so — they have been put in a position where they must do what their conservative colleagues did: tear the party down if they don’t get their own way. With all parliamentary leadership positions in conservative hands (Abbott, Julie Bishop, Nick Minchin and Eric Abetz) and having been effectively shut out of shadow cabinet, the decision-making apparatus of the Coalition has been closed to them.

Those moderates who are members of Abbott’s frontbench have been taken hostage by the conservative wing of the party. And just enough of them — not one more and not one less — have found themselves in their captors’ hands.

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