Tony's Men Lock The Cabinet Door Behind Them

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It’s been a leisurely start so far for the Abbott government – which, by the way, is not even the government yet, not having been sworn in by Governor-General Quentin Bryce.

Ten days since his resounding victory, the Prime Minister-elect has adopted a deliberate pace. The Coalition’s heir presumptive has made sure to contrast his steadiness with the frenetic but often unfocussed energy of the outgoing Kevin Rudd.

But every government eventually must make decisions and start to annoy people. Abbott is experiencing an early taste of the inevitable disappointments of government today, as feminists and the science community attack his choices for federal cabinet.

The sins are of omission, rather than commission. Abbott’s cabinet contains only a single woman – albeit the high-profile incoming Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop – and the outer ministries and parliamentary secretaries are scarcely more diverse. With only six women amongst the 42 leadership roles, this is comfortably the most male-dominated executive in recent history. As acting Opposition Leader Chris Bowen pointed out yesterday, “the cabinet of Afghanistan now has more women [than Australia’s].”

When announcing the new ministerial line-up, Abbott was at pains to make the point that he wanted more women in his cabinet. Indeed, he was “disappointed” that more could not be included. He just couldn’t find spots for them. After all, Abbott explained, Sophie Mirabella would have been in there, but couldn’t be considered (she will probably lose her seat of Indi). “There are some very good and talented women knocking on the door of the Cabinet and there are lots of good and talented women knocking on the door of the ministry,” he intoned.

As more than a few commentators have observed – including senior women in the Liberal Party like Senator Sue Boyce – the women might be knocking, but the door seems firmly shut. Experienced junior ministers such as Sussan Ley and Marise Payne could easily have been brought into the cabinet; talented backbenchers like Kelly O’Dwyer could have been found roles as Parliamentary Secretaries. It’s not as though this was a cabinet chosen on merit. Arthur Sinodinos is not in the cabinet, when he surely should be, while Peter Dutton is, when he surely should not.

Abbott’s watchword appears to have been “stability”. That commitment to stability has ensured plenty of recycled faces from the Howard years. Kevin Andrews had several disastrous years as a Howard cabinet minister, including a baleful stint as the Immigration Minister, but here he is again as Minister for Social Services. Also returning from the Howard years are Warren Truss, Joe Hockey, Malcolm Turnbull, Julie Bishop and Abbott himself.

Of the winners and losers, the big winner is hardline neoliberal Mathias Cormann. The Western Australian Senator gets a huge promotion to Finance Minister, allowing Andrew Robb to move sideways into Trade and Investment. Cormann is a noted deficit hawk, and can be expected to drive aggressive cost-cutting efforts from the Finance portfolio. Another winner is Christopher Pyne, whose mega-portfolio of Education encompasses everything from kindergarten, to universities, to schools funding, not to mention vocational education and training.

Of the losers, there are several. Leaving aside Mirabella, whose meteoric fall from grace will shortly be sealed by defeat by upstart independent Cathy McGowan, low-profile Queensland Senator Ian Macdonald has been dumped. He took to Facebook to vent his spleen. A different kind of loser is Arthur Sinodinos, who really should have been given a key portfolio, but has instead has been made Assistant Treasurer, no doubt to help Joe Hockey out with his Excel spreadsheets.

One cabinet position that Tony Abbott has not recycled from the Howard years is the Minister for Science. Much to the bemusement of the Australian scientific community, there is no formally titled portfolio for science. It’s the first time since 1931 there hasn’t been a Science Minister in the ministry. It was left to Catriona Jackson at the science lobby Science & Technology Australia to ask plaintively, “where is the science minister?” More pointedly, Victorian Greens Senator Richard Di Natale told journalists that “Tony Abbott has made an art out of ignoring the science of climate change, so it's no surprise that he has failed to include science or research.”

Instead, science will be split up between Pyne’s Education portfolio, which will supervise the Australian Research Council, and Ian Macfarlane’s Industry portfolio, which will look after the Commonwealth science agencies. For Australia’s science and technology community, it’s not a reassuring division of labour. Macfarlane is a paid-up member of the fossil fuel club, and some are already wondering whether he will shift research at government bodies like the CSIRO away from climate change, and towards more ideologically amenable priorities. Meanwhile, Joe Hockey’s pre-election swipe at supposedly “futile” research funded by the ARC does not bode well for the future of arms-length research.

Other subtleties in the new cabinet point to the direction of the Abbott government. There is no mention of the word “climate” in any of the portfolios, with Greg Hunt to be called, simply, the Minister for the Environment. Grammar nerds will no doubt applaud the parsimony in Abbott’s cabinet titles. But many will also wonder, as Graham Readfearn does today, whether this heralds a broader shift in the priorities of the new government.

Whatever his title, Hunt will have immense difficulty squaring the circle of the Coalition’s nonsensical Direct Action policy with his renewed commitment, repeated again yesterday, of reducing Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions by 5 per cent by 2020. Given the threadbare weave of his policy fabric, Hunt may live to regret that pledge.

For the time being, however, most of the animus will be focus on the remarkably gender-biased nature of the ministry. And no wonder. In the year 2013, it’s not acceptable to stack the executive of a modern western country with such a preponderance of conservative older men. Many Australian women will conclude that the Abbott government is not serious about gender equality or women’s issues. In the words of Sue Boyce, “it's embarrassing, and it's not just embarrassing nationally but I think it's embarrassing internationally.” It will take far more than a gold-plated parental leave scheme to turn such perceptions around. 

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