Malcolm In The Middle Goes For A Turnbull Ministry Full Of Messages


Even the Coalition’s harshest critics would have to concede that Malcolm Turnbull’s new ministry and cabinet is markedly better than Tony Abbott’s old one.

Of course, Turnbull was coming off a very low base, and it’s got as much do with who's in it, as who's not.

The big cabinet scalps are Treasurer Joe Hockey; Employment Minister Eric Abetz; Defence Minister Kevin Andrews; and Minister for Industry and Science Ian Macfarlane. For his part, Hockey reportedly did not seek a position, and intends to resign from parliament at a later date.

At the same time, five women have been elevated to cabinet, and the Minister for Women is actually a woman (Senator Michaela Cash, perhaps best known for a foaming speech she gave in parliament during Gillard’s reign about the ‘sisterhood’).

Turnbull’s ministry does precisely what Abbott’s did – it sends important signals about the new Prime Minister, and what he stands for. The difference is, Turnbull’s message appears to be ‘we come in peace’, as opposed to Abbott’s which was more in the vein of ‘I am Tony, the Destroyer’.

Women, Aboriginal people, and the arts and science communities will all be either cheering, or more likely breathing a sigh of relief.

One of the biggest surprises is the elevation of Senator Marise Payne to the Ministry of Defence.

Payne is a genuine moderate in the Liberals, and a well-respected and hard working Senator for NSW. She’s been in the Senate since 1997, and despite her obvious work ethic and intellect, has never climbed higher than the rank of Minister for Human Services, in which she served under Abbott.

Defence is a big promotion, but it’s also a tough portfolio for a moderate, given Australia’s recently expanded role in the war in the Middle East.

New Minister for Defence, Senator Marise Payne.

Likewise, in another positive development, Turnbull has promoted one of only two serving Aboriginal parliamentarians to the outer ministry.

Ken Wyatt, the West Australian Aboriginal MP, will serve in the role of Assistant Minister for Health, a role that has in more recent times focused on Indigenous health. He’ll serve under Sussan Ley as Minister for Health.

At the same time, Turnbull’s sent signals internally that while a process of ‘renewal’ (his words at a presser this evening) has begun, the war is over and ‘good government starts tomorrow at the ministerial swearing in’.

That obviously remains to be seen.

One of the more alarming appointments – perhaps the result of a dirty deal done dirt cheap – is the re-emergence of former Howard Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Mal Brough, who enjoyed the support of Abbott to win pre-selection for the seat of Fisher, only to turn on the Prime Minister in February this year as one of the first out of the gate publicly to demand Abbott’s head.

Brough was eye-ball deep in the 2012-13 plot to remove former speaker Peter Slipper, and he’s the architect of the disastrous Northern Territory intervention. There was widespread concern in Aboriginal Australia this past week that Brough might return to his former post, after publicly lobbying for Turnbull.

Brough has been rewarded for his disloyalty to Abbott, but he’s also had his wings clipped – he’s been excluded from the cabinet and will serve as Special Minister of State and as a junior minister in defence under Marise Payne.

Another winner who publicly backed Turnbull, and who has fought his way through his own recent scandals is former Howard chief-of-staff, Senator Arthur Sinodinos. He’s been appointed to the role of Cabinet Secretary, which gives him broad overview across all matters coming before cabinet.

Sinodinos was considered a rising star in the Abbott Government, but was forced to stand down from the ministry last year after being called to give evidence to the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption over illegal party fundraising in NSW. No adverse finding has yet been made against him.

Turnbull also appears to be sending a signal to the party that his ministry will be a broad church.

He’s kept Mathias Cormann as Finance Minister, despite Cormann’s very public attacks on Turnbull in the past week, and he’s included far-right Christian conservative, Alex Hawke to the outer ministry as the Assistant Minister to the new Treasurer (Scott Morrison).

Turnbull has balanced that out by, hallelujah, bringing science back into the bosom of government. Abbott’s first ministry excluded it, his seconde revived it, but no-one really ever believed Abbott’s heart was in. Turnbull, by contrast, has a strong science bent, and Christopher Pyne will now serve as Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science.

It’s a step down in profile for Pyne, and as much a signal to the rationalists as it appears to be to the Higher Education sector, whose been fighting Pyne’s Higher Ed reforms since the 2014 budget.

The new Minister for Education is Senator Simon Birmingham, although there’s no word yet if Pyne’s plans have been shelved, cremated, or are just par boiling for the moment.

Greg Hunt has retained the environment ministry – one of Turnbull’s reported deals with the Nationals is that he will not rock the boat on climate change. Hunt – whose has been perhaps the worst environment minister in living memory – promises more of the same, so a smart pick from Turnbull’s perspective, and a disaster if you care about the planet.

Turnbull is quite exposed in this area, given his past advocacy of an emissions trading scheme, his passionate speeches on taking action against climate change, and a growing mood in the electorate that Australia has to take its role more seriously.

In other developments, George Brandis has retained the role of Attorney General, but he’s been stripped of The Arts. That alone will please the broader arts community, although time will tell whether or not funding is ever returned to the portfolio under the Liberals, and whether new Minister Senator Mitch Fifield jettison’s Brandis’ cynical restructuring which enabled him to fund projects he liked.

Peter Dutton has also retained the role of Immigration Minister. How a former Queensland copper who doesn’t know how a boom microphone works could ever climb to the heights of a ministry, let alone a key one like immigration, has never been fully explained. Turnbull has retained Dutton at some risk, and it’s a red rag to a bull in terms of the message it sends to human rights advocates.

The great question, of course, confronting the Turnbull government is whether or not it can keep the peace internally.

Turnbull appears to have done quite a bit on that front, but none of it, of course, factors in what those who’ve been shunned might do in the coming weeks, months, and years.

Hockey is unlikely to cause trouble – he’s leaving. But Eric Abetz and Kevin Andrews pose a particular danger to Turnbull. And of course, Tony Abbott is now skulking around on the backbench.

Abbott has promised no de-stabliisation – his mere presence is more than enough, and his every move will be watched and, if past history revisits, over-analysed by media and commentators.

It’s likely pressure will mount on Abbott to resign, because the smarter Liberals know that if they repeat the mistakes of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years – and they’ve already copied a few – one term Tony will be one term Turnbull.

We wait and watch.

Chris Graham is the publisher and editor of New Matilda. He is the former founding managing editor of the National Indigenous Times and Tracker magazine. In more than three decades of journalism he's had his home and office raided by the Australian Federal Police; he's been arrested and briefly jailed in Israel; he's reported from a swag in Outback Australia on and off for years. Chris has worked across multiple mediums including print, radio and film. His proudest achievement is serving as an Associate producer on John Pilger's 2013 film Utopia. He's also won a few journalism awards along the way in both the US and Australia, including a Walkley Award, a Walkley High Commendation and two Human Rights Awards. Since late 2021, Chris has been battling various serious heart and lung conditions. He's begun the process of quietly planning a "gentle exit" after "tying up a few loose ends" in 2024 and 2025. So watch this space.