09 December 2015
by Phillip Coorey

Nationals plan Macfarlane cabinet return with leadership change

Ian Macfarlane(L) and Warren Truss

Former industry minister Ian Macfarlane's intended return to cabinet is being planned to coincide with Warren Truss stepping aside as Nationals leader for Barnaby Joyce early in 2016.

Mr Joyce will then insist Mr Macfarlane be promoted under a new Coalition agreement.

Despite furious Liberals pulling out all stops to stop Mr Macfarlane defecting to the Nationals so he can re-enter cabinet under the Coalition quota system, the former Liberal minister and the Nationals are pushing on unperturbed.

Sources said that Mr Truss, whose retirement from politics has long been expected, will stand down as Nationals leader in March, after the pre-budget expenditure review committee, or razor gang, process is finished.

Mr Joyce has the numbers to replace him and, upon doing so, will need to negotiate a new Coalition agreement with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Mr Joyce will demand the Nationals be given four cabinet positions, one more than the party has now.

He will demand two Nationals be promoted to cabinet – one to replace Mr Truss, who will go to the backbench until the election, and Mr Macfarlane.

Expand cabinet
Mr Turnbull will be urged to expand his cabinet from 21 to 22 ministers and reduce the outer ministry from nine to eight, to keep within the limit of 30 ministers.

The minister to be dropped from the outer ministry would have to be a Liberal.

Mr Macfarlane's defection from the Liberals to the Nationals is expected to be rubber stamped on Saturday by the federal divisional council in his seat of Groom. Then, on Monday night, the Liberals are trying to have the Liberal-National Party state executive block the move. The executive is divided but the numbers at this stage appear to be in Mr Macfarlane's favour.

"It will be a brave state executive which goes against the FDC," a source said.

If the state executive doesn't block the move on Monday night, the issue threatens to cause an explosion in the Coalition in 2016, in the lead-up to the federal election.

Mr Turnbull has further cause for concern about election-year instability. Tony Abbott told Sky News on Tuesday night that although he has yet to make a final decision, he is probably going to stay in Parliament beyond the next election, because that has been the "overwhelming message" from the public.

"I have had literally thousands and thousands of messages of support and encouragement," he said, adding that to be on the backbench was "a noble and honourable calling".

Won't stay silent
And nor will he stay silent. On Wednesday, Mr Abbott will deliver a speech in Singapore on national security to the International Institute of Strategic Studies. The speech, to coincide with another article in Sydney's Daily Telegraph, will argue for a stronger military effort against Islamic State and contend that the "death cult" cannot be contained and must be destroyed.

In the Sky interview, he claimed vindication for his earlier call for Australia to send special forces to Syria when US President Barack Obama committed an extra 200 US special forces.

Mr Abbott defended his notorious 2014 budget measures of deregulating university fees, a Medicare charge, cutting the indexation rate of the pension and denying the young unemployed immediate access to the dole.

"All those things were justifiable and right. All are defensible policies and I am happy to defend them," he said.

He blamed Labor and the Senate crossbench for the demise of the budget. He said Mr Turnbull "deserves my respect and support" and pledged not to indulge in raking over past events, except when he saw the need to correct the record as he saw it.

"I think it's important to correct the record when the record has been falsified," he said.

Needed to create room
On Monday night, Mr Turnbull said he had not dumped Mr Macfarlane from cabinet because he was a bad minister, but that he needed to create room to promote new talent and women.

"There are only so many places in the cabinet and you cannot bring new talent up unless some of the older talent moves on," he said.

"I give the example of Gail Kelly, former CEO of Westpac. Gail could have run Westpac for another decade or two, but she moved on because other people had to move up. So you've got to have succession."​