21 September 2015
by Laura Tingle
Malcolm Turnbull's cabinet: Talking about a revolution
Malcolm Turnbull has put a long overdue bomb under the Coalition, not just clearing out dead wood or Abbott loyalists but repositioning the government on key policy areas and, as a result, stealing the future from Labor.
The sheer scale of Turnbull's renovations is breathtaking. There is no sense of the constraint of sentiment in the number of careers that have been brought to an abrupt end, or Turnbull's preparedness to rocket rising stars straight into the cabinet. There is no time to lose, it seems, in letting people get more experience in junior ministries.
The new Prime Minister's reshuffle spared few and rewarded many, but there are losers on both sides of the Turnbull and Abbott divide.
The government now has a potent political and policy operator in Scott Morrison in the Treasury portfolio to revive a lost debate on the economy and the budget, plus the dynamism of some of the Coalition's best young talent going straight to the top, hopefully making up for the years and years when Tony Abbott was not prepared to refresh the Coalition frontbench.
Innovation and cities have been at the heart of Labor's attempts, under Bill Shorten, to position itself as the party of the future, in contrast to Tony Abbott as yesterday's man. But it has been making little progress in cutting through with the messages.
In one fell swoop on Sunday afternoon, Turnbull put both issues at the centre of remaking the image of the modern Liberals. The Prime Minister's language was all about hope and the future. Indeed he said he was announcing a "21st-century government and a ministry for the future" and it was hard to argue with this.
This shift in focus is as important in gaining a sense of where Turnbull will position the government going into the next election as any debates you might hear about the revival of the Liberal moderates at the expense of the hard right.
People to watch
The key figures to watch in coming months – aside from Turnbull and Morrison – will be Simon Birmingham (education and training), Christian Porter (social services), Christopher Pyne (industry, innovation and science) and Kelly O'Dwyer (small business and assistant treasurer).
Birmingham has a vast expanse of a portfolio stretching from childcare to higher education. Undoing the political damage of the government's higher education reforms, developing a new strategy on both school funding and higher education, as well as (hopefully) maintaining an over-arching interest in vocational training, which has never needed a champion more if the government is serious about its competitiveness agenda.
Christian Porter – a former state Treasurer and attorney-general in Western Australia – has moved almost straight from the backbench to the cabinet in the social services portfolio (he was only appointed a parliamentary secretary in December), where there is still a lot to be done. The portfolio requires brains, economic literacy and a capacity to negotiate, all of which Porter has in spades.
Christopher Pyne has the opportunity to remake himself politically after the debacle of the 2014 budget's linking of higher education reform with savage spending cuts. The innovation and science portfolio is at the centre of the Prime Minister's focus. Pragmatically, industry policy gives Pyne the capacity to butt in shamelessly on the politics of South Australia.
Kelly O'Dwyer gets the double value of working the Liberals' small business constituency (though there is the thorny issue of the competition law effects test) as well as the potential – clearly flagged by Turnbull – to be at the centre of a revived tax reform debate. The tax system, the Prime Minister said, "is at the very centre of our whole productivity agenda, indeed at the very centre of the small business agenda".
"It is vital we have a tax system that is fair, efficient and creates the right incentives so that we can get the gains in productivity we need."
There is some continuity: foreign affairs, environment, immigration, health, trade and infrastructure stay in the same hands. Greg Hunt in environment, Andrew Robb in trade and Sussan Ley in health have all got their portfolios under control. And of course Julie Bishop not only wanted to keep her current job but owns it.
Importantly, Turnbull has made good on his word about restoring proper government processes by bringing Arthur Sinodinos back into the fold as cabinet secretary.
One of the smartest things about this reshuffle – given its scale – is that it will require relatively little, if any, change in the machinery of government. There will be little need to move bureaucrats about, or change letterheads. The Coalition has its eye on the next election and is ready to run.