11 February 2016
by Mark Kenny
Ministerial exodus unbalances Malcolm Turnbull's team
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull during question time. He wants a referendum worded to 'sing' to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
What's going on? Suddenly, the smooth and toboganable brow of the Turnbull government has been furrowed by ministerial crises and resignations. Order has given way to a faint air of chaos.
It wasn't meant to be this way at all. After a strong start propelled by the power of positive thought and the rigour of orderly process, Malcolm Turnbull's administration looks slave to events rather than the other way around.
Don't panic, is the message emanating from his office, no reshuffle is imminent. Yet the strong impression being created is that parts of the show are flying off - that either through incompetence, stupidity, or a failure of due diligence, Turnbull's executive is disintegrating around him, suggesting he is less in control than he might pretend. And that's before anything serious has even been tried in a policy sense.
Five ministers in four months. That's the number people will notice. Of course, it's never that simple.
But it is a bad look for a new PM whose core mission was to dial down the "spectaculometer" and wind back the conflict meter via a lean and efficient administration.
Over Christmas, Turnbull's brand new cities minister Jamie Briggs was forced to resign after a relatively minor indiscretion. Briggs' departure made Turnbull's already untenable protection of special minister of state Mal Brough - under investigation over his role in the Ashby-Slipper scandal - indefensible. So Brough was stood down pending that investigation. Now another, Human Services Minister Stuart Robert is in deep trouble, accused of breaching the ministerial code of conduct by undertaking quasi-ministerial duties while travelling in China on personal grounds. Both of these ministers face allegations relating to their pre-Turnbull activities. But Turnbull reappointed them. They're his ministers now.
Adding to the complexity is the imminent retirement of the unfashionable but entirely dependable, Warren Truss, and the uber-efficient Trade Minister Andrew Robb. It remains unclear when each will hand in his commission, even if their intentions to retire at the next election are known.
For Turnbull, the questions are coming thick and fast: When to reshuffle? Who to promote? How to ensure the current round of frontbench losses has run its course?
All in all, it's been a messy week, headlined by the backdown over the GST, before being overrun with Stuart Robert's befuddling China trip.
And now Truss and Robb. For an operation that promised to focus on voters' needs, this one is having a lot of trouble rising above its own troubles.