Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Today by Sean Kelly

Today’s reshuffle had some problems – such as not enough women getting promoted

Supplied by ABC News

The single most important thing about Malcolm Turnbull’s ministerial reshuffle is that there are still just five women in the cabinet. Four blokes got the call-up today, and just one woman. It’s not good enough.

Now, if I was Malcolm Turnbull, I’d be a bit upset about that characterisation. In October, he was saying that, “I have more women in my cabinet than any previous government”. That wasn’t correct – Kevin Rudd’s second ministry had six women in cabinet, as had Turnbull’s, previously – but his basic point is reasonable. Women have long been a minority in cabinet, and Turnbull has done better than most in improving the situation. 

That means it’s easy for many of us – especially the men – to blink away the failure to improve. But the fact it’s a reflection of longstanding practice is exactly why it should still be the main story, every time it happens. These things don’t get less egregious with repetition – quite the opposite – and until we treat them like the outrage they are then things are unlikely to change. I should note too that it’s partly a reflection of the Coalition’s very poor record on electing female MPs – female representation is now at its worst since Paul Keating was prime minister. If a few more women found their way into cabinet there would be more women in than out.

You should know, too, that this wasn’t done in ignorance. Sharri Markson reported [$] in the Daily Telegraph that lists had been redrawn and updated “over and over again” to ensure factional, state, and female representation. Specific names had been “raised in conversations for promotion”: Melissa Price, Nicole Flint and Karen Andrews. So we know that the possibility was considered, and deliberately rejected.

All this wouldn’t be quite so maddening if it wasn’t in stark contrast to the hypocritical insistence on quotas for the Nationals, as I wrote in July last year, and the prime minister’s use of geographic quotas today as an explanation for other promotions.

And it wasn’t as though it was a small reshuffle. The combination of citizenship, sickness, and vengeance left a number of gaps, and the PM took full advantage. The results were mixed.  

On the good side of the ledger, Mathias Cormann picks up special minister of state, an incredibly important if often undervalued job, and will treat it with the seriousness it deserves. Christian Porter becomes attorney-general, as George Brandis heads to London. All the cooing over Brandis’s recent achievements point to an unpleasant truth: that there wasn’t a lot to coo about before that. Porter should do well. Michael Keenan has energy to spare and will bring it to cabinet. This government needs to make a huge song and dance about infrastructure over the next year, and Barnaby Joyce, who takes the portfolio, is the best man to do that.

However, Joyce is also responsible for the biggest political problem in the reshuffle, namely the decision to demote the well-liked Darren Chester from cabinet because he supported Bridget McKenzie for deputy leader of the Nationals over Joyce’s candidate. Keith Pitt was also demoted, and Phillip Coorey is reporting [$] that some sources “are saying Mr Pitt might quit the Coalition”. Coorey also quotes a party source saying Chester was offered a parliamentary secretary role, “but told them to stick it”.

Now, it could be that this is Joyce necessarily imposing his authority after a fractious period in his party. Or it could be that the decision to impose his authority on a fractious party only makes things worse. We’ll know next year.

In the category of old news is the promotion of Peter Dutton to the head of his new super portfolio. Let me simply register for the record my continued unease with the concentration of power in the hands of a man known neither for his competence nor honesty.  

The reshuffle stands as a fairly good summary of Turnbull’s challenges in 2018. To fight back, he will need to rely on a surge of good policy. To get that, he will depend on his new cabinet, and the energy of his new appointments. But as was demonstrated repeatedly this year, he will only get traction on substance if the rest of his MPs can stop battling each other. By the end of today, the exciting potential of his new ministers had given way to stories about the infighting.

One other important thing happened today, which was the release of new information on climate policy. The government has reviewed its own policies, and found they’re working just fine. Also, another government report found that Australia’s greenhouse emissions are higher than they’ve ever been (when you exclude the impact of land use), and are going to keep rising to 2030. All this was overshadowed by the reshuffle, but perhaps not in the way the PM would have hoped. 

Sean Kelly’s final post for The Monthly Today will be this Friday. The e-newsletter will return, with Paddy Manning, on Monday, 29 January.

In other news


The inland food bowl

Les Murray

“A gapped circle of colonies
each staring at the ocean
through a plaid of cars and imports.

Inland lies the still uncrowded
heartland once of drawl and steamboats
now half desert, half freshwater province.” read on


AS Patrić’s ‘Atlantic Black’ and the challenges of historical fiction

This ambitious second novel doesn’t quite live up to its Miles Franklin–winning predecessor

Adam Rivett

“As with Black Rock White City’s judicious namechecks of Danilo Kiš and Ivo Andrić – names that not only displayed Patrić’s erudition, but contextualised his novel’s historical trauma – Atlantic Black quotes and alludes to writers as varied as Antal Szerb, Mina Loy and Edward Thomas. As before, these are names employed for more than just well-read showmanship, but this desire to frame the novel with period-specific references leads at other times to some clumsy writing.” READ ON

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.



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