MUNGO MacCALLUM. A ministry top-heavy with lightweights.

Sep 4, 2018

So this is what Scott Morrison calls his new generation of leadership.

It consists mainly of retreads from the previous ministry, with the absence of one of the very few the voters actually liked – Julie Bishop – and the resurrection of some we had thought we were well rid of.

Stuart Robert was turfed for misusing his ministerial position to promote a mate’s business in China. Sussan Ley went after misusing her travel allowances to invest in her highly valuable property portfolio; now both are apparently considered models of integrity,

And Barnaby Joyce and Tony Abbott have been exhumed to linger on the fringes of the tent as envoys – Joyce to pursue the vital task of rural pork barrelling and Abbott to tell the benighted natives to behave like good conservatives if they want to get on in his world.

We assume that Morrison is not calling them envoys because he regards the rural and the indigenous communities are foreign countries, although that would be the normal sense of the word. And given that Morrison says he cannot tell one end of a sheep from the other, and that his interest in indigenous affairs is, at best, well concealed, perhaps the terminology is uncomfortably apt.

But it is not clear what, if any, effect they will have that would be superior to the current well-resourced ministers, David Littleproud and Nigel Scullion respectively. And this is the essential weakness of Morrison’s makeover; a ministry top-heavy with lightweights already, now burdened with superfluous former rejects in a desperate effort at the quick fix.

The most obvious examples are what have been described as the three key appointments – right wingers promoted to attempt to plaster band aids over the concerns of swinging voters who are increasingly deserting the Liberal brand. So we have Angus Taylor, not as the Energy Minister, but the Minister for Reducing Power Prices. As long as he can produce some bogged-up statistics before the next election, he will be seen to have succeeded in the job.

Similarly, Alan Tudge is not the Minister for Cities, Infrastructure and Population, but the Minister for Congestion – in Sydney and Melbourne, where the marginals are. And Dan Tehan’s principal qualification as Education Minister is that he is a Catholic, and so can be relied onto shovel barrow loads of money to his insatiable co-religionists.

None of these short term panaceas has much to do with national policy, let alone a proper vision for the future, but none of them is meant to; this is all about filling in the potholes, or rather pretending to fill them in – even on their own terms they are unlikely to produce much in the way of outcomes within the next six months.

And the big problems have simply been pushed aside. Climate change is now deemed to be effectively non-existent; it apparently has nothing at all to do with energy policy, and has been relegated to the last position in the cabinet, where the all but unknown Melissa Price, a former lawyer for a mining company, will be in charge of making sure it is not mentioned in the party room.

This will not be hard, as few if any moderates will be game to mouth the terrible phrase. And this is the atmosphere in which Morrison reckons he can heal the wounds and restore unity – although many of his members were not even elected when the word had any meaning within the party room.

At least he can say, with some conviction, that he is safe until the next election; Dutton has been put back under his damp stone, and will have to plot quietly until his next rebellion He and his hopelessly incompetent backers – it is now clear that most if not all of them were either fools or liars or both – are still convinced that he is the saviour who can restore their base.

A quick reality check reveals that the most recent polling showed just six per cent of the electorate wanted Dutton as Liberal leader. When the sample was broken down by party support, the figure fell even lower – just five per cent of Liberal voters wanted him. How base can you get?

But then, the mad right has never been big on reality. The Abbottistas and their cabal never have and never will acknowledge the fact that the majority of Australians are not ideologues, and prefer to reside in the political mainstream. Typical of the fringe is the attempt to ramp up (in The Australian, of course) a reprise of the culture wars – we seem doomed to another battle over what the right calls free speech and the rest of us call avoiding abuse, harassment, insult and denigration.

And very few of us regard it as a pressing concern; if Barnaby Joyce thinks the bunch in the public bar are uninterested in the political chaos of the last fortnight, he can try asking how concerned they are with section 18c of the federal Racial Discrimination Act.

But derisory as the right support is in the real world, it is paramount in Morrison’s cabinet – paramount, but far from unified. The chief generals of the centre, Turnbull and Julie Bishop, have gone but Marise Payne, Simon Birmingham and Christopher Pyne are there to fight rearguard actions.

However the real trouble will come, as always, from Abbott and his willing cat’s paw, Dutton. They and their fellow insurgents have never forgiven Morrison’s collaboration with Turnbull – he presents as one of the right, but from their paranoid perspective, he cannot really be trusted.

And perhaps they have a point; the new Prime Minister is less ScoMo than ProMo, the former PR man for the tourist industry transformed in to the Liberal apparatchik within the New South Wales Branch, notorious as a nest of moderates.

He tried hard to fit in – when they were commissioned, he presented them all with Australian flag lapel pins, perhaps to help them if they have to ask waiters “Do you know who I am?” But some of the more suspicious noted that Morrison himself did not always wear one, despite his patriotic assertions. He is still on probation. It is not over yet.

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