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New Ministry sets out to transform Australia

by Colin Chapman

australian cabinetIn

introducing a transformed Cabinet at the swearing in ceremony, prime minister Malcolm Turnbull described his new ministry as one that reflects a determination to seize the opportunities of the most exciting times in human history. A bit of hyperbole perhaps, but the choices he’s made in his new team and his description of the kind of government he hopes to lead after his ruthlessly executed coup to oust Tony Abbott have given Australians new hope after enduring three poor prime ministers in a row over the past five years. And, after being being hopelessly behind Labor in the polls, the Liberal-National Party Coalition now has the Opposition on back foot.

So what’s changed? The world this week is much the same as last Monday when Abbott was unceremoniously dumped by his own party. To be sure President Barack Obama now says he thinks the United States and its partners can conclude the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal by the year end. But Chinese economic growth is still below where we want it to be, Europe is not fixing its refugee problem, North Korea has rekindled its nuclear program.

The Australian economy is still flat with the end of the mining boom, poor productivity, and an Opposition determined to wreck the best achievement of Tony Abbott’s government – an advantageous free trade agreement with China. As yet there has been no Turnbull bounce in the stock market.

The reason for optimism about Australia is, as the influential columnist Bob Gottliebsen put it, is that Malcolm Turnbull now has the opportunity to lead a government that Australia has not experienced for over a decade. The last four prime ministers have been hopeless at running a Cabinet. Kevin Rudd surrounded himself with personal advisers, was highly disorganized, and lived for the media cycle, only to be overthrown by Julia Gillard, who was possessed by the unions, and the photo opportunity. The Labor Party brought back Rudd, but he could not beat off the challenge from the pugnacious Liberal leader, Tony Abbott. But then, Abbott never really made the transition to prime minister, relying too match on slogans and battle cries, rather than good policy.  Backbenchers and ministers served notice on him earlier this year from his over dependency on his chief of staff, the formidable Peta Credlin, who guarded his office as if it was Fort Knox, and blocked all but the most determined. Abbott promised to do better, but didn’t, and last week Turnbull swooped.

Turnbull will resurrect proper Cabinet government in the mould of John Howard and Bob Hawke, will insist on policy debate rather than slogans and verbal insults that have dogged Parliament, and will focus on new opportunities for Australia in the digital age, particularly in services.

Joe Hockey, an amiable and occasionally able politician, failed in the key economic role of treasurer in the Abbott government, after one bad Budget, and an inability to push forward with economic reform so badly needed. His friends would argue he was constrained by Abbott’s refusal to take any unpopular measures, but he did appear to run his office by the seat of his pants rather than a solid vision. His successor, Scott Morrison, is not likely to disappoint, after successful spells as a tough immigration minister engineering an end to seabound illegal immigration, and as a tireless social services minister earning praise from welfare groups.

Turnbull is also fortunate that the able foreign minister, Julie Bishop, transferred her allegiance to him. Tough and resolute, she has managed several crises well, including the downing of a Malaysian airline by Russian-backed rebels in Ukraine in which 28 Australians were killed. Turnbull is much more likely to let her run her portfolio without meddling than did Abbott, Turnbull will focus on economic and tax reform as the priority.

Defence will also benefit from having one of three new women appointed to the Cabinet. Senator Marise Payne, the surprise appointment, will have the tough task of presenting a new defence white paper within days, as well as assessing and managing Australia’s most expensive procurement program, including a much-needed submarine fleet and new aircraft.

The promotion of Josh Frydenberg, an Abbott supporter, to Cabinet as Energy and Resources Minister is important. He’s in favour of coal seam gas development, a controversial area, and in modernizing coal. But, unlike Abbott, he’s also much in favour of renewables, and is already talking up expanding the sector, particularly solar and thermal. Australia exports 80 per cent of its energy production, and with a big increase in demand, particularly from India and China, he will put a new impetus into these developments.

There is much talent in the Turnbull ministry, but much, of course, hangs on Turnbull himself. He is now at the pinnacle of three successful careers. As a young lawyer, he came to fame taking on, and beating, the British government on the side of retired MI5 spy Peter Wright, who fought for the right to publish the book Spycatcher. As an investment banker, as managing director of Goldman Sachs Australia, and the running his own business, he became very wealthy. In politics he was deposed as Leader of the Opposition by Abbott, but last week gained his revenge.

Turnbull now has until Christmas to fine tune existing policies, and develop new ones that catch the public imagination. He will do both. Then he has six months to sell them – to a listening public and a skeptical Senate. Then it will be the election campaign. It’s a daunting challenge, but the chances are Turnbull can achieve what Abbott never could.

This is a transcript of a podcast