Laura ‘bride of Scissorhands’ Tingle’s piece in yesterday’s AFR will hopefully serve as a reminder to the Finance Minister, Lindsay Tanner, that prevention of foot-in-mouth disease is always better than the cure.
Tanner, in a speech to the Press Club ahead of last year’s federal election, pointlessly announced a swathe of cuts to the sprawling spending and bureaucracy of the Howard era. Determined to fiddle at the margins (let alone making it harder for those in marginals), Tanner and fellow traveler, Cabinet Secretary, Special Minister of State and occasional Labor supporter John Faulkner, decided to drastically cut staffing allowances and communications budgets by around a third, as Vexnews reported last week. This nuanced feature of Labor’s focus on cutting spending was never sold in the electorate, and with good reason. There is absolutely no political gain from this, and it makes no sense to reduce the capacity of a Minister’s office to function. Nor does cutting printing or postage entitlements for Members to communicate with their electorates. It is the pursuit of staffing cuts, however, that has continued to surprise hacks of all hues in Canberra.
Fast forward to yesterday, and a high-level review has begun to determine if staffing levels are in fact appropriate. The fact that the existence of this review has been leaked, let alone in a non-sitting week, tends to suggest that the outcome will be that staffing allocations will be found wanting. If this were not the case, the story would have been swiftly silenced. Vexnews understands that the review has in fact been underway for some time.
Attorney-General Robert McClelland, speaking to the ABC, reportedly talked up his staff, claiming he and his are doing fine. Today, his Cabinet colleague, Ni-Cola (so-called on account of reportedly co-located Nickel and Pepsi deposits) Roxon, was equally evasive on the issue of a need for more staff, praising her staff while warding off talk of a pressing need for more. It will no doubt be left to Faulkner or an outsider to announce that the Government has in fact discovered that it is understaffed.
It will be interesting to see how the Coalition responds. Tanner, giving his foot-in-mouth speech when shadow finance minister, rightly took up the cudgel for the then invisible Shadow Special Minister of State, Alan Griffin, in questioning why it was that Nationals Senate Leader Ron Boswell had nigh on a dozen staff in the absence of a Ministry. Quite rightly, this loophole that would only ever create a windfall for the Nationals as a second ‘party status’ party of Government (short of the Greens joining the ALP as a junior Coalition Partner- shudder) has now been closed. If and when a staffing review finds that the ALP is understaffed, the determination issued by the Special Minister of State that will magically create employment for esteemed alumni of Young Labor, Young Liberal, ALSF and, in the case of the Greens, the Young Labor Left. The staffing system works, to an extent, on a proportional basis. The personnel cuts naturally affected the Opposition more, as reducing shadow staffers to, let’s say, 80 from 120, has a far greater impact than going from, for argument’s sake, 450 to 300. If Shadow Special Minister of State Michael ‘Carry on jeeves’ Ronaldson attacks Labor for taking on more staff, let the Liberals lead by example by declining to employ additional staff. That’s about as likely as Petro Georgiou not wearing a made-to-measure Italian suit, or Sophie Mirabella of blessed memory giving up her illicit, if not exemplary support of tobacco growers one pack at a time in her Parliamentary suite.
THE HIGH COMMAND
‘Fruit’ Tingle’s article’s focus on the staffing levels, as well as the composition of, the outer ministry is a portent of impatience. The staffing levels of sub-Cabinet Ministers are relatively have barely changed from Howard years, with a cut of a couple of staffers per office. Some Parliamentary Secretaries have seen cuts also. Many of the cuts have come from within the Cabinet, with a particular focus on shedding DLOs and moving away from having a CLOs as positions in themselves. The GMS or Government Members’ Secretariat, essentially a campaign, design and tactical unit at the disposal of the PMO but nominally under the auspices of the Special Minister of State, had a huge staff under Howard that has reportedly been cut substantially under Rudd and Faulkner, with its new guise being the CCSTU, the Soviet-style anagram of ‘Caucus Committees Support and Training Unit”. That accounts for some of the stillborn staff. Parly Secs in all but name such as ‘Assistant Immigration Minister’ and Miss Popularity, Teresa Gambaro, had a larger staff than they would have otherwise have been entitled to. Costello’s caucus consort, Tony Smith, reportedly had the equivalent staffing level of a Cabinet Minister as Parliamentary Secretary to Costello’s best friend, John Howard. Would that his successor, patriot Anthony Byrne, was given such an allowance to employ a platoon of political Praetorians.
Talk of a mooted reshuffle leads to the focus on who might lose their inadequate Ministerial staff, and who might replace them in the corridors of blue carpet power.
Greg ‘Brighton is my second home’ Combet appears to be white-anting his frontbencher in a way not seen sinceâ€¦..well, Kevin Rudd made sure Laurie Brereton died the death of a thousand cuts six years before Rudd became PM. Combet’s Minister, Joel Fitzgibbon, known for his loving, peaceful and tranquil relationship with all in the NSW Right, especially with Latham fan-club lifetime Chair Senator Steve Hutchins, has confounded expectations by performing reasonably well. This far into JH’s premiership, he was already on the verge of losing a Defence Minister, something that looks unlikely to happen to Rudd despite Combet’s belief that wishing himself to be Defence Minister will make it so. Combet is bright but seemingly not a team player. Fitzgibbon’s other no. 2, former head of Army legal Dr. Mike Kelly, is a particularly sound and impressive individual whose focus is on doing his job well, rather than playing Minister. Kelly is a hard-working, principled intellectual with a keen appreciation of national security issues, who must be elevated to Cabinet prior to or after the re-election of the Rudd.
Maxine McKew, while undoubtedly marketable and capable, is performing at best moderately well in her role as Parly Sec for Child Care and Early Childhood Education. She is able to deliver the lines well when required but needs to improve on her interaction with caucus members. Just because the leader now appoints the Ministry, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have good relationships with those around you. Gary Gray, like McKew’s other half a former Labor campaign supremo, appears to be doing not a whole lot in his infrastructure, transport and regional development role. The jury is out on him, with some viewing him as a Keating-era legacy appointment along with the likes of ideologues Duncan Kerr (Serc’s old Pacific Islands gig) and Bob McMullan (Overseas Aid). John Murphy (Trade) demonstrates subtly that a close relationship to the Rudd helps in gaining promotion- or that the factional system is not as dead as Lu Kewen would have us believe, because otherwise there’d be no way that Murphy, along with the outgoing but ineffective Laurie Ferguson (Multicultural Affairs), would be a member of the Executive (even if that was at least in part a consolation prize for former Shadow Minister Laurie, as with McMullan).
Jan McLucas (Health and Ageing) is considered particularly unlucky by some, strangely losing her shadow ageing spot to the enigmatic Justine Elliot- so she’s mastered the brief and appears to be working well. Ursula Stephens (Social Inclusion), a prolific speaker in the first year of the Rudd, appears to have carriage of much of this aspect of Gillard’s portfolio, and is a solid performer. Bill Shorten has made an art form of finding silver linings in every cloud, and has mastered his brief exceedingly well- if you didn’t know that Jenny Macklin was Minister, you’d swear Bill was. He has done this without making the same mistake of obvious covetousness that Combet has, though is (rightly) not without ambition. Anthony Byrne (PM) is, like Shorten and Kelly, someone to watch for quick promotion into the Ministry. A hard worker with one of the better working relationships with Rudd, he represents the PM well and has turned his recent margin of under two percent to over ten, and is one of Labor’s few experienced outer-suburban MPs post-Latham.
In a just world, Byrne, Shorten and Kelly would be the MPs most likely to get a guernsey. In this era of faux factional irrelevance, though, who is going to be dragged?
Of the outer ministry, Bob Debus (Home Affairs) is only going to be around for a term, and won’t get knifed. Chris Bowen (Assistant Treasurer) is a rising star having a tough time flogging the FuelWatch dead horse. Alan Griffin (Veterans Affairs) hasn’t been too bad, but isn’t setting the world alight. Tanya Plibersek (Housing) has arguably been a chronic underperformer, vindicating Rudd’s decision not to have her in Cabinet. Brendan O’Connor (Employment Participation), who seemed to speak about Industrial Relations more so than the Gillard during the election campaign, has gone the way of Sharman Stone before him- relevance deprivation. Not sure what he actually does other than give thanks that local ‘stakeholders’ can’t knock him off as long as he’s a Minister. Warren ‘Scores’ Snowdon (Defence Science and Personnel) is a non-entity chosen for his loyalty to the PM, but who should be congratulated for his good taste in hats. Craig Emerson (Small Business) is short of friends in the Caucus- it is considered impolite to mention the AWU in his hearing- but is a strong performer on economic issues, whose only way is up. Nick Sherry (Superannuation) has also been a strong performer. Kate Ellis (Sport, Youth) is at best fair to middling (performance wise, rather than appearance).
Other than O’Connor or Snowdon, both considered protected by Gillard and Rudd respectively, the Minister most likely is Justine Elliot. Elliot, the only Minister to have the bulk of her office on hand outside the House door during question time (they sit nervously, hoping their boss won’t be found out), is by far and away the most perplexing inclusion in the Rudd Ministry, and has proven to be a chronic underperformer, despite the superhuman efforts of her Chief of Staff, Walt Secord. Even if you assume that a game of Ministerial Musical Chairs was restricted to Byrne, Kelly and Shorten, that’s still a couple of people without a chair when the music stops. A reshuffle is pointless if restricted to one person in the outer Ministry, and save for a Vexnews wishlist of the protectionist Kim Carr, FuelWatch malcontent ‘Marn’ Ferguson, or bordering on Chinese permanent resident Simon Crean, the Cabinet appears to be fairly safe. One thing we can predict- the loser in such a reshuffle will probably find out in the media.