House of cards

Yesterday’s surprise reshuffle marked a departure from the earlier practice of the Howard Government, which entered the last two elections with no changes to the ministry in the preceding year. In particular, the Prime Minister was happy to enter the 2001 campaign carrying three prominent Cabinet "lame ducks", Peter Reith, Michael Wooldridge and John Fahey, and he also neglected to jettison Ian McLachlan from the Defence portfolio (a happily lesser concern at that time) when he announced his impending retirement in the months before the 1998 election. This time he is reacting to a somewhat different set of circumstances – Peter Garrett’s nomination as Labor candidate for Kingsford-Smith has added urgency to the need for new blood in the Environment portfolio, and the return of Kim Beazley has narrowed if not closed the front-bench talent gap and demanded an assertive Government response.

From an electoral perspective, the most intriguing aspect of the reshuffle is the Prime Minister’s move to generate positive publicity for key marginal seat holders through happily timed promotions. Mal Brough, member for Longman (Queensland, 2.5 per cent), rose within the junior ministry to assume the Assistant Treasurer and Revenue portfolio vacated by the new Communications Minister, Senator Helen Coonan; his earlier position of Employment Services Minister went to Fran Bailey, member for McEwen (Victoria, 2.2 per cent), entering the junior ministry for the first time; and Bailey’s earlier position of parliamentary secretary to the Defence Minister in turn went to Teresa Gambaro, member for Petrie (Queensland, 3.5 per cent). There seems no reason to doubt the initial announcement will generate useful goodwill in these three crucial seats, but this needs to be traded off against the preference of many voters for a local member free to tend to electorate matters. There are also concerns held by Government MPs, according to Mark Metherell in the Sydney Morning Herald, "about the risks facing new ministers grappling with new briefs during an election campaign".

While promotions in the Howard Government have not previously occurred this close to an election, its past history offers two precedents that do not augur well in this regard. At the reshuffle closest to the 1998 election, Tasmanian MP Warwick Smith was entrusted with the Family Services portfolio which then included responsibility for aged care. This area had already proved the undoing of Judi Moylan and would later destroy Bronwyn Bishop. Smith fared little better – in one of his first experiences in the job, angry pensioners shouted at him as he defended Government plans for nursing home fees during an appearance on the Nine Network’s Midday program. Although thought to have performed well in the job by most objective observers, he suffered a 4.7 per cent swing at the October 1998 election and lost his seat of Bass to Labor’s Michelle O’Byrne.

The reshuffle closest to the 2001 election, announced in December 2000, saw the promotion to the Employment Services junior ministry of Mal Brough, who once again benefited in yesterday’s reshuffle. Brough’s subsequent swearing-in was delayed as the Federal Police investigated untimely vote rorting allegations involving his electorate office, and he later hit trouble when reports emerged of widespread rorting of the Job Network program. Brough picked up a 1.8 per cent swing at the 2001 election, but this compared unfavourably with swings in the neighbouring seats of Fairfax (4.8 per cent), Petrie (2.7 per cent) and Dickson (a Cheryl Kernot-boosted 6.1 per cent).

Presumably none of this has been lost on the Prime Minister, who has certainly not gone overboard with this particular aspect of his strategy. Both the new Cabinet appointments are Senators, and three other recipients of promotions hold reasonably safe seats. With further rearrangements not being ruled out in the event that the Government is re-elected, Brough, Bailey and Gambaro have presumably been given a brief to enjoy the photo opportunities and stay out of trouble.

Author: William Bowe

William Bowe is a Perth-based election analyst and occasional teacher of political science. His blog, The Poll Bludger, has existed in one form or another since 2004, and is one of the most heavily trafficked websites on Australian politics.