MUNGO MACCALLUM: Morrison's Cabinet: Lightweights and non-performers

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Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons

It’s an old line, but a good one and unfortunately usually a true one: the front benches of parliament are top heavy with lightweights.

Of course, the leaders deny it: they always lament the surplus of talents within their ranks, their regret that so many outstanding contenders cannot be shoehorned into their already swollen choices.

But in fact, talent is only one of the criteria Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese seek — and not always the most important one. The demands placed on them by geography and the factions, not to mention the need to reward favours rendered as they clamber up the greasy totem pole and hang on to the summit, are paramount.

And there may be a perceived need to raise the profiles of some who are struggling in marginal seats. So perforce mediocrity cannot be avoided, although the leaders prefer to call it "balance".

In Morrison’s case, this is complicated by the Coalition agreement; he has managed to reduce the Nationals’ numbers by one, but there are still six cabinet positions which must be filled from Cockies' Corner, where the gene pool is pretty sparse.

The unexciting Michael McCormack has picked an even more unexciting team, although at least Barnaby Joyce remains in the back paddock. In fact, the same old faces are back in harness — McCormack calls that stability. Others might describe it as inertia.

And the Liberals are hardly more encouraging — the fact that two of the more competent, Mitch Fifield and Arthur Sinodinos instantly decamped to greener pastures in the United States, made the available options even more sparse.

Thus Morrison had to do some recycling — Stuart Robert and Sussan Ley have been rehabilitated, having served their times in the sin bin. Michaelia Cash, also "damaged goods", gets another chance and even Melissa Price is retained, although Morrison’s pledge to keep her as Environment Minister was considered too absurd to contemplate.

In any case, the environment has now been effectively trashed, with emissions reduction – by which Morrison means, but will not say, climate change – has been consigned to the coal-stained hands of Energy Minister Angus Taylor.

Other non-performers have also hung on — David Coleman, Dan Tehan and Linda Reynolds are just three who hardly deserve preserving, still less promotion. Others deserve points for trying: Karen Andrews, who retains the science portfolio, has said she plans to bring scientists to Canberra so they can show the sceptics and denialists beyond any doubt that man-made climate change is real. Andrews also wants to go to Mars, a somewhat more realistic ambition.

But most seem content to just bumble along on their inflated salaries. And, of course, the massed choirs of assistant ministers are a veritable grab-bag of nonentities.

But at least Morrison had the excuse that much of the mix was inevitable — he had to select lightweights because they were the only class available.

Albanese was in a tougher position — he knew he had good people but was unable to use some of the best and brightest because the factional law lords would not let him.

So Pat Dodson is not a starter — the father of reconciliation has been sidelined in Reconciliation Week. Andrew Leigh, once considered a possible future leader, has been dumped altogether because he remained steadfastly non-aligned.

Ed Husic had to stand aside because there were only six places allocated to the NSW right and Albanese insisted that Kristina Keneally must fill one of them. She is a worthy inclusion, but why not keep both? Sorry, cannot be done.

But at least Keneally’s rise meant that the superfluous Don Farrell could finally be shunted out of the deputy leadership of the Senate. He will still clutter up the front bench, purely because of his notoriety as a warlord — his ability to frighten his colleagues. His opponents rightly ignore him — few could even name his portfolio responsibility. (Give up? Special Minister of State and Sport.)

But Albanese was less worried about his indolence than his gender: he wanted two women on the leadership team and with Tanya Plibersek not available in the reps, the Senate was the only opportunity. The prize of deputy in the house was delivered by the factions in the form of Richard Marles, formerly best known as a performer in a comedy crosstalk duo with Christopher Pyne.

His new job will be rather more challenging. The vital task of a deputy is to be a link between the leadership and the backbench — not as an enforcer, which is the whip's role, but as a canary in the mineshaft.

The deputy must sniff out and snuff out trouble before it becomes serious, and as such must be constantly on guard, but also trusted. Whether Marles is the right man may well determine whether the unity the caucus has maintained for nearly six years can hold after the demoralising loss of a second election.

Which brings us, inevitably, to the problem of Bill Shorten. On merit, he obviously deserves to be on the front bench, but then so did Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull, and look where that led. However, rejecting him would not be a smart move either — just ask Tony Abbott.

Shorten has denied a report that he hoped for a comeback, but the reality is that his refusal to leave Parliament altogether will be a magnet for media trolls looking for any sign of disloyalty. And, given the febrile nature of such people, they will either discover or fabricate one.

Albanese will need to be on guard. The magisterial examiners of the Murdoch press have already demanded he pass more ”tests” than NAPLAN. He must, according to them, embrace most of Morrison’s agenda, including more privileges for the religious, passing all of Morrison’s pie in the sky tax cuts for the wealthy and embracing coal and gas — and, for good measure, nuclear power.

Albanese has vowed not to rush things, but that won’t stop the media from harassing him. He can only hope that the heavyweights in his entourage band together to protect him. He has a better team than Morrison, but so did Bill Shorten. His opponents are not all in Parliament.

Mungo MacCallum is a veteran journalist who worked for many years in the Canberra Press Gallery. This article was published on 'Pearls and Irritations' and is republished with permission.

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