Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Shadow boxing

Well today the Government Ministry was sworn in (or affirmed) and Tony Abbott announced his shadow ministry.

On the Government side there was the late announcement that a number of the Ministries had been changed – notably the education ones which had been changed to include the word “education” in the title. This was done because apparently unless it is in the title, the work won’t get done. On the 7:30 Report last night we had the utter stupidity of the CEO of Universities Australia arguing about acronyms:

GLENN WITHERS, CEO, UNIVERSITIES AUSTRALIA: They could've easily named the portfolio 'Tertiary Education, Employment and Workplace Relations'. That would work better as an acronym in fact than the clumsy title they've chosen.

Yes, because the acronym is so important. So Julia did the very simple thing, of deciding, well if that pointless little change will make you happy, then here you go, and thus Chris Evans suddenly became the Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations. Likewise just to make sure no one was confused about whether “Schools” meant education, Peter Garrett got the E word added to his title, so that he is now Minister for Schools Education, Early Childhood and Youth. r139109_476303

Of bigger import was the announcement last night that Warren Snowden would continue to be Minister for Indigenous Health. It was obviously an oversight – most likely Gillard thought that as there had not been a Minister for Indigenous Health prior to June 2009, they could do away with it, and let Nicola Roxon handle it as occurred before that time. The reaction from the sector however demonstrated that there was an obvious need for the position, and it is sensible that Gillard reacted quickly.

It is a bit sloppy, but to be honest it’s all a bit inside the Capital Circle – I doubt too many voters give a stuff about titles of Ministers. It does suggest however that maybe Gillard’s office needs to make sure they dot the i’s a bit more – or at the very least make sure the basics are done. Certainly though we can ignore dopey stuff like Michelle Gratten’s concerns:

But the symbolism is important. ''I'd like to talk to your education minister about your great education revolution,'' says the visitor from the US. So who would that be? Garrett, the schools minister? Or Evans, the skills minister, who has higher education?

Somehow I think the US state department might be able to direct them to the right person. I also I suspect if a visitor from the US has come all the way here without bothering to find out who he or she needs to talk to then he or she is unlikely to be worth talking to in the first place.

Of the Ministry I see a few key people to watch:

r218309_853724 Bowen – Immigration is a bugger of a nut for the ALP to crack. If he does, he’ll zoom up the totem pole. He was a pretty strong performer in Parliament as Shadow Treasurer. About the only time he came unstuck was when he confused the Yuan with the Yen (which was a pity, because at the time he was in the middle of a great attack on Costello’s ability to foresee the GFC). Scott Morrison is a smarmy know it all, so it would be nice to see him taken down a peg. Morrison also hasn’t had an opponent in the same chamber, so it will be interesting to see these two go head to head.

He made a good start on the 7:30 Report tonight describing Abbott as Cnut the Great – a Viking king who according to legend tried to command the tide to stop (and no it is not misspelt!)

Garrett – Education is not an area he is known for. If Gillard had wanted to demote Garrett should could easily have given him Arbib’s job of Minister for Indigenous Employment and Economic Development, Sport, Social Housing and Homelessness.  Instead he’ll be going up against the annoying but tenacious little pest, Christopher Pyne. Pyne maybe the kind of person who when at school even the teachers thought deserved to have his head flushed in the toilet, but you can bet he’ll fancy his chances of besting Garrett.

I think Garrett was hung out to dry by Rudd over the Insulation Scheme (interesting side note, today “The employers of a teenage insulation installer who was electrocuted in central Queensland have pleaded guilty to breaching safety laws”), but it must be said his office didn’t exactly mount a stellar defence either. He will need to be a much better politician in his new portfolio – especially as he will be dealing with the always logical teachers’ union.

Burke – Environment, Population et al. One of the many young guys (with Bowen) who has his eyes on a bigger prize later in life. Can he sell the idea of sustainable population without sounding like he is caring only about what voters in the seat of Lindsay think? I’m looking to see if he has any big picture within him.

Shorten – Assistant Treasurer. Yet another ambitious young one (perhaps the most ambitious in parliament besides Turnbull on the other side). But so what? Every single PM in the history of the nation has been ambitious (ok, maybe not Francis Forde). Now he gets a seat at the big table, will be called on to respond on economic Matters of Public Importance, and as Shadow Treasurer will deal with taxation issues – and we have a taxation summit next year, so no doubt Swan will have him doing a lot of spade work. Much is expected of him, many will be watching.

r593244_3810971Ellis - Employment Participation and Childcare, and Minister for the Status of Women. The big difference for her to the previous parliament is “employment participation”. Last time it was held by Mark Arbib. It means she’ll be expected to answer questions every month when employment figures come out. It means the opposition can target her on just about any employment issue they wish. It means a big step up from only being asked Dorothy Dixers on the launch of the World Cup big or International Youth Day. The Liberals will be looking for any weak link, and you can bet they’ll test those in new portfolios – especially economic ones. 

Ellis, in her few responses in response to her few real Question Time questions, actually worked best when she dumped the script and showed some fire. She will need that in her new job.


The big announcement of the Liberal Shadow Ministry was Malcolm Turnbull coming in as Shadow Minister for Communications and Broadband. Abbott in the press conference announcing the line-up said Turnbull’s job was to “demolish” the NBN.

There is a lot of crowing from the media and those who hate the NBN about Turnbull’s role – the sense that he will really show the Government who is boss. To which I say, I recall quite a few people thinking Turnbull as Shadow Treasurer would destroy Swan, and yet I do believe I saw Swan being sworn in as Treasurer today. I recall many thinking Turnbull would destroy Rudd as PM. I also recall Turnbull making his best speech on the Emissions Trading Scheme after the Bill was dead in the water.

Turnbull is certainly a smart man. But he is never underestimated; and frequently, since he has arrived in politics, overestimated. He did not shine as Environment Minister under Howard – either in policy or on the floor of the House. Post 2007 he had some early wins against Swan, but the talk of Swan being replaced died down very quickly.

malcolmturnbull-420x0 Yes Turnbull will be better that Tony Smith (talk about low bar to jump over), but he is going up against not just the ALP, but Telstra (let’s not forget they’re desperate for the NBN) and pretty much the entire telecommunications industry who are desperate for Telstra’s wholesale and retail arms to be separated. Sure Turnbull can bang on about costs, but I think his argument has got to be better than it was in his interview on PM tonight:

"In the late '90s, possibly hundreds of billions of dollars were spent on subsea cables, essentially broadband capacity, around the world. It was a classic case of built-it-and-they-will-come. All of those sold for cents in the dollar. We're certainly using them [now] but there was a massive destruction of wealth [that resulted from them being built]."

If he is going to focus purely on returns on the NBN investment in terms of profit, then he is lost. People see the NBN as a public good. The Government has sold it as akin to roads and rail. We don’t expect the road across the Hay plain to return a dollar profit, but we sure as hell expect it to be there, and we sure as hell expect it to be as good as any road in Sydney or Melbourne.

He also has stated talking about the NBN in “opportunity cost” terms. This is also a favoured tactic of those who dislike the NBN – ie every billion spent on the NBN is another hospital that could be built. It is a pretty weak argument. People know another hospital isn’t going to be built instead of the NBN. The argument may sound logical, but its much like smokers who quit knowing they are never actually going to go on the round the world holiday with all the money they will save.

The problem for Turnbull is people see the NBN as a “need”. He and the critics see it is a “want”. Voters are prepared for the Government to pay for needs –in fact they expect them to do it.

Turnbull will need to look at the spending as it is rolled out – is it on time etc – but he also needs to win the big picture argument. And he is a long way from doing that yet.

He is also handicapped by being up against Conroy. Turnbull’s usual first gambit is to attempt to prove to everyone that he knows more about the topic than his opponent. It is why he started off by asking Swan about the non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment (NAIRU). He wanted to show that he knew more about economics than did Swan. The problem he has with Conroy is he won’t be able to bamboozle him with talk of gigabits etc, this means he’;ll probably talk up his “business savvy”, but that takes us back to him thinking about profit instead of public good.

Conroy is also in a different chamber, so Turnbull will denied the mano-mano conflict he so loves.

Turnbull is easily the best placed person in the opposition to tackle the issue, but we should also realise that Abbott is no dummy. He’ll know that if Turnbull stars in this portfolio, and Abbott himself stays miles behind Julia as better PM, the leadership whispers will talk.  It could be Abbott has looked around, thought Turnbull will pound away, not really get any great wins, but at least give the Libs some credibility on the issue. He may also have thought that if he tells the media Turnbull will “demolish the NBN” he is setting the bar impossibly high, and thus dooming him to, if not failure, at least not success.

Of course I could just be very cynical.

r613865_4074726steven_jacobs223x148The other notable movement on the Shadow Ministry was the dumping of Steven Ciobo. It is notable because Ciobo is young – 36 – and that he was by no means a failure. He was Shadow Minister of Arts, Youth and Sport. He didn’t make any real stuff ups and certainly did not deserve demotion. He also overcame looking like Steven Jacobs – a severe handicap for any politician.

But of course he was a Turnbull man, and we know Abbott has Turnbull and his supporters best interests at heart…

The dopiest decision was appointing the weakest former Shadow Minister – Tony Smith – as “Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Tax Reform”. Given that shadow Parliamentary Secretaries are little more than appointments given out to people to keep them on side by giving them some extra pay, it does not bode well for the opposition’s election campaign to take a new look at the Henry Tax Review. That is unless you think Smith is a technical details person.

The funniest “appointment” is Jamie Briggs as “Chairman, Scrutiny of Government Waste Committee”. Huh? We’re listing party committees in the Ministry list now are we? Just silly.


Anonymous said...

Turnbull shoots his mouth off about cost blow outs with relation to the NBN.

This is going to be so easy for the Government.

It seems the bitterness pill is taking some time to swallow for those in Opposition.

Jason Wilson said...

Grog I'm usually with you on most things, but I'd put it to you as one working in the tertiary sector that making it clear how Higher Education was going to be carved up was more than a matter of crossing the tees.

You're talking about a sector that requires long timeframes in order to accommodate policy changes, and where the Government didn't go out of its way last term to provide certainty in terms of Research Assessment at one end OR how HECS was going to work for Diplomas at the other.

To leave Tertiary education out of ministerial titles... well it sends out a pretty poor signal to a sector where some are demoralised, and all are coping with significant change. It's a pretty big oversight for someone whose political "brand" features education.

There's still a lot of concern over what the bipartisan silliness about immigration might do to the sector etc etc.

Anyway, spokespeople aside, I think it was a blunder. They've addressed it, but it was a blunder nevertheless.

lapuntadelfin said...

Are you sure that Shadow Parly Secs get extra pay? I always thought they did not. Willing to be corrected on that

Greg Jericho said...

lapuntadelfin, you are right Government Parl Secs get a 25% increase above the base rate pay of an MP. Opposition ones don't.

Jason, as former tertiary sector worker (under the glory days of Howard) I feel you demoralised pain. My thoughts are more to judge them on the policy, than the title. Someotimes the title can cover all the sins - "look we've got a Minister specificaly doing the job, what are you complaining about?"

But I do think it is best they did make the change, I just think the Uni Aust guy was a bit dopey to talk about how it would make a better acronym.

Unknown said...

Conroy is really the fall guy for a dumb policy, aka the filter. He is a worthy adversary for Turnbull.

What ever the somewhat simplistic lefties view on twitter think about Conroy, basically over the (stooopid) filter, the industry respect him and he's the first Minister for Communications in over a decade who has really made headway.

As you said, FFS Even Telstra is on board! The industry tend to be rather smart people

Keep up the great work Grog!

JohnG said...

Grog, some good comments. However, whilst not wishing to be pedantic, I should point out that you, along with many others, have got the Cnut(Canute) story wrong. Cnut "The Great" set out to prove to his courtiers that only God not the king could stop the tides.

Greg Jericho said...

John G, you are right - it is a subtle but imporatant difference to his thinking he could stop the tide.

Hydro Food said...

Well, as we could correctly say about the Mad Monk: once a Cnut, always a Cnut.

But with a more serious tone, I'm inclined to cynicism too, and see Turnbull's new NBN attack dog role as one that's bound to come around and bite him on the bum.

When Turnbull rightly points out the rush to fibre connect US cities was over-capitalised, he omits to really explain that there was a major technical improvement in the bandwidth capacity of that fibre...making it the equivalent of a 4 lane highway being built for a bicycle lane. But of course the reverse process is now happening with a vengeance: the global usage of the internet is expanding exponentially as we find more and more uses for it. No doubt that process will continue, and eventually making what became 'surplus' capacity, extremely well utilised and necessary.

Conroy is more than capable of answering that furphy, in my opinion.

Chris Grealy said...

Any discussion of Turnbull must include mention of his incredible gullibility in believing his mole in Treasury, Mr Grech, long after it became crystal clear that he was barking up the wrong tree.
It was a laugh during the election campaign when the Opposition demanded a witch hunt to find the mole in Treasury who leaked their dodgy figures. It seems moles are fine as long as they are Liberal moles.

Dendy said...

There was an interesting post in Possum's today where he made the point that the "Opportunity Cost" argument against the NBN is doubly flawed. The existing copper last mile is nearing the end of its useful life. Much of it will have to be replaced within the next decade. If you are going to go to the trouble of digging up the pavement you may as well put in optic fiber anyway.