Abbott’s new Cabinet: steady as she goes

Prime minister-elect Tony Abbott has opted for experienced hands in naming his first Cabinet. AAP/Alan Porritt

Prime minister-elect Tony Abbott has announced his new Cabinet and ministerial line-up. In keeping with previous Coalition and Labor governments, there will be an inner Cabinet of senior ministers and an outer ministry of junior minsters and parliamentary secretaries.

The membership, structure and allocation of portfolios tells us a lot about a government’s priorities and policy focus, as well as who will be influential in the process of governing.

Historically, only Liberal prime ministers decided who is in, who is out and who does what in their ministry - giving them immense power. Traditionally, the Labor caucus elected the ministry and the Labor prime minster allocated the portfolios, but that has long since changed.

However, a Liberal prime minister is not as free to choose, appoint and allocate as it would appear. He has to take into account competencies, state location, personalities and sensitivities, seniority, internal party support and the political clout of particular MPs. Though there are not factions with the same rigidity as Labor, there are groupings in the non-Labor parties based loosely around policy views (“wet” versus “dry”), or usually personal likes and dislikes.

Also, all prime ministers must consider dividing the numbers and portfolios between the Senate and the House of Representatives. While there is an overwhelming preponderance of minsters and parliamentary secretaries in the House of Representatives (in the last Rudd government it was 33 compared to only ten from the Senate), care must be taken to ensure that there are also some important portfolios represented in the Senate and that the government leader in the Senate has a suitably senior portfolio. For instance, the outgoing government leader in the Senate, Penny Wong, was Minister for Finance.

In selecting his Cabinet, Abbott had one more complicating factor to consider. As the leader of a coalition, he has to consider not only who from each party gets what portfolio - with the Nationals historically claiming ministries like agriculture and trade - but also about what proportion of the ministry the Nationals should have.

Although the Nationals increased their number of seats from 12 to 15 at the recent election, they are a party in decline. In 1975 they won 23 seats out of 127 and in 1996 won 18 seats out of 148. Now it is 15 out of 150 - just 10% of the total House of Representatives seats - down from 18% in 1975.

So, Abbott has now announced a 42 member ministry including 19 in the Cabinet, 11 in the outer ministry and 12 parliamentary secretaries – almost the same as his predecessor’s.

There are no great surprises. Abbott has largely stuck with his shadow Cabinet team. Joe Hockey is the new treasurer, Malcolm Turnbull (communications) and Julie Bishop (foreign affairs) retain their positions, and so do most of the other senior shadow ministers. Bronwyn Bishop is to be Speaker of the House.

Only a few have been dropped. One is Sophie Mirabella, who may not get re-elected in her Victorian seat of Indi. And there are a couple dropped from junior positions: Teresa Gambaro from Brisbane and Queensland senator Ian Macdonald. The only surprise was the elevation of Western Australian senator Mathias Cormann to the finance portfolio in Cabinet over NSW senator Arthur Sinodinos. However, Sinodinos is in the outer ministry as assistant treasurer - not an insignificant position.

In terms of state balances, although the Queensland LNP returned 22 of the 30 lower house seats in that state and three out of the six possible Senate positions, it has not been over-rewarded. Four Queenslanders are in Cabinet – Nationals leader Warren Truss, attorney-general George Brandis, industry minister Ian Macfarlane and health minister Peter Dutton, while one is in the outer ministry (Stuart Robert) and two are parliamentary secretaries (Steven Ciobo and Brett Mason).

As predicted by commentators, the Nationals did not pick up the trade portfolio. That has gone to a Liberal, Andrew Robb - a key figure in the lead-up to the election in terms of policy development. However, the National Party gained three Cabinet portfolios: infrastructure and development (Truss), agriculture (Barnaby Joyce) and indigenous affairs (Nigel Scullion), which align with their political interests, but also have certain challenges. The Nationals also hold the deputy prime ministership. Elsewhere, the Nationals won two positions in the outer ministry and have two parliamentary secretaries for a total of seven ministerial positions.

The senator balance is interesting and is a departure from previous governments. There are 16 senators in the overall ministry – five in Cabinet, six in the outer ministry and five parliamentary secretaries. It is an unprecedented number, and may indicate just where the talent is in the Coalition these days.

The one criticism Abbott will receive from some quarters is the lack of women in the ministry. There is only Julie Bishop as Minster for Foreign Affairs in Cabinet, although she is number three in seniority in the government. There are four women out of 11 in the outer ministry, and only one female parliamentary secretary.

This is in stark contrast to the Rudd and Gillard ministries – Rudd had 11 women in his ministry in total, including six in Cabinet. This should have been attended to by Abbott in opposition where there were few women shadow ministers, and therefore not made it politically difficult to try to catch up in one step. It is a matter Abbott has to attend to in the long term.

Overall, this is a Cabinet reflecting Abbott’s pre-election promise to provide stable, reliable government.

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