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Abbott should be bold with his reshuffle

Tony Abbott leads a cabinet meeting earlier this year, flanked by the only woman currently in his senior ministry, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. AAPImage/Alan Porritt

Tony Abbott’s imminent ministerial reshuffle has become a serious test of the Prime Minister’s leadership. Will he wimp it, or make the most of the opportunity?

Now that the Independent Commission Against Corruption reports affecting Arthur Sinodinos have been delayed from January to March at the earliest, Abbott has concluded the government does require an assistant treasurer to help with the May budget.

Sinodinos stood aside from that post in March; Finance Minister Mathias Cormann had Sinodinos' work added to his own load. Cormann is a strong performer but to have him continue any longer in two jobs would have been ridiculous.

Admittedly, the situation is hard on Sinodinos. He’s out of the ministry on pragmatic grounds before a proper judgement can be made on whether he should have had to leave on ethical ones. Abbott’s inclination for a long time was to stand by Sinodinos until the matter was clarified, but the changed timetable made that unsustainable.

The word from Abbott’s office for months has been that in the event of a reshuffle triggered by the Sinodinos factor, Abbott wanted minimal changes. That is what some sources believe is likely to happen but others are expecting wider moves.

Under the minimalist scenario, the probable course is that a parliamentary secretary – the favourite is Josh Frydenberg, who is praised for his work on deregulation – is promoted to assistant treasurer, or to take the job of a junior minister such as Sussan Ley who would move into that spot.

Assistant treasurer, incidentally, is a plum job. While it has been in the outer ministry and thus Sinodinos was disappointed with it (having earlier been given the nod by Abbott that he’d get finance), it is a great training ground for an ambitious minister. It provides an insight into all areas of administration and – very importantly – a seat on the expenditure review committee, taking its incumbent to the heart of government.

With a minimalist reshuffle, the idea apparently would be to have a more substantial one at the end of next year.

Why anyone thinks that would be the sensible course is unclear. The government needs the best possible frontbench now. It doesn’t necessarily benefit from an overhaul months before an election, unless you believe a reshuffle is more about cosmetics than increasing the capacity for substantial work.

If things roll down the minimalist road, what will be the nature of the verdict? Harsh – that Abbott has missed the chance to boost the team’s talent, and the representation of women.

Abbott fears that anything too extensive can be destabilising, creating critics and enemies. That’s true – but acting too conservatively also risks a backlash, not just from the commentators but internally.

And he really has to address the gender issue. What is the use of putting that off for a year? Only one woman is in cabinet and they are sparse in the ministry. Abbott was heard to opine a while ago that he would like to promote Michaelia Cash, a junior minister, into cabinet; Ley also has a claim to a cabinet spot. Karen Andrews, a Queensland backbencher, has a case to get a parliamentary secretaryship.

No discussion of a reshuffle can avoid the perennially embattled Defence Minister David Johnston. Whatever decision is taken about him carries difficulties. His critics are many, but moving him would be seen as putting blood in the water.

When pressed in Parliament recently to say whether Johnston would be defence minister when Parliament resumes in February, Abbott dodged.

Deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop is a strong ally of Johnston – who’s had trouble with Abbott’s office - and would no doubt speak up for him if asked.

If the reshuffle is widened Immigration Minister Scott Morrison will be seeking to expand his territory or change empires. Having stopped the boats, Morrison has for some time wanted something extra or different to do, to the frustration of ministers whose areas he abuts.

What is particularly unfortunate about this government is that it has a lot of talent outside the frontbench that is sorely needed inside it.

In opposition Abbott was loath to change his line up; coming to government he made some alterations but avoided a sweeping overhaul.

The election brought new faces to the parliament; now these people have settled in, the best of them have claims for promotion. When economic messaging is a problem, why not make use of Christian Porter, former West Australian treasurer? He hardly needs to “serve his time”, despite Abbott liking people to do that.

What would happen if Abbott put aside his caution and made some bold moves? Yes, losers would gripe. But with a seriously revamped team would the government go into 2015 in a better position? Without doubt.

Political leaders ask how gunman was on the loose

Man Haron Monis had a history of violence and radical behaviour. AAP/Sergio Dionisio

When Tony Abbott was asked what he’d say to people wondering how Sydney’s siege had been allowed to happen given gunman Man Haron Monis was well known to police, the Prime Minister said cabinet’s National Security Committee had posed that very question.

“How can someone who has had such a long and checkered history not be on the appropriate watch lists and how can someone like that be entirely at large in the community?

“These are questions that we need to look at carefully and calmly and methodically, to learn the right lessons and to act upon them. That’s what we’ll be doing in the days and weeks ahead,” Abbott told a joint news conference with NSW Premier Mike Baird after briefings on Tuesday.

There are two issues, involving different institutions and agencies.

First, why was Monis out on bail when the criminal allegations against him were so serious? He was charged with being an accessory to his ex-wife’s brutal murder and with multiple counts of indecent and sexual assault.

Second, given his extremist political views were well-documented, why did security agencies – ASIO and the police – not use their powers to keep track of him?

Like Abbott, Baird was posing questions. “We are all outraged that this guy was on the street,” he said.

“We need to understand why he was. We also need to understand why he wasn’t picked up and we’ll be working closely with the federal authorities together with our own agencies to ensure what we can do better.”

Pressed on the bail, Baird said that he had already strengthened the law – although on police advice the new law was not being implemented before the end of January.

In the end the bail issue came down to court decisions.

The siege was a “lone wolf” attack, the sort ASIO fears most, in that it is hardest to detect beforehand because it doesn’t involve the “chatter” and multi-person planning that can give away elaborate operations.

While he invoked ISIL, Monis was not part of it, or in the mould of the young people who set out to fight with it.

For the national security agencies, a person like Monis presents a particular challenge in assessing whether his known radical views are likely to translate into violence.

If they have that fear, the agencies then have to decide how to proceed.

Police can seek a control order to monitor or regulate the person’s activities – which requires making a strong case of links to the threat of terrorism to get judicial approval.

Telephone calls can be monitored – not of great help if the lone wolf doesn’t engage in “chatter”.

There is the option of surveillance – but that takes very substantial resources if maintained over time, and is no absolute guarantee.

Abbott himself said that even if “this sick and disturbed individual” had been front and centre on watchlists and monitored around the clock, “it’s quite likely, certainly possible, that this incident could have taken place, because the level of control that would be necessary to prevent people from going about their daily life would be very, very high indeed”.

What to do about someone like Monis involves a complex balancing by the agencies of risks, rights, and resources. It is not a matter of powers – the authorities already have enough of those, especially with the new security legislation and more in the pipeline – but of judgement. What is the likelihood of this person turning extremist views into extremist action?

In retrospect, we know the answer in Monis' case and the horrifying consequences of that answer. We can say that more should have been done to watch and investigate him. The point can also be made that a possible link should have been intuited between Monis' alleged criminal violence and the potential for politically motivated violence. But then hindsight can always give a clearer view of how agencies should have assessed and prioritised risks and allocated resources.

Some barnacles can’t be removed in time for Christmas

Treasurer Joe Hockey has sought to make a virtue of what will be a substantial worsening of the projected deficits. AAP/Lukas Coch

Some barnacles are not, it seems, able to be removed – certainly not in time for Christmas. As the political year grinds to its end, the Prime Minister’s Office is under almost as much attack as that of Kevin Rudd in 2010, and the Treasurer has a budget update heading in the wrong direction.

The last Newspoll for 2014, published in Monday’s Australian, shows the government trails 46-54% in two-party terms, unchanged from a fortnight ago, despite Tony Abbott backtracking on the Medicare co-payment and paid parental leave.

On Sunday, two senior ministers left Abbott swinging in the controversy over the apparently excessive power held by his chief of staff Peta Credlin.

Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull refused to be drawn, saying he intended to remain “very taciturn” on the matter because it was not productive to have the business of the PMO on the front pages.

Sensible, at one level. But Turnbull also said, in an interview on Sky: “Any views I have on matters of that kind I’ll share with Tony Abbott”. As the astute Turnbull would know, this left wide open the possibility there could be views to share.

Earlier, deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop rejected out of hand Abbott’s Friday suggestion that sexism was behind attacks on Credlin.

In the Sunday Telegraph, Liberal backbencher and one-time whip Warren Entsch had fuelled the Credlin row, not only attacking Abbott’s sexism claim but also drawing attention to the problem – complained about for years by some Liberals – that having Credlin as the leader’s chief of staff while her husband Brian Loughnane is Liberal federal director is too incestuous to make for good politics.

Fresh from her Lima trip, Bishop gave Abbott a lesson in astute presentation in a long television interview, coming across as polished, reasonable and able to talk her way out of awkward spots, like the issue of the PMO’s initial knockback of her travel to the climate conference.

“I just thought it was the wrong call, that’s all, and so I raised it in cabinet, said ‘What does everybody think? Should I go?’” They had a “good discussion” about it “and the PM said ‘yeah, I understand where you are coming from’”.

Very cool. Gloved iron fist stuff. The PMO won’t be saying no to Bishop again without an internal focus group on the likely consequences.

Although her actions have ventilated the discontent with Credlin, Bishop vigorously defended the embattled chief of staff (“an essential part of our team”, “a great support to the Prime Minister”) but bluntly disagreed with her leader invoking the gender defence.

Abbott on Friday said Credlin’s treatment would be different if she was P-E-T-E-R not P-E-T-A. Many Liberals winced, remembering Abbott’s assault on Julia Gillard for, he said, playing the gender card.

Bishop said: “Well that’s not the way I would put it. I have been on the record many times saying that I don’t view the world through a prism of gender – I never have, I never will”. No-one could miss the distancing, even though it came well-wrapped in general support and advice that if people had a problem with the PMO they should talk to the Prime Minister.

Bishop said she thought Abbott’s comment “is reflecting the Prime Minister’s frustration that anonymous sources have been making complaints about his chief of staff”.

If Abbott is frustrated, so are people in his government. Not only are many of them critical of how the PMO is run, and fed up with seeing Credlin get so much publicity, but now Abbott invites charges of hypocrisy by suggesting sexism.

It’s not the only front where there is the whiff of hypocrisy. On the eve of announcing worse-than-forecast budget numbers, Hockey on Sunday insisted his revisions were not to be compared in any way with those constantly made by Labor.

Hockey sought to make a virtue of what will be a substantial worsening of the projected deficits. A report in Monday’s Australian says the update will show a A$40 billion blowout in the deficits which were forecast at budget time to be worth $60 billion from this year until 2018.

Hockey told reporters: “The government has decided to use the budget, which is stronger than it was 12 months ago, as a shock absorber for the biggest fall in our export prices in many years. If we don’t use the budget as a shock absorber for this extraordinary fall in our terms of trade, then Australians will lose jobs and we will lose our prosperity.”

Hockey said the government had “put in place the structural reforms that have helped strengthen” the budget. Well, not exactly. Some of these structural reforms have so far not been able to navigate parliament.

The government tipped out to News Corp a list of some 175 bodies that will be scrapped, absorbed into departments or merged for an estimated saving of more than $500 million over the budget period.

They cover almost every field of public activity, from health and education to animal welfare and biosecurity. Apart from savings and efficiency, it’s also about ideology – smaller government and paring back the public service.

You can also bet this exercise will produce a fair amount of grief for the government from many quarters – nasty little pin pricks for ministers to deal with. The Vietnam veterans are already speaking out over being caught up in the hits.

One thing though – the horrors of the budget update should take attention away from the Credlin story.

Correction: The budget update shows the more than $500 million savings referred to above includes two former tranches of the Coalition’s “smaller government” initiative as well as the reduction of the total number of government bodies by a further 175.