View from The Hill

View from The Hill

Turnbull has a shovel-ready man who could become Liberal federal director

Federal Liberal Party director Brian Loughnane is in an awkward position. Julian Smith/AAP

As ministers jostle ahead of Malcolm Turnbull’s reshuffle for survival or advancement, attention is also on the future of Liberal Party federal director Brian Loughnane.

Loughnane is husband of Peta Credlin, the now ex-chief-of-staff to the ex-prime minister. Credlin took a lot of flak as a cause of many problems that Tony Abbott had. But his loyalty to her was reaffirmed in his last statement as prime minister when he had a special thanks for “my chief-of-staff who has been unfairly maligned by people who should have known better”.

Between them, Credlin and Loughnane had an iron grip on the Prime Minister’s Office and the Liberal Party. Now she has gone and he is in an awkward position.

Turnbull has not been a fan. Back in February 2009, The Australian’s Dennis Shanahan reported that then-opposition leader Turnbull or Liberal forces associated with him had looked at “supplanting” Loughnane (as well as knocking off quite a few other leading lights); Turnbull wanted to “recast the Liberal Party”. Later it was Turnbull who was supplanted.

If Loughnane were to move on, Turnbull would have a good replacement on hand. In his office, indeed. The new prime minister has this week called in Tony Nutt, the NSW Liberal Party director, to help with the transition.

Nutt, who used to be senior political adviser and finally chief-of-staff in the Howard office, performed the same transition service for Tony Abbott after he won in 2013. He was then dispatched to NSW for the run-up to the state election.

After that election and as things worsened for Abbott, there were persistent suggestions that he would be brought back to the Abbott office. That was not going to work for Credlin – or for Nutt. Why would anyone with a safe position move into an office where the job security was precarious?

Nutt is the electoral equivalent of shovel-ready for the poll that is, even if the parliament runs full term, only a year away.

The future of Loughnane, however, will wait on more urgent decisions. Turnbull has said the new ministry will be sworn in on Monday.

All eyes are on Joe Hockey. He’s set to lose Treasury to Scott Morrison. But he is carrying on as if he has a future.

Anyone who has observed Hockey over the years would have expected him to be in a major funk – as he seemed to be when he addressed the media on Monday night before the ballot – and perhaps to have stormed off to the backbench.

Instead, he has stayed in place, done a solid job in Question Time, and held a news conference about legislation he was introducing. He is defending his record without bagging the man on whom his future depends.

When John Howard gave him a shove sideways and slightly downwards in 2001, Hockey thought of quitting parliament. He believed he should have been promoted.

Now his economic performance has been attacked by Turnbull in his Monday blast – Turnbull directed his assault at Abbott but it by implication included Hockey. Hockey, though, seems to have decided he’d rather remain in the game than, for example, seek a job in private enterprise. At the moment his market value mightn’t be high.

There has been speculation he could be put in the communications portfolio – which would not be a good idea, given he hates Fairfax. Apprehended bias would be an understatement. Defence has also been mentioned, if Turnbull wants to change Kevin Andrews. Andrews is making a strong public pitch to be kept in the portfolio, and there is a case for that. But Hockey would be a reasonable choice. He is capable of a better performance than we have seen and deserves a second chance, away from Treasury.

Meanwhile, looking to the medium term, Nationals leader Warren Truss was very circumspect when he was asked on Wednesday about his plans, while being open about his preference that the coup not have happened. His future is completely in his own hands, and he has renominated for another parliamentary term. At the same time, he gives no guarantees that he will adhere to this.

Asked how long he wanted to lead the Nationals, he told Sky that “as I’ve said for quite some time, I make those decisions day-by-day”. Truss is not going to make a promise that he might not keep.

As for Abbott, his longer-term plans remain unclear, although late Wednesday he told News Corp: “my intention is to remain in the parliament”. “It’s been a tumultuous week and I now intend to spend some time with my family to think about the future,” he said. Abbott did not take his backbench seat in the House on either Tuesday or Wednesday.

Postscript: A Seven network ReachTEL poll, done nationally on Tuesday night, finds the Coalition and Labor on 50-50% in two-party terms. This compares with Labor’s 53-47% lead in late August. Turnbull led Bill Shorten as better prime minister 61.9% to 38.1%. In late August Shorten led Abbott 57.9% to 42.1%.

Note: This article was updated to include Tony Abbott’s comments about his future.

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