View from The Hill

View from The Hill

Wong wins foreign affairs in Shorten’s new frontbench line-up

Bill Shorten announces his frontbench with deputy Labor leader Tanya Plibersek. AAP/Andrew Taylor

Bill Shorten has made some very sound decisions in his far-reaching frontbench overhaul, but the exercise contained some shockers as well.

Moving deputy leader Tanya Plibersek from shadow foreign minister to a beefed-up education portfolio puts more heft into one of Labor’s policy strengths.

Elevating Jim Chalmers to finance spokesman and into shadow cabinet is all positive. Chalmers is one of Labor’s rising stars, with strong economic credentials and the real-life experience of having worked for then-treasurer Wayne Swan during the global financial crisis.

Penny Wong becomes shadow foreign minister. It might have been better to have her, like Plibersek, in a domestic job. One also wonders about combining foreign affairs with the highly demanding duties of being Labor’s Senate leader, but the post in opposition doesn’t involve anything like the travel of the foreign minister (unless you’re Kevin Rudd).

Stephen Conroy has been moved from defence – which is a good thing, given some of his bellicose comments on the South China Sea recently – into special minister of state. This will be a significant area this term, when both sides are talking about electoral reforms.

Richard Marles, who as immigration spokesman shepherded through Labor’s reluctant acceptance of turnbacks, has been rewarded with the much more congenial shadow defence portfolio. Shayne Neumann has drawn the short straw of immigration. Neumann has been low profile in indigenous affairs – now he’s in an area that is perennially fraught for Labor.

Jason Clare, who has yet to demonstrate his full potential, moves from communications to resources and northern Australia, as well as trade and investment. Trade is a testing portfolio for Labor, which is often under union pressure to be more restrictive and protectionist.

Michelle Rowland is switched from small business to communications, while Katy Gallagher takes small business and financial services.

Tony Burke, who had finance, goes back to an area he held in government – environment – and also takes up citizenship and multicultural affairs. Mark Butler retains climate change and energy, but loses environment and water. It’s an unfortunate squeezing of one of Labor’s good public faces.

Linda Burney, just elected as the first Aboriginal woman to enter the House of Representatives, becomes shadow minister for human services; Clare O'Neil gets the justice portfolio, and Ed Husic is shadow minister for employment services and workforce participation.

Of those who stay put, the most obvious is Catherine King in health. While there would have been logic in moving this portfolio to a more high-profile figure, there is also logic in leaving it with King, who did a good job last term. Health was a vote-deliverer for Labor at the election and it would have looked a little odd to jettison the shadow minister.

Chris Bowen remains shadow treasurer; Anthony Albanese stays in infrastructure; Jenny Macklin in families and social services; Brendan O'Connor in workplace relations; Joel Fitzgibbon in agriculture. Mark Dreyfus remains as shadow attorney-general.

Shorten has taken Indigenous affairs under his own wing, with Aboriginal leader Pat Dodson his shadow assistant minister.

This should be a good pairing, especially with the Indigenous recognition referendum coming up. But there are risks too, that must be handled carefully, when the person dealing directly with the area comes from the stakeholder community, has strong views, and is new to parliament as well. If he can avoid the hazards there are enormous opportunities for Dodson to make a difference for Aboriginal people. It will test to the limit his skills, and his ability to adapt to working in an unfamiliar environment.

The shocker aspects of the frontbench flow from Shorten’s dealing with the Kim Carr problem. The left dropped Carr, who then – as a veteran factional fighter – mounted a shock-and-awe campaign for survival, turning his several supporters into a new faction.

Shorten, who remains afraid of Albanese’s ambitions, did not want to risk losing the backing of Carr, who supported him in the 2013 leadership contest, in case dangerous times arise in the future. Therefore Shorten had the shadow ministry expanded by two to allow for Carr.

This has put the total of shadow ministers in excess of the number who can get an extra allowance. So Andrew Leigh, who continues as assistant treasurer, cops a pay cut of A$40,000. The diligent Leigh was a soft target simply because he is not in a faction. The decision is totally unfair. It would have been more appropriate for Carr to take the pay hit. The whole affair shows the disreputable side of factionalism.

In the changes, Carr retains the industry part of his old job although he loses higher education to Plibersek.

The jack-in-the-box Sam Dastyari becomes shadow minister for consumer affairs and manager of opposition business in the Senate. He also is in the shadow ministerial “overflow” and so he won’t get extra money. In his case, it is not so bad – he’s not losing any, and he gets a promotion which, given his ambitions, is worth a lot more to him than the dollars.