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View from The Hill

Abbott flies female-lite with his frontbench

Tony Abbott has received criticism for his male dominated ministry. AAP/Alan Porritt

The hapless Sophie Mirabella has brought double trouble for her friend Tony Abbott. Not only is she likely to lose her previously safe seat when the Liberals generally had a big win, but her exit from the frontbench has left him under a barrage of criticism for having just one woman in his cabinet.

Abbott would have been female-lite even with Mirabella. But the presence of only Julie Bishop – senior as she is – in a 19-member cabinet does put a neon sign over the woman problem. “I am disappointed that there are not at least two women in the cabinet,” Abbott said.

He could have elevated to cabinet one of the women who had served as junior shadow ministers. His cabinet is one member smaller than the shadow cabinet, so there was room. Bronwyn Bishop was next in ranking and would have been delighted, but Abbott didn’t want that and persuaded her to be Speaker. There were others. But there was no “couldn’t-be-passed over” name.

Abbott has ended up with five women in his ministry of 30, plus one female parliamentary secretary out of 12, fewer in total than in a slightly larger opposition team. He says there are “strong and capable women knocking on the door of the ministry,” but if so they will have to have very long arms. The only woman among the parliamentary secretaries is one who was escalated downwards.

Abbott was admittedly operating under constraints including having to squeeze the frontbench’s size and his promise that most who’d served there in opposition would keep their shadow jobs.

Senator Sue Boyce, a Liberal moderate who leaves parliament in June, views the problem in more fundamental terms. “I was shocked and embarrassed to see that there is only one woman in cabinet,” Boyce declared, saying it was embarrassing internationally as well as nationally. “It’s a permanent tarnish on what was a wonderful victory for us.

"But I don’t see that as a fault of Tony Abbott. If you look at the shadow ministry and parliamentary secretaries, we had nine women out of 46. That was the sort of proportion that reflected the number among Coalition MPs,” she said. “Abbott had to work with what he was given.”

Boyce says there is a systemic problem in getting women candidates, one the Coalition parties have to address; she argues that targets – but not quotas – are needed to lift the number of women preselected, and that in coming years Abbott should play a role in making sure there are more women Coalition MPs.

Philip Ruddock, father of the House, Abbott’s guru during the campaign and incoming chief government whip, said tonight: “Women shouldn’t be preferred because they are women.” But “it is important to get competent women through the preselection process. I think a change is happening and a larger pool of competent women will come through this process.”

The lack of women will be the talking point of the ministry. More broadly, there were few surprises – apart from one unexpected twist. The highly-regarded Arthur Sinodinos did not get finance, which went to Mathias Cormann who, as campaign spokesman, did much of the heavy lifting in the pre-election weeks.

Sinodinos, who becomes assistant treasurer in the outer ministry, had expected (on earlier indications) the finance post and to be in cabinet. It was only on Sunday that he was disabused, via a call from a journalist. He is believed to be unhappy at how things worked out. Abbott today praised Sinodinos but indicated that the 56-year-old former chief of staff to John Howard had to do his apprenticeship.

Abbott said: “One of the things you have come to expect of me, I hope, is a stable, measured, calm approach to doing things and part of a measured and calm approach is orderly promotion.”

(Those with long memories will recall that Abbott was rather impatient, with regard to himself, with John Howard’s “calm approach to orderly promotion”. But things look different depending where you are sitting.)

Apart from Sinodinos, promotions into the outer ministry include Nationals deputy Senate leader Fiona Nash, former Howard staffer Jamie Briggs and Michaelia Cash. Some fresh talent has been brought from the backbench into the ranks of parliamentary sectretaries (Josh Frydenberg, Alan Tudge, Paul Fletcher, Michael McCormack) while some has not made it (Kelly O'Dwyer, Jane Prentice).

Abbott, highlighting a back-to-basics approach, seems particularly proud of simplifying ministerial titles. In this process, the word “climate” has disappeared. Greg Hunt was shadow minister for climate action, environment and heritage; he becomes minister for environment.

We don’t have the administrative arrangements yet, which will reveal more about the new structure; at the same time, the fate of departmental heads will be known. Abbott indicated there will be changes; sources said some would be moving on.

In a good decision, indigenous affairs will have a minister (Nigel Scullion) devoted solely to it, and will come under the ambit of the Prime Minister’s department. One test of Abbott’s prime ministership will be what tangible progress his government makes in this difficult area, one to which he is personally committed.

There will be interesting questions over coming months in relation to individual performers. For example, will David Johnston be tough enough to deal with the defence chiefs? And will the communications portfolio test Malcolm Turnbull’s boredom threshold?

Overall, and leaving aside the women issue, Abbott has been workmanlike and cautious in putting together his team for government.

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