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Abbott’s women are thin on the ground

Tony Abbott is facing his first problem in government, before he is even sworn in. AAP/Alan Porritt

Tony Abbott has a woman problem, again. As he puts together his ministry, female representation is proving a difficulty.

The prospect of senior frontbencher Sophie Mirabella holding her seat of Indi is now extremely slim, after the discovery today of a thousand votes for independent Cathy McGowan. They were “lost” due to a clerical error.

Mirabella, industry spokeswoman, was one of only two women in the shadow cabinet (the other was deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop). This compares with six in the outgoing cabinet (and 11 in the total Labor ministry).

If Abbott wanted to promote another woman to his new cabinet he has four in his old outer shadow ministry – Bronwyn Bishop, Sussan Ley, Marise Payne, and Concetta Fierravanti-Wells. There are also three at the parliamentary secretary level - Fiona Nash (deputy leader of the Nationals in the Senate), Teresa Gambaro and Michaelia Cash.

But Abbott is likely to put Arthur Sinodinos (who has been a shadow parliamentary secretary) into cabinet as finance minister thus filling the vacancy expected to be created by Mirabella.

On talent, none of the women deserves a place ahead of Sinodinos, so if he wanted to maintain the gender representation he has had, Abbott would have to expand the cabinet by one.

Another complication is that he needs to cut two from what has been a 32-member shadow ministry because he can only have a maximum of 30 ministers (and he has to drop a couple of parliamentary secretaries).

He is expected to push Bronwyn Bishop to be Speaker. The post is in the gift of the Liberal party room but obviously the party will follow his wish.

Bishop has desperately wanted to remain on the frontbench (and indeed be in cabinet), rather than take the Speakership. She is still distressed by John Howard’s sacking her from the ministry.

(One would think her abrasive style would be unsuited to trying to promote, as far as possible, a calm parliament and that someone like Philip Ruddock, who has been secretary to the shadow cabinet and guru to Abbott during the campaign, would surely be a more suitable choice. )

Abbott has said that he will keep his frontbench roughly as it has been, which seems to leave him minimum flexibility to promote backbench talent, including female talent (such as Victorian Kelly O'Dwyer).

There has been some media speculation that he could demote Fierravanti-Wells, who is from the right, but it is not clear whether this is well based. There is a lot of bitterness within the NSW Liberal party between left and right over the election performance, especially the failure to win Greenway where the dud Liberal candidate Jaymes Diaz had the right’s support.

While Abbott (in consultation with Nationals leader Warren Truss) works on the frontbench, the Nationals are engaged in an internal contests for key positions.

The most important is the deputy leadership, which Barnaby Joyce, newly arrived in the House of Representatives, is seeking. It is also being contested by frontbencher John Cobb.

The stakes are high for Joyce. As Nationals leader in the Senate, he has been in the leadership group. If he did not win the deputyship he would be out of that select band, which will be at the heart of the new government, however much Abbott professes himself a cabinet man.

There could also be a cabinet spot involved. The Nationals have had four in shadow cabinet, one in the outer shadow ministry and two parliamentary secretaries. Their total will remain the same in government (it’s determined by an arithmetic formula based on the seats the two parties win) but the distribution will be three in cabinet and two in the outer ministry. So without a leadership position Joyce could find himself in the outer ministry.

Joyce has also made no secret of his desire eventually to succeed Truss, and the deputyship is the best place from which to groom himself for the future.

The Nationals’ deputy leader at present is senator Nigel Scullion. He and Nash are shaping up for a face off for Nationals Senate leader. (The Nationals’ senators choose their own leadership unless there is a tie, when it goes to the party room).

On the other side, Labor is still to hear from “Albo”, deputy leader Anthony Albanese, on whether he will stand for the leadership. Bill Shorten is a candidate but his expected news conference did not materialise today. Albanese is torn: there is a great deal of party support for him but whether he feels he has the energy for the job is another matter. Shorten and Albanese spoke by phone today.

As the ALP holds its breath on the leadership, the debate is beginning about whether the new opposition should go to the barricades to stop the repeal of the carbon tax, with MP Nick Champion arguing Labor should allow the repeal to go through.

This is a matter which should involve careful thought by the party before it locks itself in.

It’s an odd atmosphere in Canberra this week. There is a new government but it not yet formally “the government”. The Coalition is waiting on the appointment of the frontbench. The ALP is waiting to know whether there will be a battle for the leadership or Shorten will be anointed without a fight.

It is a week of both transition and hiatus, symbolised by the boxes and rubbish bins in the corridors and offices around Parliament House.

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