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View from The Hill: Fleeing ministers fray hayband round embattled government

Linda Reynolds was today sworn in as defence industry minister and promoted into cabinet. AAP/Lukas Coch

The government likes to issue the list of Labor MPs retiring at the election, to argue that Coalition senior people jumping ship is nothing out of the ordinary.

That, of course, is sophistry. However many ALP people are leaving, no-one can suggest it is because they are pessimistic about Labor’s chances in May.

It’s also implausible for the government retirees to maintain their coming exits have nothing to do with assessments of the Coalition’s prospects.

Kelly O'Dwyer might have sounded credible when she explained she wished for another child. Some might have sympathised with Michael Keenan wanting to see more of the four kids he has.

And no doubt politicians in their 40s (Steve Ciobo) and 50s (Christopher Pyne) can desire new fields after long parliamentary stints. (In Pyne’s case, it became clear last August, after Julie Bishop stepped down, that his political career would never include the job he’d always coveted, foreign affairs.)

Look at these retirements collectively, however, and ask one blunt question: would they all be departing if the government were leading Labor 55-45% in Newspoll?

Of the five who are going from the ministry (four of them from cabinet) only Nationals Senate leader Nigel Scullion, at 62, is within cooee of a workforce retirement age. (Scullion has said he doesn’t know what his future holds beyond some shooting and fishing.)

The loss of a batch of ministers leaves an even bigger hole because some of those remaining are wounded (think Small and Family Business Minister Michaelia Cash) or sub-optimal (think Environment Minister Melissa Price).

The overall impression left is of an administration held together with a frayed hayband.

Morrison has kept all the departees in their current jobs except Ciobo who has been replaced in the defence industry post by West Australian senator Linda Reynolds.

Reynolds, previously an assistant minister, has been elevated into cabinet (where Ciobo was) and promised the defence portfolio, now held by Pyne, if the government is returned.

Her military reserve background giving her a no-nonsense style, Reynolds has so far been a good performer. She chaired a parliamentary inquiry that sensibly highlighted the need to overhaul section 44 of the constitution (which the government ignored). She deserves promotion.

But Morrison’s motives were transparent. With this addition he can now point to seven women in cabinet, more than in any former government.

That won’t deal with the problem of too few women in Liberal ranks generally, or prevent gender arguments coming into preselections. But it gives him something positive to say. On Saturday, as he went to the swearing in of Reynolds, he promised that if he were re-elected he’d keep that many women in his new cabinet (just don’t call it a “quota”).

Reynolds will obviously be working full bore through the campaign (she also retains her previous responsibility for emergency management, which has come to the fore with the Queensland flood disaster).

But the departing ministers will be winding down, reducing the government’s fire power in the coming weeks.

And what about the efforts of that other high profile retiree, Bishop?

Bishop delayed her announcement about leaving parliament so she had the best chance of influencing the choice of her successor in her seat of Curtin. But now she and Senate leader Mathias Cormann, who’ve long vied within the WA Liberal party, are at odds over the preselection.

The field includes four women and a man. Bishop is understood to back foreign affairs specialist and academic Erin Watson-Lynn, but Cormann is believed to support former University of Notre Dame Vice-Chancellor Celia Hammond.

If Bishop, a superb fundraiser, does not see her preferred candidate win, will she be even angrier than she has been following her WA colleagues failing to vote for her in the leadership contest? As a safe seat Curtin doesn’t need much money but several WA marginals do. If Bishop dropped off the money trail the Liberals would feel the pinch.

And speaking of marginal seats, the Liberal Party is in the extraordinary position that in the Sydney seat of Reid (on 4.7%) Craig Laundy, a former minister, has yet to announce his future. He is widely expected not to recontest, making the electorate harder for the government to hold.

Whatever Morrison thinks privately about his thinning senior ranks, publicly he is stoic. “I don’t get flapped by things like this. I just keep going,” he said on Saturday. Not much choice really.


Julie Bishop has reopened wounds in the Liberal Party with a provocative interview declaring she could have beaten Bill Shorten if she had become prime minister and attacking Christopher Pyne and Mathias Cormann over their behaviour in last year’s leadership coup.

Bishop told Perth’s Sunday Times that at the time she was “confident” she could defeat Shorten, and “that was Labor’s thought too”.

In the August ballot Bishop received only 11 votes, when the moderates got behind Scott Morrison, judging he had the better chance of stopping Peter Dutton winning. Bishop was angry at her colleagues’ behaviour, especially that none of those from her home state of Western Australia voted for her.

In the interview she said that before the party meeting she believed she had the support of at least 28 colleagues.

“I am now told that there was a view, led by Christopher Pyne and others, that even though I would have 28 votes – which was many more than Scott Morrison – it wouldn’t be enough to beat Peter Dutton. So, they wanted to make sure that happened.

"If I had known that was what their thinking was, I could have dissuaded them of it but also I would have pointed out that the question was: Who could beat Bill Shorten? And I was confident that I could”.

In a direct challenge to Cormann, whose decision to support Dutton was one of the pivotal factors in Turnbull’s fall, Bishop said: “I don’t understand his motives in seeking to change the leadership to Peter Dutton last year.

"You still wish he would explain his motives in backing Peter Dutton over Malcolm Turnbull and causing enormous instability within the Liberal Party.

"He backed Peter Dutton who had very little support in WA and who fought against WA getting a better GST deal.”

Bishop explained her decision to step down as foreign minister thus: “I didn’t want to endorse what had happened and by continuing to accept what had happened I would have been endorsing it.

"And also, there had to be a level of trust with your cabinet colleagues and I thought that had broken down and it would be better for them to have a new team and for me to step back”.

Bishop denied she was backing anyone in the preselection for her seat of Curtin, despite the speculation she supported Erin Watson-Lynn. She also denied she was pushing for a woman. “I didn’t say I want a woman. I want the best person. I will back whoever the preselectors come up with,” out of the field of four women and one man.

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