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Tuesday 20 Feb 2018 | 18:34 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 20 Feb 2018 | 18:34 | SYDNEY

The Turnbull Cabinet: Lawyers, guns and money



22 September 2008 17:40

A few career hints if you aspire to be Australia’s Foreign Minister or Defence Minister:  first, of course, be a lawyer. And second, it often helps to take absolutely no interest whatsoever in international policy. Third, stick around long enough to be considered senior. That recipe, and some vital factional considerations, got Stephen Smith the job of running Australians foreign policy. (Or at least taking a lot of the phone calls from The Kevin.)

The lawyer principle is reinforced by the Turnbull shadow Cabinet – both for Foreign Affairs and Defence. Turnbull’s shadow Foreign Minister is Senator Helen Coonan. Since entering Parliament in 1996, she has performed her lawyerly duty, including three years in one of the senior posts – Minister for Communications (ie. arbitrating between the interests of the Packers, the Murdochs and John Howard’s inclinations as a media tragic). Senator Coonan is a good, solid pol, who never even bothered to get on to the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs and Defence committees.

Andrew Robb gets dropped as shadow Foreign Minister but will still get to ask the foreign affairs questions in the House of Reps. Helping pick up the pieces after an electoral death experience, Robb did a solid job in his eight months as Foreign Affairs spokesman. He landed a few punches without drawing too much blood. He looks to be one of the big losers of the reshuffle, but this has nothing to do with his shadow performance. The world changed for the Liberals last week and Andrew Robb is going to have to consider his new place in the Turnbull universe. Robb may have payed the price for pushing too hard to become shadow Treasurer.

Malcolm Turnbull said he would listen to his Party colleagues. He didn’t necessarily promise any more than that. So Robb goes from Foreign Affairs to what looks like a pretend ministry, even though it is placed high in the Cabinet rankings : Shadow Minister for Infrastructure and COAG (Council of Australian Governments) and Shadow Minister Assisting the Leader on Emissions Trading Design. You know you’ve been demoted when even public servants can’t come up with an acronym for your shadow portfolios.

The hierarchy a leader creates in setting up a shadow cabinet is always an indicator of policy priorities as well as the leader's view about party colleagues. On those measures, Malcolm Turnbull is going to keep his eyes locked on the Clinton mantra: It’s the economy, stupid!

Senator Coonan ranks seventh in the shadow Cabinet list. It is probably about the right place, given that two of her Senate colleagues (leader and deputy leader in the Senate) must be placed ahead of her in the batting order. Andrew Robb ranks above her in sixth spot, but such status might not help much if no one knows what your job is.

On the hierarchy test, Defence is heading to the back of the queue. It has been quite a while since Defence ranked so far down a Cabinet line-up. Senator David Johnston takes over as Defence spokesman. He is number 15 in the Turnbull inner Cabinet, which means he wouldn’t even bat on a cricket team. Johnston ranks above only six shadows (Education, Attorney-General, Agriculture, Employment, Immigration, Small Business).

The deposed Liberal Leader, Brendan Nelson, as a former Defence Minister, gave that shadow job to the Opposition leader in the Senate, Nick Minchin. The position this gave defence said as much about where Minchin sat in the Nelson universe as it did about the importance of defence.

Senator Johnston can at least claim to have done some committee work on defence. Apart from that, he gets a tick in those career hints at the head of this column. And he's a lawyer.

Comments on this post? Email grdobell@gmail.com.

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