CANBERRA OBSERVED: News Weekly
Talent gap widens between major parties
, December 4, 2004
One of the least publicised aspects of the 2004 election has been the widening of the gap in the talent pools of the respective major parties.
Quite apart from the lopsided result which obviously boosts any incumbent, the talent pool in the Liberal Party has deepened - a significant development for a fourth-term government.
On the other hand, Labor's team, with a few minor exceptions, is more of the same.
Highly qualified new members have provided Prime Minister John Howard with an abundance of choice about whom he might promote to his frontbench over the coming term as retirements and attrition take their course.
The contrast between the Government and Opposition was quite stark when MPs recently gathered for the opening of the new Parliament.
Sitting right at the very back of the chamber on the Government benches were multi-millionaire lawyer and businessman, Malcolm Turnbull, and former federal director of the Liberal Party, Andrew Robb.
Both would be capable of taking an immediate position at the Cabinet table, but the Prime Minister has insisted they do their time like their lesser-known novice colleagues in the class of 2004.
Mr Robb was federal director of the Liberal Party during 1990-97 and, while he has been in politics one way or another throughout his career, he has also had extensive experience in the private sector.
Mr Turnbull established his political credentials as head of the Australian Republican Movement.
However, both are socially conservative and Mr Turnbull, in particular, has shown that he is prepared to contribute to serious policy debate on the issues of population, an ageing society and the declining birth rate.
By contrast, the Labor Party has brought in retired rock star Peter Garrett and a group of mainly nondescript new MPs, while losing several good ones.
Mr Garrett looks extremely uncomfortable in the chamber.
This may be partly because of his lanky frame, but perhaps he is already beginning to wonder exactly why he decided to switch from the music industry to politics or what Mr Latham calls "show business for ugly people".Nothing but grief
The thinking behind the enlisting of Mr Garrett was that he was supposed to be the bridge between Labor's traditional vote and the urban left, between old politics and new, but instead he has brought nothing but grief since his messy pre-selection into Laurie Brereton's safe right-wing seat.
Labor insiders say Mr Garrett was the pivotal player in driving Mark Latham into adopting the Tasmanian forests policy which cost him many thousands of votes in the dying days of the campaign.
Since arriving in Canberra, Mr Garrett has admitted that he is also pro-abortion after allowing the media for months to portray him as being pro-life.
So instead of being a beacon for progressive Labor, Mr Garrett's contribution to date is that he has actually been a net cost to the party and, as a result, any thought of him being promoted to the frontbench has been shelved.
Labor has some potential in former New South Wales upper house MP, Tony Burke, who has been promoted immediately to be small business spokesman.
He is one of the few Labor MPs who has any experience whatsoever in running a small business.
Interestingly, the Prime Minister is somewhere between a traditionalist and a rebel when it comes to appointing his frontbench.
He adheres to the idea of MPs doing their time, of learning the ropes and understanding the role of being a parliamentarian before being gently guided through the ranks as parliamentary secretary, junior minister and Cabinet minister.
Once having made the appointment he sticks with them - even if the choice turns out to be a bad one.
Political success (particularly in difficult marginal electorates) and loyalty are rewarded in the Howard schema, while disloyalty and troublemaking are also rewarded in kind.
However, he also likes to take a chance on favourite backbenchers who are not "typical" politicians.Opportunity
Jackie Kelly and Danna Vale would never normally be considered ministerial material, but were given opportunities by Mr Howard.
One of the secrets of success of the Howard era has been his insistence on nurturing Liberal candidates in marginal seats from atypical backgrounds.
As a result, the party is made up of a wider cross-section of the population, of people with a broader view of society than the members of the ALP.
The downside are more mavericks and problematic ministers, but the electoral benefits far outweigh them.