CANBERRA OBSERVED: by national correspondentNews Weekly
Abbott's Cabinet team attacked by Labor, Greens
, September 28, 2013
Most attention on the make-up of the first Abbott ministry dwelt on the “surprise” lack of women in the Cabinet, suggesting that the new government’s honeymoon period will be both extremely short-lived and that it will not be getting any breaks from the media during its first term.
Anything that does not sit well with the left-wing commentariat, be it backsliding on climate change, euthanasia or “marriage equality”, will be attacked at every turn.
Various commentators rejoiced over the fall and subsequent withdrawal of outspoken Liberal Sophie Mirabella from what would have been a certain Cabinet post as she faced defeat as the member for Indi. Yet the same commentators raised a ruckus when there was just one woman — Julie Bishop — appointed to the Abbott Cabinet.
The new Liberal Prime Minister handpicked his Cabinet team based on experience and performance in Opposition rather than any premeditated gender equation. Indeed, if Mr Abbott had promoted women on the basis of a quota system or to appease the media, it would have been a betrayal of Liberal Party values.
The first Abbott ministry was described as “95 per cent male”, or a “front row, rather than a front bench”, by various commentators, and further proof of Mr Abbott’s alleged misogynistic leanings.
Labor’s acting Opposition leader Chris Bowen declared it was a “sad day” for Australia and revealed that there were now more female ministers in the Afghanistan government than in the Australian government.
Would-be Opposition leader Bill Shorten was among those expressing shock and outrage.
“I, like most Australians, couldn’t believe (that) the Abbott government could find place for only one woman minister out of their 20 cabinet ministers,” Mr Shorten said. “This is a throwback to the 1950s and ’60s.”
In fact, the first Hawke ministry had just one woman in its Cabinet — Senator Susan Ryan; while the first Keating ministry had just one woman in its Cabinet — Ros Kelly.
By contrast, the first Howard ministry had two women — Amanda Vanstone and Jocelyn Newman.
And retracing politics a little further, there were no women at all in either the first, second or third “progressive” Whitlam Cabinets. However, after the Fraser government came to power, Dame Margaret Guilfoyle remained in Cabinet throughout that administration. Guilfoyle was the second female Cabinet minister in Australian politics.
The first to hold that honour was Dame Enid Lyons, who was appointed by another Liberal, Sir Robert Menzies.
In short, the Liberals have led the way in bringing women into senior political roles, although Labor can boast it achieved the first female premiers and first female prime minister.
Of course, Tony Abbott received no congratulations at all for appointing Bronwyn Bishop to the coveted Speaker’s role or for elevating a number of women from the backbench into his ministerial team.
The brouhaha over the lack of women overlooked the real message of the Abbott frontbench, which was focused on continuity and the quiet elevation of future talent.
Non-performers were either dropped or punished with demotions.
Mr Abbott doubtless knew that having one woman in the Cabinet would be controversial; but his decision to push ahead regardless is an early sign of determination to do what he believes to be correct rather than adhere to the views of the ABC’s #qanda.
Similarly, Mr Abbott has decided to reduce the number of titles of government departments that had grown to ridiculous proportions under Labor, particularly under the Gillard government, which created such absurd amalgams as the Department of Industry, Innovation, Climate Change, Science, Research and Tertiary Education, with different ministers responsible for different bits of the department.
However, Mr Abbott’s decision to streamline the ministries has meant the cessation of specific ministries for science, tourism, resources, seniors and disability care.
What this means will be more streamlined government, fewer “silos”, more ability for senior ministers to control and direct programs. Most senior Canberra bureaucrats have welcomed the changes as a return to the traditional way of running the Commonwealth government.
But none of this will please Labor and the Greens, who blasted the Abbott Government for doing away with a specific science portfolio in particular, a ministry that had been an integral part of government since the 1930s.
Greens Senator Richard Di Natale declared Mr Abbott was ignoring “science” deliberately, suggesting it was part of a pattern of ignorance and superstition.
“Tony Abbott has made an art out of ignoring the science of climate change, so it’s no surprise that he has failed to include science or research,” Senator Di Natale alleged.
This predictable criticism will mean that Mr Abbott has to be very determined to steer a course and stick with it, because there will be no let-up from such attacks.