How Team Abbott is shaping up post-Bernardi
Tony Abbott’s initial explanation for dumping his parliamentary secretary Cory Bernardi was revealing for how far it did not go.
“I was concerned about what Cory said in the Senate last night and then when he compounded that by going unnecessarily on to radio this morning to repeat the matter, I swiftly concluded that that was one mistake too many,’’ he said.
It suggested Bernardi’s bestiality reference was not so much wrong in principle as in quantity. Further, it revealed that the outspoken South Australian would have survived had he not gone on radio – especially as sworn enemy Christopher Pyne was already on air on that station doing his regular Wednesday morning spot.
Asked whether Bernardi should lose his party endorsement, Mr Abbott was also restrained.
“These are matters for the lay party. Cory is a talented politician, with much to contribute but, plainly, he has been guilty of ill-discipline, lack of judgment and he will have to do a fair bit of political penance, no doubt about that.’‘
With words like guilt, discipline, penance, and references to the laity, one wondered if he was talking about an alternative government or a religious denomination.
But while Labor complained the Opposition leader had “missed the point’’ by saying “ill-disciplined’’ rather than “bigoted’‘, the minimalist response was pure Abbott when it comes to managing his team.
The leader went as far as necessary to justify cutting the South Australian adrift and no further. Why provoke Bernardi into further comments? Why make an enemy of him?
Equally important however, Abbott used the crisis to both strengthen his frontbench team and to signal to anyone from Malcolm Turnbull on the left to Barnaby Joyce on the rural right, that they must play the team game and remember who hands out the jobs.
“I have sent a very strong message to every member of the team that ill-discipline is unacceptable. I think it’s pretty clear that if you want to freelance, you can do so on the backbench but you can’t freelance from the frontbench,’’ he said.
It was timely message too coming off what was arguably Abbott’s trickiest fortnight in the job. The aforementioned Joyce had railed against foreign ownership sparking a public internecine slanging match and Mr Turnbull in his own classy way, had gently ratcheted up his profile via two eloquent speeches and his clear denunciation of the Bernardi comments.
By the only measure that counts, Tony Abbott has performed superbly in what is the toughest job in politics. Historically, very few opposition leaders get a second crack after losing.
Yet this is what Abbott is on track to do.
The minority parliament has helped because it has maintained a frisson of crisis and therefore of an election at anytime.
But as the reality of serving a full term on the wrong side of the House has sunk in, Coalition discipline has wavered slightly. It is this tendency, as well as a creeping sense of hubris that Abbott wants to nip in the bud.
The clearest demonstration of his cautious minimalism is Abbott’s front bench line-up.
It has remained the same since the 2010 election despite two significant Government shake-ups and despite carrying more than the usual quota of passengers and has-beens.
But Abbott knows, this is opposition - not government. Nobody cares about shadow ministers. But they matter big time inside the party. Even successful leaders have only a loose grip on the leadership mantle. So Abbott has been careful to keep individual hope alive while avoiding the creation of unnecessary opponents - the inevitable outcome from any reshuffle.
Yet the elevation of two John Howard staffers to fill the Bernardi vacancy in Arthur Sinodinos and Jamie Briggs signals he is now beginning to think beyond the election as well.
With less than a year in the Senate, Sinodinos’s rapid promotion is a significant decision. The respected former Treasury official will not only bolster the shaky economic armoury of Team Abbott but he is expected to rise quickly through the ranks. Abbott believes he is a future treasurer.
Ditto for the career prospects of the 35-year-old policy minded South Australian, Jamie Briggs.
Both promotions are sound policy and clever politics by Abbott.
They signal to underperforming MPs already on the frontbench that some - possibly many - will be cut if the Coalition wins.
And for the young and restless knocking on the door, that’s good to know as well.
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