Christopher Pearson on Rudd's GG and Turnbull's cabinet

The article below is for those who like a more detailed background on Australian politics. Pearson questions the suitability of affirmative action appointee Quentin Bryce as Governor General and also the shadow-cabinet choices of the new conservative leader, Malcolm Turnbull

Pearson is undoubtedly right that Bryce is a marginal choice for GG -- who is supposed to be above politics. Quentin Bryce is known for strong feminist and generally Leftist leanings and is obviously not about to tone that down. She also appears to be personally unpleasant (egotistical?) with her staff. When she was governor of Queensland, most of them resigned. Less well known is that she has been a strong supporter of my old church, Anne St Presbyterian, and she would have heard plenty of good old-fashioned values preached from the pulpit there. So there is some prospect of a balanced approach from her. After all, the quite egregious appointment of Bill Hayden, a former Labor Party leader, as GG worked out well in the end.

I think Pearson makes far too much of Bryce's quite impossible wish for the GG powers to be codified. She is simply wishing not to be vilified in the way the unfortunate Sir John Kerr was after exercising those powers. It may be noted that Kerr was also a Labor Party appointee.

Pearson is undoubtedly right in pointing out that Turnbull has not maximized the strength of his shadow-cabinet. Personal rivalries are the obvious reason for that. Perhaps he will reshuffle if egregious weaknesses in his shadow ministry emerge.

The point about prominent climate skeptics in the new shadow ministry is great good news however. Australia cannot afford to spend taxpayers's money on will o' the wisps and the more that is pointed out the better. Rudd's policies are not in general a large departure from the pragmatic policies of his conservative predecessor. It is only on global warming where he seems at risk of going seriously off the rails. So strong opposition there is just what is needed

QUENTIN Bryce, the newly installed Governor-General, broke with precedent by giving The 7.30 Report's Kerry O'Brien an interview last week on how she saw her role. He took it for granted that she had a personal agenda and asked: "Can you be a quiet activist?" She replied: "Oh, definitely."

Aside from harmless hobbyhorses such as endorsing the preservation of rainforests or promoting cancer research, activism of any kind is the last thing we should have to expect of a constitutional umpire who understands her duties. It was all of a piece with her undertaking at the swearing-in ceremony in the Senate: "I promise to be alive, open, responsive and faithful to the contemporary thinking and working of Australian society."

An indulgent reading would see this as nothing out of the ordinary: just the sort of sententious twaddle that has come to be expected of Australian viceroys. I have a horrible feeling that she means exactly what she said and that she's promising to be a slave to the zeitgeist. How else is it possible to construe being "alive, open, responsive and faithful" to contemporary thinking?

It's a sentiment that is completely at loggerheads with her pledge, minutes earlier, to do her best "to observe, sustain and uphold the principles, conventions and rule of law that are our foundation". You can keep faith with the self-effacing traditions - which she already has breached with her activism - and the constraints that serve to hedge appointed office and its vast reserve powers. Or you can be faithful to the will-o'-the-wisp of contemporary thought. I very much doubt that it's possible to do both.

Part of Bryce's problem is that she's not especially bright and is prone to saying the first thing that comes into her head. Considering that she was once a legal academic, her grasp of constitutional law in recent years has left a lot to be desired, too. I cited several howlers in this column in 2003 when she was appointed governor of Queensland.

Take, for example, her considered opinion on the reserve powers that have just been entrusted to her. "I like the idea of them being written down in the Constitution. I'm increasingly attracted to the need to codify as much as possible. It is another way of empowering people." Let us pass lightly over the notion of empowerment and concentrate on the main point. It is a given in constitutional law that codifying the reserve powers is a herculean task, virtually impossible as well as pointless.

First, it would involve a team of experts agreeing on the proper limits of emergency powers, which it has generally been thought prudent not to define too precisely because not all contingencies are foreseeable. Second, the whole process would need a large measure of bipartisan support. Finally, it would mean a referendum carrying by a majority of votes in a majority of states an amendment specifying in great detail every hypothetical circumstance in which a government's actions might warrant the exercise of the Crown's power to sack it. The consensus at the Constitutional Convention was that the existing checks and balances were the best available guarantee that the reserve powers wouldn't be abused.

Bryce also has said: "I feel very strongly the Constitution doesn't deliver representative democracy." Her reason for saying so? "A very serious lack of representation of women." Had she given more than a moment's thought to this proposition, she'd have seen that the problem is not with the Constitution but with the political parties, which preselect almost all the members of federal parliament. Nor, in the Westminster system where people's votes decide who wins each seat, would it make any sense for the Constitution to predetermine that a fixed percentage of seats be filled by either sex.

Until recently, it would have been hard to imagine a candidate with Bryce's limitations and ideological baggage winning the level of broad acceptance within the conservative wing of the political class necessary for her to function as governor-general. Indeed, since Brendan Nelson, Julie Bishop and Malcolm Turnbull could not be described plausibly as conservatives, it may not be safe to assume that Bryce does enjoy that kind of acceptance. In less than a year, the values for which John Howard, Peter Costello and Alexander Downer provided so formidable a bulwark are no longer taken for granted in the Liberal Party room.

Turnbull tends to see every issue through the prism of Wentworth, the inner-Sydney seat he holds by a narrow margin. It's reckoned to be the gayest, richest and perhaps the most bohemian electorate in the country, light years away from the preoccupations of most of the people who regularly vote for the Coalition.

Given the need to conciliate that broader constituency and not to be seen as taking it for granted, it's surprising Turnbull should have made so few concessions to the conservatives in the party in the selection of his shadow cabinet last week. For example, Nick Minchin and Tony Abbott were the two most senior and experienced cabinet ministers in the Howard government still ready to serve on the front bench. Minchin was demoted, moving from defence, a portfolio that takes a long time to master, and replaced by David Johnston, a neophyte. Abbott, who'd made it clear he wanted a more demanding job, was left in family and community services and Aboriginal affairs, and effectively sidelined.

Unlike most of the front bench, more than half of whom were not ministers in the previous government, Minchin and Abbott have shone in difficult portfolios. Abbott in particular, in industrial relations and health, has proven he can handle tough political problems. He was probably the Howard government's most effective ideological champion and, notwithstanding Costello's brilliance, its most consistent parliamentary performer.

Minchin's imperturbable style and forensic approach are well suited to the Senate, where he remains the leader. Magnanimity in victory towards Nelson's main numbers man would have been a much smarter strategy for Turnbull. No doubt it's true, as some have argued, that Minchin will soon have the measure of Stephen Conroy, whom he shadows in broadband and communications. However, Conroy is widely seen as an easy scalp and a lesser target than Labor's Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon.

It seems that Turnbull is going to have to learn the hard way that he has to field his best team and make sure they're well matched to the ministers they shadow. He'll need to give players such as Minchin and Abbott more of a stake in his victory if it is ever to materialise. The indulgent gesture of giving Bishop the shadow treasurer's job is already beginning to look like a big miscalculation and evidence that he thinks he can just about run the Coalition as a one-man band. The Opposition needs to think carefully about product differentiation because the Rudd Government, by virtue of its leader, is about as conservative-friendly as it's possible for a modern Labor administration to be. Thankfully, it doesn't aspire to be much more than a "mind-the-store" government - except in the matter of climate change - and Rudd often gives the impression that he has already fulfilled his great ambition in life simply by getting elected.

I was agreeably surprised - bearing in mind Turnbull's views on climate change and his performance as environment minister - by one feature of his shadow ministry that should gladden conservative hearts. Three of the five frontbenchers whose portfolios impinge on climate change are known sceptics. They are John Cobb (agriculture, fisheries and forests), Ian Macfarlane (energy and resources) and Andrew Robb (infrastructure, COAG and emissions trading design).

Robb has been a bit more coy than the other two about airing his reservations. But according to Penny Wong, in answer to a Dorothy Dixer last week, he told The Australian Financial Review Magazine that anthropogenic climate change is "lies, lies and damned statistics". He apparently called it a fad, too, saying that after the fall of communism it had become the cause celebre of the Left.

Employing sceptics in shadow cabinet, who will be more than a match for Greg Hunt, his main spokesman on climate change, is a good idea. It leaves the Coalition well-placed in the event that there's no further global warming or unmistakable cooling in the next few years. Then again, in the wake of the turmoil on global markets, emissions trading schemes may suddenly look like the kind of luxury even the developed world can no longer afford. Sceptics are also the best people to be asking the hard questions on how much an ETS is going to cost, cost-benefit analysis and who will be expected to foot what share the bill.


Posted by John Ray. For a daily critique of Leftist activities, see DISSECTING LEFTISM. For a daily survey of Australian politics, see AUSTRALIAN POLITICS Also, don't forget your roundup of Obama news and commentary at OBAMA WATCH (2). Email me (John Ray) here

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