Abbott must reshuffle his deck

Tony Abbott doesn't yet have a team in place that can handle Australia's complex economic challenges, and he can't afford to wait any longer to make some changes.

When it comes to winning in politics, James Carville put it best: It’s the economy, stupid.

It’s not just things like the silly political debates and name calling over the future of the quaintly named Future Fund – or the fond memories rekindled with Peter Costello’s ill-advised public dummy spit – it’s the real policy debate over economic issues that counts.

So when – or a distant perhaps, if – the greatly expectant Tony Abbott is elected as Australia’s next prime minister he’ll have a complex economy to oversee.

He’ll face issues of productivity, labour force adaptability, an over-regulated business sector, the issue of middle class welfare, taxation distribution between states, core roles of government and so on.

There’s nothing new there. It’s just that the world is moving so rapidly – and is so interlinked – that he’s going to need the best brains around him if Australia is to measure up.

At the moment, he doesn’t have the team or structures in place. He’s got the sound-bites and 'look at me' TV pictures on track but not any underlying sense of economic competence.

His front bench economic team is threadbare at best. They frequently offer confusing, contradictory and nonsensical sounding messages. They lack sense of purpose.

Treasurer in an Abbott government would be Joe Hockey, with Andrew Robb as finance minister. Industry minister would be Sophie Mirabella.

Based on experience and past judgement this is not a team to lead the grind of nuts and bolts economic management. For example, by opposing the current government’s tax cut to business in favour of an un-costed, imprecise "modest” cut of its own, the opposition end up in uncomfortable territory with their core constituency.

They look like they are just playing games. And they are starting to pay the price with some withering political commentary from Canberra stalwarts like Laurie Oakes.

The solution is clear. At a bare minimum, what Abbott needs to do – and do very quickly – is to reshuffle.

He needs to make Malcolm Turnbull his shadow treasurer, and tell the world he will be treasurer in government. He also needs to bring former Howard government chief of staff and respected bureaucrat Arthur Sinodinos into his front line and make him shadow minister for finance.

Why now? The answer is simple: Abbott needs to build economic credibility to avoid the increasingly obvious own goals from his current players. Economic credibility cannot be switched on and off with a flick of the wrist: it is earned over time, with slog.

Turnbull is widely respected in the business and wider community for his economic nous, his experience and acumen.

In his current job, Turnbull’s hands are tied. He has been an effective critic of the way the government has committed taxpayer’s dollars to the NBN. But by the very end of 2013, just weeks after the election, the NBN will be well into its rollout and any dismantling or re-jigging would be protracted, and administratively and politically fraught.

So, Turnbull as communications minister would be confined to what would essentially be a second-tier role in government. He’d be tinkering with a big infrastructure issue.

Yes, he would be a cabinet minister – but would be an on-going source of internal tension and alternate economic opinion within cabinet. (He’s again drifted into discussion on broader economic policy with his interestingly timed and cogent argument for a SWF on this in Business Spectator last Monday: A fund to guard against Canberra's frailty, March 12).

Paul Keating and Costello were regarded as stand-out treasurers – men who led the debate and got some big things done. Wayne Swan, at best, is seen as competent. He has lacked political gravitas, as his recent attempts to re-define his party’s brand showed. Hockey – a seemingly flighty populist – would be little better.

Many – perhaps most – in business and the Coalition will argue there’s no need for change now, or at all. The next election will be about them, not us.

That kind of thinking would be a grave misreading of politics. Given the own goals from the Gillard government and the media pounding dished out to Gillard over the last 18 months the question some ask is: why aren’t we much further ahead? What will happen in the unlikely event that the media focus changes, and the polls don’t move further to us?

Part of the answer is that the Opposition’s economic credentials look raggedy, at best. The "$70 billion black hole” argument keeps getting regurgitated because there is no answer. It won’t stop. In fact, it will intensify after the May budget.

So, if the debate refocusses on Opposition costings and plans – including its direct action carbon play and its internally divisive new tax to pay for some strange and expensive paid parental leave scheme – the certainty on an Abbott victory is lessened.

A reshuffle with Turnbull in the key treasury role would not solve the issue instantly. But over time the Opposition’s economic credibility would lift and the confident Abbott would breathe easier.

It’s a political matter that Abbott must confront now. Expectant as he is, he can’t afford to sit and wait and pretend the issue economic credibility doesn’t count in voter-land. All the petty political and hyped grandstanding of the past week – including the charge that Gillard cannot stop the boats or even Sydney’s guns – won’t deny Carville’s prescient point.

Alister Drysdale is a Business Spectator commentator and a former senior advisor to Malcolm Fraser and Jeff Kennett.