Whatever happens after the next election, the bus-load of new or recycled Labor faces joining Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s front bench should be seen for what they are – a team of salespeople, rather than ministers appointed to govern Australia.
That’s not to say that no governing will occur in the weeks ahead, only that policy changes will be made with one imperative in mind – retaining power for Labor. Sound policy formulation, this ain’t.
Thus we have Tony Burke, who as environment minister oversaw numerous reforms including the Murray-Darling Basin plan, suddenly thrust into immigration to help Foreign Minister Bob Carr get tough on “economic migrants” arriving by boat.
Burke is a strong performer in parliament, and has done a decent enough job selling reforms around extending protected areas of Tasmanian forest, protecting the barrier reef from coal-related pollution and balancing irrigation and environmental flows in the Murray-Darling river systems.
But while those are important to many voters, they are not nearly as large an election issue as ‘boats’. He is likely prosecute Labor’s new hard line on seaborne asylum seekers more convincingly than outgoing immigration minister Brendan O’Connor, who takes on the lower-profile portfolio of employment, skills and training.
The other key election issue besides ‘boats’ is ‘carbon’ and this has been handed to the relatively inexperienced Mark Butler, following Greg Combet’s decision to quit politics altogether.
As one of Labor’s big-hitters, Combet is a hard act to follow in that portfolio, but expect Butler to get plenty of help from his teflon-coated boss, Kevin Rudd.
The man who was pummeled in the polls in 2010 for abandoning attempts to find a multi-party agreement on how to price carbon emissions, will no doubt find a way to blame that fiasco on the Greens/Coalition and to remind gold-fish-like voters that he’s never stopped seeing climate change action as the “great moral challenge of our time”.
It’s hard to believe voters will accept that line, but early polling from Galaxy and Newspoll has put Rudd within striking distance of being re-elected – the Galaxy result shows the two-party-preferred vote at 49 to 51 per cent in the Coalition’s favour.
Bill Shorten, who is reportedly now party of Rudd’s six-person inner-sanctum within cabinet – the others being Treasurer Chris Bowen, Deputy Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, Senate leader Penny Wong, Deputy Senate leader Jacinta Collins, and Rudd himself – retains the title of minister for employment, but has offloaded his financial services and superannuation portfolio to David Bradbury (former assistant Treasurer to Wayne Swan).
Shorten has taken over the education portfolio. This was to be a key battlefield of the 2013 election, with former education minister Peter Garrett and his PM, Julia Gillard, planning to make maximum political capital from the historic ‘Gonski’ reforms.
Shorten’s big selling role, therefore, will not be the superannuation reforms he oversaw – an incremental rise in compulsory super saving from 9 to 12 per cent over seven years. Nor will he be used mainly to revive Gillard’s education pitch to voters.
More likely Shorten will be asked to howl down anything the Coalition says about industrial relations, with the now familiar “don’t trust them on WorkChoices” line.
The Coalition’s IR policy, released in May, is a studied attempt to avoid the ‘return of WorkChoices’ tag. However, Shorten is an excellent performer in front of the camera, and on the floor of parliament should it be recalled ahead of a later-than-expected election. His formidable selling skills will most likely be directed to inciting fear over IR reforms that, in reality, do not appear to be in the offing.