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COMMENT

Malcolm Turnbull's reshuffled cabinet full of modern ministers now

The Prime Minister's new cabinet has many new faces, but it is the baggage of the old faces in new portfolios that may pose problems.

The overwhelming impression this week has been that the federal government has been given a thorough makeover. That has certainly been the image the new Prime Minister has intended to convey. In his words, Malcolm Turnbull's new ministry is a government fit for the 21st century; a government which will operate according to newly discovered but traditional Westminster cabinet principles; a truly liberal government; and a government of firsts, including the first woman defence minister and the first woman minister within the Treasury portfolio.

Media commentary has run with this theme, describing the new ministry as so new that it is like a newly elected government. There is truth in some of these descriptions, all of which contain risks as well as opportunities. At times, the aura surrounding Malcolm and Lucy Turnbull has been almost Kennedyesque and Australia has been painted as a modern day Camelot. The honeymoon surrounding Turnbull has been almost overwhelming.

Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull pose for photos with new members of the cabinet.
Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull pose for photos with new members of the cabinet. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

The hunger for change from the dourness of the Abbott government has been palpable. There is now something like adulation in the air. That is a good thing only if it leads to a fresh willingness of the populace to give politics a chance.

The hunger for change and modernity is a story in itself. Abbott was so concerned to paint his government as a return to the Howard years that he forgot about the future. He put his faith in the remnants of the Howard ministry rather than the capabilities of a new team. Howard himself had held back the careers of some moderate MPs who consequently found it hard to get a serious go in the Abbott era because they were already behind their rivals in experience of executive government.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull holds his first Cabinet meeting in Parliament House.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull holds his first Cabinet meeting in Parliament House. Photo: Andrew Meares

But there has also been spin about the new Turnbull ministry and a lack of awareness of what has actually happened. The genuine freshness in what Turnbull has fashioned is also accompanied by some stasis, some baggage and some risks. There are warning signs that fresh paint cannot cover over.

Turnbull himself, who has a chance to emerge as a successful modern "conservative" leader like John Key in New Zealand or David Cameron in Britain, must be aware of these dangers but he has understandably chosen to emphasise boundless optimism in projecting his ministry to the public.

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The Westminster parliamentary system limits what any new leader can do. You have to fill 40 posts within the executive from the available talent within the parliament. The photographs of the new ministry (the front row still full of blokes despite five women in cabinet) are somewhat shocking because they show how large the ministry is. And they are all ministers because the parliamentary secretaries are now assistant ministers. Liberal MPs had a one in three chance of becoming a minister. They can almost say, "We are all ministers now."

In Turnbull's case he was actually refreshing only the Liberal side of a two-party Coalition. The Liberals are much the larger party but the unreconstructed Nationals have three cabinet ministers plus junior and assistant ministers. Turnbull couldn't touch them. Not only that, he had to negotiate with them about the distribution of spoils to maintain the Coalition agreement.

The value of the new ministry is not just in new faces but in new portfolios for old faces. Here, Turnbull has achieved progress. Especially important will be the move of Christopher Pyne out of education and the removal altogether of Eric Abetz, meaning a new face for dealing with public service matters. Both increase the possibility of a fresh start in policy negotiations; with the Senate over higher education and with public sector unions over pay and conditions.

However, Peter Dutton remains Immigration Minister and the previous immigration minister, Scott Morrison, is now Treasurer. They have stood for one of the defining characteristics of the Abbott government, lack of transparency and the primacy of "operational matters" over the right of citizens to know what is going on. That has to change if the Turnbull government is to be genuinely fresh in its approach.

The ministry also contains calculated risks. Arthur Sinodinos​ and Mal Brough both bring baggage that could come back to hurt them. Sinodinos awaits an ICAC ruling that may tarnish his reputation, while Brough is a link back to the dark machinations against Peter Slipper.

Turnbull also must show that this is a newly liberal government despite opposition from among conservatives within the party. Factionalism runs deep within the Liberals as shown by the public discussion of the battle between liberals and conservatives to succeed Joe Hockey in North Sydney.

It is a mistake just to tag individual cabinet members philosophically. Factions are organisational devices running right through the party which affect the distribution of the spoils and the career prospects of all party members aspiring to public office. A new ministry doesn't change that. Conservative factional chieftains, like Abetz in Tasmania and Cory Bernardi in South Australia, remain powerful even outside the ministry.

The new broom thesis may be tested most by Tony Abbott himself. Despite his promises of good behaviour he is still an unfolding story and a potential force for conservative values and strategies within the Liberal Party, the Turnbull government, and the wider community.

Hockey will move on to diplomacy just as Brendan Nelson did, but Abbott remains an unknown quantity. He has potentially explosive skills, including journalism, networks and political organisation. Combined with his appetite for opposition and political conflict this means that, whatever he ends up doing, he could still be a formidable rival to Turnbull's progressive aspirations.

John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University.

John.Warhurst@anu.edu.au