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The making of a cabinet

The incoming Prime Minister's characterisation of his new government as one of values not ideology is not a useful definition of the differences between the two sides of politics. But it is a reason to start examining the social differences, if any, there are between the new government and its Labor predecessors.

A lot of attention has been given to the absence of women and the overwhelming presence of blue suits and ties in the Abbott government. Gender is one social difference but there are others, such as type of electorate represented, previous occupation, education, religion and family status.

What does the Coalition bring to the cabinet table? The parties are becoming more socially alike, but differences remain. We may object as a community to so-called class warfare and playing the gender card in politics but we still need to know where government ministers come from and how their values have been shaped.

This is a cabinet of religious believers, or at least religion identifiers. Only two ministers, outside the cabinet - Simon Birmingham and Marise Payne - did not swear on a holy book. But it is a Coalition government with far fewer Protestants than has usually been the case. This takes to a higher level the trend evident under the Howard government. The Protestant ascendancy is over in Coalition politics.

This is not a trivial matter as Protestant values have long defined the Liberal party and its predecessors and been central to their values. These have included the philosophical values of individualism and conscience which distinguished them from more collectivist Labor values. Now high-profile Catholic men dominate the cabinet (almost half): Tony Abbott, Joe Hockey, Malcolm Turnbull, Andrew Robb, Christopher Pyne, Kevin Andrews, George Brandis and Barnaby Joyce among them. It remains to be seen how influential Catholic values, state-centred to a greater degree, turn out to be.

Not only are they all male Catholics, feeding in to the controversy about gender, but many of them (four of the eight mentioned) were educated at Jesuit schools. This contributes to the private school educational background of the cabinet.

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The presence of the Nationals means that this government has greater representation from rural Australia, including a number of farmers. Warren Truss is from Wide Bay and Joyce is from New England. Labor can never manage many rural ministers in government because it just doesn't have them in its caucus. But increasingly the Nationals are socially indistinguishable from the Liberals anyway. Many of their leaders, including Joyce and previously John Anderson and Tim Fischer, are privately educated in the big capital cities.

Previous occupation is a characteristic that you might think would clearly distinguish the two sides of politics, but the differences are not as great as myth has it. Of course the Coalition doesn't have the widespread trade union links that predominate in Labor, but they do have many party advisers. They have some business experience though it is a certain type of business, such as the stints in corporate business represented by Robb.

But they are overwhelmingly tertiary educated like Labor and include loads of lawyers, such as Julie Bishop.

The Coalition MPs have far less experience of public education. This has traditionally been the case but John Howard was a product of Canterbury Boys High. Three-quarters of this cabinet was private-school educated, many in GPS schools including Riverview (Abbott and Joyce), St Peters Girls Adelaide (Julie Bishop), Brisbane Grammar (Ian MacFarlane, Wesley Perth (David Johnston) and Sydney Grammar (Turnbull). The exceptions include Eric Abetz (Taroona High and Hobart Matriculation College), Bruce Billson (Monterey High) and Scott Morrison (Sydney High).

Just one woman in 20 clearly stands out unfavourably compared with the Gillard and Rudd cabinets. The low number has been generated by several factors, but ultimately it is a choice made by the Prime Minister. The factors include fewer women overall in the Coalition parties than in Labor. This has not always been the case but has now been evident for several parliaments. The lack of women is evident in both Coalition parties but the Nationals remain a particularly male domain and didn't make Abbott's task any easier. Senior Coalition women, including Bronwyn Bishop and Julie Bishop and the defeated Sophie Mirabella are all Liberals not Nationals.

There has been renewed general debate about the difficulties women face in progressing within political parties and a tiresome rehashing of the notion of merit without recognition of how subjective a concept it is. But it is the clear differences between the major parties that now need further investigation. More important than matters of process are questions of party culture. In the absence of quotas, why are Liberal and National culture and values apparently hindering the advancement of women.

This is a relatively young cabinet. It also is a cabinet whose members, including Joyce and Hockey, have a number of young children between them. Their families, in this case wives and grandparents, will bear a large burden on the nation's behalf making up for their absence from home.

Diversity is in the eye of the beholder but a cabinet of men is not diverse enough. Four were born outside Australia. But this new Cabinet lacks a Penny Wong, an Asian-born lesbian whose presence made the Labor cabinets look even more diverse.

Values, general outlook and even particular policy preferences come from somewhere. Social characteristics are an obvious place to look. But at the individual level we can't generalise. Class, religion, place of birth, education and gender interact in mysterious ways. We should be careful in deciding just how values emerge from these competing social influences.

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

John.Warhurst@anu.edu.au