Federal Politics

ANALYSIS

Malcolm Turnbull's 'opportunity in disguise' can't hide failure of first ministry

By definition, the biggest question posed by Malcolm Turnbull's emergency election-year reshuffle cannot be answered yet.

Has he finally got it right? That will turn on whether the atmosphere of scandal and intrigue is truly over and whether this new team can suddenly function as a well-oiled machine, remaining intact right through to the election.

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Malcolm Turnbull announces new ministry

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announces the results of a ministerial reshuffle, to feature six women in cabinet, in the wake of several retirements and resignations. Courtesy ABC News 24.

On present form, that looks unlikely.

Especially given that the disunity - the not-so-faint echo of September's big bang leadership coup - is very much structural in nature, just as it had been within Labor when Kevin Rudd was torn down.

Harsh though it sounds, elements of Turnbull's first ministry were a failure, and his selection process has exposed weaknesses in due diligence.

Of course he would argue: How could he have known of some of the scandals that would beset his ministry?

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Three ministers have now left the front bench in ignominious circumstances – two of them, brought low by pre-existing transgressions. All of them, inflicting damage to the standing of the government on the way out.

The disgraced trio, and the retirements of heavyweights Warren Truss and Andrew Robb, have forced Turnbull's hand.

Always the optimist, Turnbull has reframed his problems as merely opportunities in disguise, and in way that's exactly what they are.

Few would contest that the government is not better off for the removal of scandalised ministers.

And with a healthy majority swollen with ambitious backbenchers jockeying for promotion, there really is no shortage of younger alternatives.

So if the losers are selecting themselves, then a skillful prime minister can use those vacancies to reward talent, strengthen the team, and importantly shape the executive in his own image.

But these are essentially inward-looking problems. Outwardly, the image is one of frequent upheaval.

Turnbull's most basic promise when replacing the gratuitous conflict machine that was the Abbott office, was orderly respectful government.

What has been delivered so far has fallen short of that modest goal. In fact, the early Turnbull period has been surprisingly messy, uncannily trouble-prone.

His first ministry was very much an exercise in political fence-mending, elevating some supporters (such as Brough just quietly) but retaining and even promoting Abbott loyalists in the hope of building unity.

Turnbull 2.0 is closer to the merit principle, always acknowledging of course, that in politics, other forces such as state of origin and faction tend to be stronger.

Six women in Cabinet and 10 across the entire executive is a major improvement on Abbott's insulting return. And the promotions of Concetta Fierravanti-Wells and Jane Prentice are smart moves, with the advancements unquestionably deserved.

Other changes too seem well thought through, including Steven Ciobo in Trade, Darren Chester in Infrastructure and Transport, and the gifted Craig Laundy as Assistant Minister for Multicultural Affairs.

There are many good decisions here. But the question remains, are there any other undetected mines waiting to explode an otherwise good plan? Only time will answer that.

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