Much for PM to worry about, but new team not on the list
Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Governor-General Quentin Bryce pose for photos with new ministers after the swearing-in ceremony. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
T he negative reaction by the media to the retirement of two federal ministers, Nicola Roxon and Chris Evans, played into the hands of the opposition. Yet such end-of-term resignations are not unusual in Australian politics. They only look bad when the government of the day is unlikely to be re-elected. In this case they did not deserve the adverse headlines.
By way of international contrast Hillary Clinton, having served for less time than either Roxon or Evans, retired as Barack Obama's Secretary of State at the end of his first term to widespread acclaim for a job well done. Her departure, exhausted, was not seen as a reflection on Obama. We judge our ministers by a harsher standard here in Australia.
The customs of the Westminster parliamentary system make the timing of ministerial resignations difficult both for the minister and for their government. There is no right time unless it is for extremely long-serving ministers in a very popular government.
Ministers can be sacked but many choose to retire at a time of their own choosing, often surprising the general public who see only the perks of the job and not the demands. Ministerial turnover is the usual course of events. The job is grindingly difficult, sometimes exceptionally so in high-profile portfolios, and the appeal of an ordinary life, including family and other options, can become very attractive. Ministerial shoes, like those of exceptionally good sportsmen and women, can be hard to fill. Stability, provided by an experienced ministry, in government is important. But so is revitalisation. There must be a balance.
Two or three terms are about average for ministerial tenure. Despite plenty of research interest in ministerial careers, including by Professor Keith Dowding and his team at the ANU, there is no agreed upon ''best'' length of time for a ministerial lifespan. Only the individual knows when it is time to move on.
The Howard government seemed pretty stable over its 12 years. But that perception is largely based on the Howard-Costello-Downer trio of senior ministers who served for the whole period. Howard actually lost a remarkably large number of junior ministers in his first term and a steady stream of retirements occurred after that. Professor John Wanna of the ANU has calculated that a majority of Howard's first 15 cabinet ministers retired without being told that their time was up.
Most notably there were three Nationals leaders-cum-deputy prime ministers (Tim Fischer, John Anderson and Mark Vaile). Other striking ''early'' retirements included John Fahey, Peter Reith and Michael Wooldridge.
Nevertheless this Rudd-Gillard Labor government has turned over more senior ministers than is desirable, including most notably Kevin Rudd (prime minister then foreign minister). Lindsay Tanner (finance) and John Faulkner (defence) retired after one term and now Roxon and Evans have gone. In addition Joel Fitzgibbon (defence) was forced out and Robert McClelland was demoted from attorney-general. This government can't afford any more. Yet a successful Rudd challenge would almost certainly lead to more retirements or sackings.
The dilemma for ministers considering retirement in our system is that timing is always difficult, especially for ministers from the House of Representatives. If they don't wish to stand for another term, like Roxon, they are expected to announce their departures early so that another minister can be put in place for the election campaign and another candidate can be preselected for their seat.
If they make no early announcement then, whether their party wins or loses the election, they are effectively committed to spending another three years in Parliament as a lame-duck backbencher. If they resign shortly after the election they will be pilloried, unfairly in most cases in my view, for wasting taxpayers' money. In addition they are holding up the revitalisation of their party, as Costello and Downer did.
Senators, like Evans, can more easily step down and leave Parliament at any time, even straight after an election, with hardly a ripple because their replacement doesn't involve a byelection and hence is relatively painless.
Roxon (15 years in Parliament) and Evans (20 years) have been ministers in senior portfolios for more than five years. They have served their time and deserved to depart with honour within the constraints of the needs of the government and the demands of the Westminster system.
They have been replaced, as even the critics admit, by capable people such as Mark Dreyfus, QC, and the government has not been weakened by the reshuffle.
Evans had been flying to Canberra from Perth with all the added pressure that puts on West Australian MPs on all sides. Though Senate leader, he was flattered by the third-in-line tag, and will not be especially hard to replace in the ministry. He had already done his best work for this government as minister for immigration and his final portfolio of tertiary education, skills, science and research was more junior.
Roxon's departure was more surprising, coming at a younger age (45). It raises again the whole question of the irreconcilable stresses on ministers and MPs with young families.
She appeared to have a bigger future and will also be a bigger loss, having served as minister for health and then attorney-general, both very demanding jobs. But even in her case her replacement, Dreyfus, may turn out to add value to cabinet and to be a circuit-breaker on the controversial legal issues surrounding anti-defamation versus freedom of speech.
Gillard will face many problems during this election year but her new team should not be one of them.
John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University.