A long two weeks of parliamentary sittings begins for the federal government with two of its most senior ministers missing from the frontbench.
Attorney-General Christian Porter remains on leave for his mental health after denying allegations he raped a woman in 1988.
Defence Minister Linda Reynolds is on leave for health reasons. She was admitted to hospital in February to receive treatment for a pre-existing heart condition, amid questions over whether she showed an appropriate duty of care to her former staffer, Brittany Higgins.
Health Minister Greg Hunt was also on leave for health reasons but on Saturday announced he would return to Parliament after being discharged from hospital, where he had been treated for cellulitis.
The continued absence of Mr Porter and Senator Reynolds raises challenges for the government's legislative agenda and adds pressure on colleagues acting in their portfolios.
While governments have always had to manage planned absences, experts can't recall previous occasions when so many senior cabinet ministers have been away at the same time for health reasons.
What does this mean for the workloads of remaining ministers?
Senator Reynolds is expected to be on leave until early April, and Mr Porter has not advised the government when he will return. They each lead large and pivotal portfolios, and were overseeing fraught legislation, programs and policy challenges before going on leave.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has had to spread the remaining workload across the ministry. Employment Minister Michaelia Cash is acting Attorney-General and Industrial Relations Minister as the government tries to push its workplace relations bill through Parliament.
Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne is acting in her former portfolio, Defence, which is running a multibillion dollar expansion of Australia's military in response to the Indo-Pacific region's worsening strategic environment. This program includes a troubled $80 billion submarine replacement program.
Both senators Cash and Payne have to receive briefings on their acting portfolios in preparation for question time. When Senate Estimates hearings begin next week, each could face hours of further questioning in a forum known for its intense exchanges.
Policy direction may start to lag, and without the input of ministers in their portfolios, you might start to have gaps emerge between the policy program of the broader government and what's going on at the portfolio level.Dr Zareh Ghazarian
Monash University expert in Australian politics, Zareh Ghazarian, said to have ministers missing from such large portfolios was not sustainable in the long-term.
"This is going to be quite a stressful period for ministers who do take on additional workloads, especially with Parliament sitting," he said.
Another expert, Australian National University professor John Wanna, said the Prime Minister can relieve pressure on the government by delaying cabinet meetings, adding that John Howard once went three months in his second term without calling one.
Professor Wanna said the absences of two ministers would make the government's workload massive if it was business as usual. However the Defence and Attorney-General's departments may help direct their acting ministers' attention by identifying the most urgent items for action.
While Senator Payne faces a larger workload, senior people in the Foreign Affairs Department can alert her office to any major issues that arise, Professor Wanna said.
"In terms of Defence, she's already been a defence minister, and knows a lot about the portfolio."
Do these ministerial absences disrupt the work of departments and public servants?
Not much for now, at least. The public service will continue its day-to-day work under the existing arrangements and policies set by ministers.
Professor Wanna said public servants prefer continuity but most senior officials in the Attorney-General's and Defence departments will be adept at briefing new ministers.
"The departments, particularly when they're more central agencies, can virtually manage themselves as long as there's a minister that can make the final determination," Professor Wanna said.
Dr Ghazarian said the absence of ministers will eventually become a policy as well as a political problem.
"Policy work will start to lag, policy direction may start to lag, and without the input of ministers in their portfolios, you might start to have gaps emerge between the policy program of the broader government and what's going on at the portfolio level," he said.
Do these absences disrupt the policy and political agenda of the federal government?
They already have. Before Parliament sits today, the public discussion has been focused not on government policy but its personnel and their ability to remain in their portfolios, Dr Ghazarian said.
There are also questions over the government's legislative agenda this fortnight. Crossbenchers have called for a planned March vote on the Coalition's industrial relations bill to be delayed in the wake of rape allegations against Mr Porter.
What does history tell us about the potential long term impact of absences for the government?
One of the potential casualties of these absences from cabinet is public confidence in the government, Dr Ghazarian said.
"When you've got this sort of situation where you've got a number of potential changes on the cards in terms of ministerial positions, it suggests that there's some instability in the government," he said.
Professor Wanna said the absences of Senator Reynolds and Mr Porter could be seen as an opportunity to refresh the Coalition government's ministry, or otherwise could be viewed as upsetting its coherence and stability. If Mr Morrison announced a reshuffle now, it might appear a reaction to the crises enveloping his government, he said. The Prime Minister could wait until the Easter holidays to make any permanent changes to his ministerial line-up.
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