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Turnbull unveils cabinet line-up: experts respond

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has announced his frontbench line-up following last week’s leadership spill, which includes the promotion of Scott Morrison to treasurer among sweeping changes.

Speaking on Sunday, Turnbull said he was:

… announcing a 21st-century government and a ministry for the future.

Gone from the frontbench entirely are Joe Hockey, Kevin Andrews, Eric Abetz, Bruce Billson and Ian Macfarlane. Josh Frydenberg (resources, energy and Northern Australia), Kelly O’Dwyer (small business and assistant treasurer), Marise Payne (defence), Mitch Fifield (communications and arts), Christian Porter (social services), Michaelia Cash (employment), Arthur Sinodinos (cabinet secretary) and Simon Birmingham (education) are the fresh faces in cabinet.

Turnbull said Hockey, the dumped treasurer, would be resigning from parliament “in due course”.

So, what are the key challenges for ministers entering new portfolios? What unfinished business do they inherit? The Conversation asked experts in these policy areas to respond.

Employment – Michaelia Cash

Jeff Borland, Professor of Economics, University of Melbourne

Cash should be active in lobbying the treasurer to take every action possible to stimulate economic growth in Australia. More jobs and lower unemployment will only happen with a higher rate of economic growth. With Australia still being in a post-GFC and post-mining boom downturn, government policy needs to provide a stimulus to economic activity. This means having an expansionary budget policy, and making progress on budget policy reform in order to increase business and consumer confidence.


Michaelia Cash will join cabinet as employment minister, AAP/Alan Porritt


Cash should seek to have the education portfolio joined to employment. Australia’s employment future is integrally linked to its education future. Our international comparative advantage is in producing goods and services that require high-skill labour, so orienting the institutions for policymaking on education towards employment seems critical.

Cassh should introduce better programs for improving the job readiness of the unemployed. Work for the Dole doesn’t work, so get rid of it. Replace it with the types of programs that international and Australian evidence tell us work, such as programs at the local level involving partnerships between service providers, employers, welfare and community groups; programs designed to improve the skills of unemployed who are facing high barriers to employment and to provide them with a pathway to a permanent job.

Cash shouldn’t worry about industrial relations reform. There is no evidence that changes to the IR system would substantially increase productivity in Australia. So, ignore the cacophony of voices that will be demanding you do something in this space, and spend your time where it can have an impact.

Social Services – Christian Porter

Peter Whiteford, Professor, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

Porter will face many of the same challenges as his predecessor. But he will bring to the portfolio his previous experience as a former treasurer in the Western Australian government.

Social Services is the largest-spending federal government department. The 2015-16 budget included A$154 billion of social security and welfare spending, or around 36% of total budget expenditure. The portfolio currently includes responsibility for welfare payments, family support, seniors, aged care, and the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), and thus directly or indirectly touches on the daily life of most Australians.


Christian Porter has been appointed minister for social services. Daniel Munoz/AAP


The most obvious challenge relates to many of the changes to social welfare proposed in last two budgets having failed to pass the Senate and having been widely perceived as unfair. The perception of unfairness partly reflects that Australia has the most targeted social security system in the developed world. Australia directs the highest share of its social security spending to the poor and the lowest proportion to the rich.

As such, a recent OECD study of the equity implications of fiscal consolidation concludes that across-the-board cuts in social security would increase inequality in Australia more than any other country. It also means that the scope for cutting spending without adversely affecting low- and middle-income earners is limited.

It is clear that the challenges Porter faces are significant. While preparation for next year’s budget is likely to occupy most of his time, there is a case to be made for focusing on the medium term rather than the short term. When budget proposals are aimed at the short-term needs of the electoral cycle, they can create more challenges than they resolve. It is important to avoid short-term “fixes” that make the system less coherent.

A sustainable welfare system requires more than just constraining costs to meet short-term budgetary policy. A sustainable system also requires that recipients and current taxpayers view the system as fair and that payments are adequate to meet social objectives, particularly those relating to the adequacy of payments.

Defence – Marise Payne

John Blaxland, Senior Fellow, Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University

Changing defence minister only a few weeks before the Defence White Paper is due to be released risks the process blowing out further, perhaps into next year. But chances are the process is so well advanced that the decision is no longer solely in the defence minister’s hands, and therefore will proceed unimpeded.


Marise Payne will become Australia’s first female defence minister. AAP/Mark Graham


Cabinet’s National Security Committee has been briefed on developments along the way. So, presuming there is some continuity there, for most committee members it won’t contain any surprises. As it stands, the indications are that this white paper is likely to place emphasis on regional defence engagement and local construction for the navy’s fleet replacement program.

Meanwhile, the First Principles Review – released earlier this year – is now well on the way to being implemented, generating considerable organisational change intended to overcome some longstanding inefficiencies. Chances are that Payne will have little option but to accept what has been done and proceed. Derailing that would be counterproductive to the workings of the department and damaging politically.

Since the time of Kim Beasley – a rare case of a minister interested in and knowledgeable about his portfolio – the appointment of defence minister has rarely been a stepping stone up the ladder. Most previous incumbents have found the vast and unwieldy portfolio difficult to handle and even harder to reform.

What’s needed now, however, is a steady pair of hands to see through the reform measures underway; someone who is not simply intending to use the portfolio as a pork barrel to woo marginal electorates.

We can expect to see a continuation of Australia’s military commitment in Iraq and Syria. Having been so outspoken about our participation it would be imprudent to back out quickly. There remains a firm conviction in certain circles that we must continue to “fight the good fight" – even though exactly what is good about it becomes harder to discern.

While the force commitment will continue and possibly gradually scale down, we can expect a more circumspect posturing about its significance, importance and effectiveness, and a greater emphasis on expanding security ties in our region.

Education – Simon Birmingham

Dean Ashenden, Honorary Senior Fellow, Melbourne Graduate School of Education, University of Melbourne


The central problem for any federal education minister is that the Commonwealth spends A$15 billion per year on schools in three sectors, all of which are funded by state/territory governments as well – yet it controls none of them. The Commonwealth’s “targeted” programs add another layer of complexity.

There is bipartisan agreement that this is a dysfunctional mess.

The Rudd-Gillard solution was the Gonski plan, which proposed binding federal and state/territory governments to a common “sector-blind”, needs-based funding scheme.

A Coalition “unity ticket” on Gonski, announced on the eve of the 2013 election, was almost immediately abandoned in government.


Simon Birmingham will become education minister. AAP/Alan Porritt


Various alternatives to Gonski were subsequently canvassed by no less than three Abbott government reviews – none as far-sighted as Gonski, and none based in the education portfolio. These are the Commission of Audit, the Competition Policy Review, and now the Reform of the Federation discussion paper.

The big challenge for Birmingham will be to work out what – if anything – can be done, in a politically fraught arena, in less than 12 months, in the knowledge that key decisions will be taken elsewhere in the government, and the near-certainty that Labor will run hard on the electorally popular Gonski plan.

Birmingham has the advantage of a clean slate as well as a different prime minister. He could do worse than try to persuade his government to consider the Gonski option, again.

Gwilym Croucher, Higher Education Policy Analyst, University of Melbourne

Higher education

Higher education saw a very tumultuous period under the now-former education minister, Christopher Pyne. The new minister, Simon Birmingham, has been a very strong performer in the vocational education and training space. While this might signal a change of course for the government on its proposed higher education legislation, Birmingham is a strong choice to prosecute if it is going to continue to push for it.

It is a loss for higher education that it no longer has a senior member of the government as minister. But as Pyne is now the minister for industry, innovation and science, he still has responsibility for supporting much of the research effort. This change may show how seriously the new Turnbull government intends to take innovation and science policy.

Communications; Arts – Mitch Fifield

Thas Nirmalathas, Director – Melbourne Networked Society Institute, Professor of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, Co-Founder/Academic Director – Melbourne Accelerator Program, University of Melbourne


Late last year, the government capped National Broadband Network (NBN) investment, fixing public equity at A$29.5 billion. Recent media reports have highlighted potential cost blowouts of close to $15 billion.

It is not clear how nbn Co. will finance this shortfall, despite nbn Co. chief executive Bill Morrow’s insistence that customers would not be forced to pay to cover this. Nbn Co.’s September 2015 rollout progress report said that the rollout has passed ~1.3M premises. However, less than half are activated with subscriptions. It is therefore impossible for nbn Co. to finance this shortfall simply through passing on the costs to customers.


Mitch Fifield will become communications minister. AAP/Lukas Coch


The fundamental question remains as to how Fifield should tackle the issue of a potential funding shortfall when nbn Co. should remain focused on accelerating the network rollout instead of being forced to find investors to meet its capital requirements. It remains to be seen whether the new leadership team would be willing to adopt a bipartisan approach to nbn investment and to set it free from frequent political interference. The majority of Australians want to see it completed sooner without fuss.

With bipartisan support, Turnbull as communications minister passed data retention legislation requiring telecommunications operators to capture and store customer metadata for two years. The potential cost of this framework is estimated to be around $200-320 million. The laws raise two concerns – implementation details, including the costs of how the data is captured, archived and accessed, as well as how to set an appropriate freedom-of-information framework with certain guarantees on the ease and cost of access.

Despite passing the legislation and a willingness to grant organisations sufficient time to develop compliance readiness, the details on its implementation raises significant questions over whether telecommunications carriers and service providers will be expected to set up their own infrastructure. This is especially important in relation to smaller public and private entities offering free and paid services, such as WiFi.

The role and scope of government funding and support for metadata capture and storage will be a key issue for Fifield. In addition, decisions will have to be made regarding the mechanisms to be put in place to facilitate an informed review process, as promised by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, in four years. This is particularly important given the community reactions to its rushed implementation.

Joanna Mendelssohn, Associate Professor, Art & Design, UNSW Australia


Although some of us were hoping Turnbull would take a leaf out of former NSW premier Neville Wran’s book and take the arts ministry for himself, it is a great relief that he has cauterised the bleeding in the arts by giving the gig to Fifield.

Bearing in mind that Fifield is also communications minister, it is also administratively a sound mix. One of the problems with the George Brandis appointment was that it encouraged a very patrician approach to the arts as items to be consumed by the professions in their leisure hours. In his communications ministry Fifield will have to deal with the NBN and the digital revolution, and this fits in very well with some of the concerns of different areas of the arts.

In terms of ministerial competence Fifield has been quite impressive in dealing with the political minefield of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, so again there is hope that the bad old days of pollies on a frolic may end. I only hope Brandis’ Program for Excellence in the Arts is quietly abandoned and due process is restored.

Science – Christopher Pyne

John Rice, Executive Director, Australian Council of Deans of Science; Honorary Professor, University of Sydney

The issue for Pyne, as it was for his predecessor, is what empowerment the government will give him to back world-leading research, and to enable its translation into the innovative economy that Australia needs.


Christopher Pyne will move from education to science, industry and innovation. AAP/Sam Mooy


We don’t need to rehearse the arguments for this. It’s been done in spades by the Chief Scientist, Ian Chubb. He has also put in the hard yards to map out an agenda and processes that government, universities and business can get behind; a coherent, whole-of-government approach to managing Australia’s STEM effort across all of its facets, so that it can be a player in an innovation-based global economy.

The Abbott government showed no clear understanding of the importance and role of science. Research was a luxury that could be cut back in hard times, or gambled as a bargaining chip against a recalcitrant Senate. Translation of research could be left to the market, the same one that contributes to Australia having almost the worst level of business-university interaction among its global peers.

Under the Abbbott government the hamstrung ministries have made some positive responses, sadly overwhelmed by the 2014 budget’s debilitating cuts. Will a Turnbull government empower them, and Pyne, to reimagine and expand on the Chief Scientist’s efforts? That remains the question, no matter who the minister might be.

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