“Cabinet chaos” ran one of the racier headlines accompanying the story that Ministers Mal Brough and Jamie Briggs had resigned from the government frontbench. “The Turnbull government has been rocked after two senior ministers stood down within 30 minutes of each other,” the story opened.
Well, not quite. Neither the former Minister of State Brough nor the former Minister for Cities and the Built Environment were in Cabinet. Both sat in the outer Ministry. Nor is Briggs a “senior minister”. He was very much a junior Minister – whether he thought so or not – whose ambition and opinion of himself ran way ahead of his limited talents and immaturity.
Far from rocking the Turnbull government, the government will be the stronger for the absence of Brough and Briggs.
Labor has landed few punches in the wake of Tuesday’s resignations (strictly speaking Brough has stood aside pending Australian Federal Police investigations into his role in the seedy Peter Slipper diary scandal), but acting Opposition leader Tanya Plibersek was right to question what Brough was doing in Turnbull’s Ministry in the first place.
Plibersek called into question Turnbull’s judgment in appointing the former Howard Minister – given that Brough was under a cloud over his alleged role in prevailing upon former Slipper staffer James Ashby to procure copies of the then Speaker’s diary – but realpolitik had more to do with the appointment than judgment.
Brough supported Turnbull in his successful leadership challenge against former Prime Minister Tony Abbott and delivered a handful of key party-room votes. That came with a price tag. Turnbull would have been aware that Brough was a political time bomb waiting to go off. And so it proved when Brough, rattled by persistent Opposition questioning, denied in Parliament on December 1 that he had asked Ashby to obtain copies of the Slipper’s diary, despite telling Channel Nine’s 60 Minutes in September last year that “Yes, I did”.
The Opposition has questioned why the resignations were presented as a job lot, and why it was necessary to wait until the pointy end of the holiday season.
“This grotesque form of media management that would think it appropriate to drop this out in the week between Christmas and New Year in order to avoid questions is absolutely appalling,” Labor frontbencher Gary Gray told Fairfax Media.
The next opinion poll will reveal if voters share Labor’s concerns, but the likelihood is that, like the PM, voters will be glad to see the back of Brough and Briggs. Voters might also conclude, not unreasonably, that if the issue was not serious enough for Bill Shorten to break from his holidays then it can hardly be that important.
Abbott in short pants
Brough very likely avoided losing his job because the PM’s office was already aware of the November incident in which Briggs acted inappropriately towards a female public servant (a consular official) at a bar in Hong Kong during a Ministerial overseas trip. (She made a formal complaint and two independent investigations followed, which sealed Briggs’ fate as far as Turnbull was concerned.)
If there is serious question about Turnbull’s judgment it relates to Briggs’ appointment to the Ministry. It was apparently a reluctant appointment. Quite apart from Briggs’ modest attainments as a political apparatchik before winning the 2008 by-election to replace Alexander Downer for the South Australian rural seat of Mayo, two men could not be less alike.
The nuggety, somewhat menacing and abrasive Briggs was underwhelming as Tony Abbott’s Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Regional Development. His aggression at the dispatch box mirrored that of his mentor Abbott. Briggs was an Abbott acolyte; Abbott in short pants one might say.
In his letter of resignation, Briggs admitted that there were “aspects of my behaviour which I will address” and that “this behaviour has not met the particularly high standards required of Ministers”. Curiously, he described his behaviour – the precise details of which have not been revealed – as “an error of professional judgment”.
It’s unclear what this phrasing is meant to convey, but if it’s intended to suggest a technical rather than substantive breach of decorum, his boss is not having a bar of it:
“This is a serious matter,” Malcolm Turnbull said. “It was considered very carefully with due process [and] consultation with senior [Cabinet] colleagues; it was considered very, very carefully.”
Briggs had already shown himself illsuited for high office.
When Briggs appeared in a wheelchair in Parliament House the day after the defenestration of Tony Abbott he denied that the injury to his knee had anything to do with a wild party in Abbott’s office. This was the party at which a marble table was infamously reduced to rubble.
The denial was made in some detail, with both Briggs and his spokesman explaining that the injury was sustained while jogging.
Briggs told the ABC: “I was running and I changed direction quickly and in doing that I heard a very loud pop and [was in] quite a deal of pain.”
Two months later he admitted that he sustained the injury when he attempted to tackle Abbott at the farewell party.
“I went to tackle him, I ran at him and missed, and the rest is history,” Briggs finally confessed.
And now Briggs is history.
The disgraced Minister holds hopes of returning to the frontbench. That’s a hope that won’t be realised while Turnbull has any say in the matter, but perhaps Briggs is among the rump of Liberal conservatives still pining for the return of Abbott to the prime ministership. (Briggs voted for Abbott in the September leadership contest.)
The first of many important decisions in 2016
Turnbull still has enough political capital to shrug off the two ministerial resignations, but that’s not to say that he is entirely off the hook.
His choice of Briggs’ replacement will be the first of many important decisions awaiting the Prime Minister in the new year. Turnbull’s choice must reflect his promise of an executive based on merit, renewal and, to quote the PM, “whose composition and focus reflect our determination to ensure Australia seizes the opportunities at this the most exciting times in human history”.
Briggs has no place in such a government. Were his behaviour to have occurred in a corporate workplace, his resignation would be sought not just from whatever position he held, but from the organisation itself. It is a pity the national Parliament does not operate to similar standards – although it is quite possible we have not heard the last of this unseemly incident.
In the meantime, Turnbull is presented with an opportunity to strengthen the team he will take to the electorate some time in 2016. It is already a team far stronger and more capable than Abbott’s ramshackle ministry.
The stronger the composition of government, the easier the politics of government are to manage – as the Whitlam government found to its cost, and the Hawke-Keating government to its productive longevity.
And Turnbull has a lot of politics to manage in 2016.
The recent surprise announcement of cuts to Medicare payments for pathology, imaging services and MRI services by Treasurer Scott Morrison has shown that the Turnbull government still has some way to go in meeting its promise of explaining honestly and intelligently to the electorate about big-ticket policy changes.
The government has a lot of explaining to do in 2016: tax reform and the likely increase in the GST, penalty rates (it is not good enough to argue that the decision rests with the Fair Work Commission) and the future of Gonski education funding.
Turnbull also has some prickly times ahead steadying Coalition relations following the aborted defection to the Nationals of dumped Minister Ian Macfarlane and revelations of the behind the scenes manoeuvring by Deputy PM and Nationals leader Warren Truss and his deputy Barnaby Joyce.
With Truss’s retirement expected in the weeks ahead – which will also have some bearing on Turnbull’s reshuffle – and the likely elevation of Joyce to the Nationals leadership, and therefore the Deputy PM’s position, the chalk-and-cheese duo of Turnbull and Joyce will be something to behold.
The year ahead also promises growing pressure on Turnbull to provide greater clarity and progress on touchstone policy issues such as same-sex marriage, indigenous recognition in the constitution, climate change and the republic.
There is also the prospect of the continuing disruptive presence in Parliament and the public domain of a vengeful Tony Abbott – not the kind of “disruption” that Turnbull purports to find so invigorating.
Brough and Briggs? To put it mildly: good riddance. They’re the least of Malcolm Turnbull’s worries in election year 2016.