On the day federal Labor announced its first cabinet in eleven years, they still found themselves sharing the headlines with the dethroned government. The reason was the surprise victory of Brendan Nelson who upset the favourite Malcolm Turnbull for the leadership of the Liberal Party. Nelson won a tight ballot by 45 votes to 42. In a continuation of the “me too” philosophies that dominated the election, Nelson said he wouldn’t get in the way of the government’s plans to ratify Kyoto and withdraw troops from Iraq. The Liberals have also mirrored the Labor leadership gender make-up by installing Julie Bishop as deputy leader.
The newly installed government wasted no time in taking aim at Nelson. This afternoon Labor media managers launched a website called “Nelson Facts” which takes aim at his record in government. The website highlights Nelson’s links with Howard’s Workchoices laws, and policies on nuclear power, Iraq and climate change.
However with the government planning an “education revolution” it is Nelson’s record as Education minister that may come under the most scrutiny. The “Nelson Facts” site gleefully quotes Nelson’s comment that university education “is a privilege” as well as blaming him for the country’s skill shortage. The Indigenous community was also critical of Nelson’s record. In 2006, the National Indigenous Times reported Nelson underspent $181 million earmarked for Aboriginal education.
That same year Nelson moved to the Defence portfolio where he presided over the Jake Kovco fiasco. Kovco died of gunshot wounds in mysterious circumstances while on duty in Iraq. Nelson didn’t help matters by issuing a series of contradictory statements about Kovco’s death. A military board of inquiry handed down a verdict of accidental shooting but this was rejected by Kovco’s family. Departmental incompetence continued when Kovco’s body was mislaid in transit to Australia and again when the ABC revealed the military lost the report into the saga.
Nelson survived this episode as well as he did his Iraq “gaffe” (otherwise known as inadvertently telling the truth) in May this year. His public statement that securing the world’s oil supply was a major factor in Iraqi troop deployment caused a flurry of speedy retractions from John Howard, Peter Costello and eventually Brendan Nelson himself. But Nelson was never punished and slowly built his support base by courting and helping backbenchers.
In the Liberal leadership contest, his brash rival Malcolm Turnbull said Nelson lacked the killer instinct. One of Turnbull’s supporters said “opposition is all about drive and determination and the ability to cut through - It's not about who's nicer or how much the colleagues all love him." But Turnbull over-estimated his numbers and in the end the party went for the less extroverted but slightly more politically experienced Nelson. But with a close vote, Tony Abbott waiting in the wings, and Labor hegemony in the parliament it has all the hallmarks of a temporary appointment.
While the Liberals continued their public traumas, Kevin Rudd smoothly clicked into power and named his first cabinet. With several key posts already locked in and the inevitable leaks in advance there were few surprises. The biggest of these was the promotion of Stephen Smith to Foreign Affairs. Robert McClelland was always likely to be demoted (he will be Attorney-General) after his “Bali bomber blunder”. Peter Garrett retains Environment but his inexperience during the campaign also saw some of his responsibilities stripped away with Malaysian-born Senator Penny Wong given a new ministry of Climate Change and Water. She will have the key Australian lead negotiator role in the upcoming Bali climate change talks.
Wong was one of several women to do well in the ministry. Deputy PM Julia Gillard adds education to her IR portfolio, while Nicola Roxon takes on Health. John Howard’s conqueror Maxine McKew will become a parliamentary secretary for childcare. The new cabinet was noticeably also for fact that it was personally selected by Kevin Rudd. This represents a break of 106 years of Labor tradition where positions have been nominated by the party factions. Rudd hailed his ministry “as a team with fresh ideas for our country’s future”. They will now be on notice to perform.