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Public servants hastily polish up the blue books as new Morrison ministry takes shape

Prime Minister Scott Morrison (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

Federal public servants were told the caretaker period ended on Monday and now many are wondering who their new Coalition minister will be, while some put the finishing touches on their department’s blue books so they are prepared to brief whomever it is.

A spokesperson from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet confirmed its secretary Martin Parkinson called an end to caretaker on the basis that the current PM would continue.

Some senior officials are now “scrambling” to fill out incoming minister briefs after focusing more on preparing their red books during the campaign in the expectation of a Labor victory, according to industrial relations reporter Dana McCauley.

McCauley reported it was staff in the Department of Jobs and Small Business who were “working around the clock” to finish off their blue book, and that three members of the outer ministry — Alan Tudge, Michael Sukkar and David Coleman — are all in the running to take over the portfolio from Kelly O’Dwyer.

For the moment, four front-benchers who decided to retire from federal politics before the election are still ministers until their replacements are sworn in. And now the caretaker period is over, they could legally exercise all the powers of those offices, in theory, but it’s more likely they’re getting a head start on enjoying life after politics.

It is now clear the Coalition will form a majority government and is on track to win as many as 78 lower-house seats, on the back of strong preference flows from right-wing parties like One Nation and the United Australia Party. The AEC’s work goes on to make sure every vote is counted and Prime Minister Scott Morrison is likely to announce his new cabinet in coming days, while parliament won’t sit again until late June at the earliest.

There’s obviously a lot of moving parts as filling one gap opens another, and the Nationals will want four or five seats in cabinet, to be allocated through their own internal negotiations. Their re-elected former leader, Barnaby Joyce, is jostling for a portfolio, although speculation about his return to the party leadership and the Deputy Prime Ministership has died down for now.

No clear single contender has emerged to take over Human Services and Digital Transformation from Michael Keenan.

Morrison is widely expected to make use of senior Liberal colleague Arthur Sinodinos in some way. The Guardian’s political reporter Sarah Martin hears Liberals Ben Morton, Steve Irons, Tim Wilson and Jane Hume, as well as Nationals Darren Chester and Keith Pitt, are all in with a chance of a role. Tasmanians such as Senators Eric Abetz and Richard Colbeck are also being discussed as contenders for the front bench.

But there is a long list of re-elected Coalition MPs and senators who could end up in cabinet or in the outer ministry, as parliamentary secretaries or maybe special envoys if Morrison decides to continue with that unusual designation.

Joyce presumably remains the special envoy to drought-affected communities for the time being, while the end of Tony Abbott‘s long reign as the Member for Warringah means there is currently no special envoy to Indigenous communities.

Who’s in and who’s out?

Western Australian Senator Linda Reynolds is in line to replace Christopher Pyne as Minister for Defence and is a familiar face in the portfolio after serving as the Minister for Defence Industry since March. Aside from various Liberal party and parliamentary roles, Reynolds served in the Army reserve between 1984 and 2012, reaching the rank of brigadier, and has also worked in the defence industry for Raytheon.

Who will replace Reynolds in her current junior portfolio is not clear, but Channel Nine suggests Assistant Minister for Defence, David Fawcett, is in line for a promotion.

Another West Australian, Minister for Indigenous Health Ken Wyatt, has indicated he would be very happy to take over the main Indigenous Affairs portfolio if asked and is a leading candidate. Outbound minister Nigel Scullion has made it clear his priorities now lie in the great outdoors rather than Canberra. “Mate, the rods are packed, the lures are polished, the fish are fried,” the senator told an ABC reporter this week.

If Wyatt takes over the spot held by Scullion, a Northern Territory Country Liberal who counts as one of the Nationals in Canberra, the junior partner in the Coalition may want another portfolio to compensate.

And Wyatt’s other existing portfolios — Senior Australians and Aged Care — are currently in the spotlight given the need to respond to the current Royal Commission.

O’Dwyer’s departure from parliament will also leave open the role of Minister for Women, but a clutch of new female Coalition MPs will give Scott Morrison plenty of options to avoid appointing a man to the role and going through that whole conversation again.

Sarah Henderson is the Assistant Minister for Social Services, Housing and Disability Services but has lost the electorate of Corangamite to Labor’s Libby Coker, so there might also be a vacancy in the junior ministry assuming the Prime Minister wants to continue with that role.

Morrison has previously indicated several key cabinet ministers will continue in their roles: Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, Minister for Finance and the Public Service Mathias Cormann, Health Minister Greg Hunt, Education Minister Dan Tehan, and Minister for the Environment and Energy Melissa Price.

How Parkinson called the end of caretaker

The PM is in no rush to get back to work, given parliament can’t sit again until all the election results are mathematically certain and the result has been formally confirmed in late June.

“We’ve got to respect that process,” he told Sky News’ Paul Murray on Monday night.

“So we’re back at work, but we’re not in a hurry on a lot of these decisions. We’ll make them in the patient, steady way that I think people have sort of come to expect from me.”

The PM seemed to say he would not make a “rushed judgement” with the ministerial appointments, while getting a bit tongue-tied and appearing to refer to the need to appoint just one minister.

Technically, he could leave Pyne, Keenan and O’Dwyer in place until some time in July, as they can keep their ministerial positions for up to three months after they gave up their seats in parliament when the House of Representatives was dissolved on April 11.

And in theory, Morrison could delay Scullion’s outdoor adventures even longer as he remains a senator until the end of June. There is no reason to think the PM would do anything so unusual.

Caretaker conventions — primarily a freeze on major appointments and binding agreements — stopped applying when it became clear the government led by Morrison would continue, but there’s no single specific trigger for the end of the period.

In practice this decision is made by public servants based on a range of factors, including advice from the Australian Electoral Commission about the progress of vote counting, as well as the fact that the Labor Party conceded it could not form government.

The Department of the Environment and Energy website said the conventions would apply “until the new government is sworn in” but that is only if there is a change of government, according to PM&C’s guidelines, which also explains why Parkinson made the call on Monday.

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is the associate editor at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.