Malcolm Turnbull becomes 29th Prime Minister, frontbench sweep imminent

By Harley Dennett

September 15, 2015

Tony Abbott has lost the leadership of the Liberal Party and prime ministership after less than two years in office.

His rival, Malcolm Turnbull’s successful bid for the top political job, 54-44 over Abbott, has opened the door to expected sweeping changes to the frontbench, if not a sweep of old policies.

Communication strategy and three-word slogans were felling the government, the former communications minister declared on announcing his bid only a few hours earlier: “We need to respect the intelligence of the Australian people.”

At a press conference with re-endorsed Liberal deputy leader Julie Bishop, Turnbull reiterated his push for focus on selling the economic policies of the government, including the China Free Trade Agreement. His government will continue to pursue a market-based approach to becoming a nation that is agile, innovative and creative:

“It will be a thoroughly Liberal Government committed to freedom, the individual and the market. It will be focussed on ensuring that in the years ahead, as the world becomes more and more competitive, and greater opportunities arise, we are able to take advantage of that. The Australia of the future has to be a nation that is agile, that is innovative, that is creative.

“We cannot be defensive, we cannot future proof ourselves. We have to recognise that the disruption that we see driven by technology, the volatility and change is our friend, is our friend if we are agile and smart enough to take advantage of it. There has never been a more exciting time to be alive than today and there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian. We will ensure that all Australians understand that their Government recognises the opportunities of the future and is putting in place the policies and the plans to enable them to take advantage of it.”

No early election

Turnbull confirmed his assumption was that the parliament will serve its full term.

“Of course policies change, they change all the time, but they will be when people should have the confidence that we will be making decisions in a thoughtful and considered manner.”

Changing prime minister, it turns out, was only a two-flag event. Nobody had time to change the blue room after a series of government frontbenchers had used the hours earlier to bulwark the former prime minister and argue against Turnbull.

Treasurer Joe Hockey, Defence Minister Kevin Andrews, Finance Minister Mathias Cormann and Employment Minister Eric Abetz, after siding against Turnbull, would be expected to vacate their cabinet jobs by the end of this week, one way or another.

Peter Dutton, whose performance as Immigration minister has concerned many in his party, may also take a demotion.

Turnbull would not speculate on his ministerial team discussions due to take place this morning, nor who will be his treasurer:

“I expect ministers will continue in their current position, unless of course they choose not to for the balance of the week and we’ll make ministerial changes after the parliamentary sitting week is over.

“As far as policy changes are concerned let me just say this. It’s not a question of leadership style. Nothing, well there are few things more important in any organisation than its culture. The culture of our leadership is going to be one that’s thoroughly consultative. A traditional, thoroughly traditional cabinet government that ensures that we make decisions in a collaborative manner.

“The Prime Minister of Australia is not a president; the Prime Minister is the first among equals. And you can see that the partnership between me and Julie, the partnership with our colleagues will be a very clear cultural demonstration that we are operating in a traditional cabinet manner … Of course policies change, they change all the time, but they will be when people should have the confidence that we will be making decisions in a thoughtful and considered manner, recognising the significance of the work we have to do as the Government of Australia.”

With a likely change in ministers for every one of the central public service agencies — Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Treasury, Department of Finance, the Australian Public Service Commission and the Digital Transformation Office — there will be a period of unavoidable uncertainty in the APS. This is despite, as Finance secretary Jane Halton has told ministers before, “it’s my job to run the department, not yours”.

A digital transformation prime minister?

Turnbull’s tenure at the helm of the Communications portfolio has been marked with a strident push for digital transformation. But his elevation leaves the Department of Communications, DTO, Australian Communications and Media Authority without a driving minister. Government-owned corporations NBN and Australia Post are without their key shareholder minister, and possibly later today without both shareholder ministers.

Digital innovation in federal government nearly ground to a halt after the departure of Lindsay Tanner in the Finance portfolio championing the Gov 2.0 task force. That is until Turnbull was given Abbott’s blessing — and $250 million — to restore the movement to prominence under the central advisory capacity of the Digital Transformation Office now headed by Paul Shetler.

Turnbull also instigated a substantive review of ACMA’s functions. Its future will largely depend on the minister when that review is completed.

Senator Arthur Sinodinos may be brought back into the ministry in a key central portfolio with responsibility for the DTO. Sinodinos, who left the outer minister last year due to an investigation by New South Wales’ Independent Commission Against Corruption, has shown an interest in digital innovation in government and is seen as highly capable. Or the DTO may move to PM&C.

Several female MPs and senators in the Liberal party are also expected to get promotions, which may include a promotion to Communications.

Read more at The Mandarin: What we know about Malcolm

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