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The Second Gillard Government: Politics Is Personal

The 42 members of the Second Gillard Government will rarely meet together in one place as they did yesterday at Government House for their swearing in by the Governor-General.

Most of the time, the Cabinet of 20 will meet weekly. Occasionally, the 10 members of the outer ministry will join the Cabinet. Only rarely will the 12 Parliamentary Secretaries sit in the same room with the inner circle.

To watch them yesterday was to be reminded that politics is a business of hierarchies, competing ambitions, animosities and long memories. Disappointment is never far away. Friendship is fraught. As they say in the cities of government the world over, if you want a friend here, get a dog.


Behind the palpable relief that these Labor members were even present at Yarralumla to be commissioned as members of the government lay a picture of the possibilities and problems before them.

There were many bibles on display at the swearing-in. Most ministers brought their own. David Feeney had a big blue-covered edition. Don Farrell explained the family history of his bible to the Governor-General. There seemed fewer affirmations amongst this group of increasingly conservative Labor politicians.

But religious beliefs were pushed aside by decidedly secular and political considerations.

The television camera that captured the occasion would zoom in on Quentin Bryce and the person taking the oath or swearing an affirmation. Then it would zoom out and we could see the triangle of power past and present.

In the left corner of the screen sat Kevin Rudd, vanquished Prime Minister. He was at the end of the front row, next to Simon Crean and Stephen Conroy. Nary a word was exchanged between them and Rudd for the hour it took to finish the ceremony. The right-wing faction members from Melbourne ignored the factionless Queenslander who spent much of the time staring straight ahead.

Rudd was in a direct line with Julia Gillard, his former deputy and usurper, who stood behind a lectern. Rudd’s eyes, however, looked elsewhere, perhaps inward as he contemplated once more how it had come to this.

The triangle was completed by Bryce, the woman appointed by Rudd to be the first female Governor-General of Australia. Like Rudd, she also hails from Queensland. The centre of power has since shifted south.

Bryce is an unusually robotic vice-regal figure. As Gillard announced each minister, they were greeted by Bryce with identical words of welcome, the paperwork attended to with brisk efficiency, followed by smiles for a still photographer. Over and over, Bryce told each of them: “I wish you all the best in the important tasks ahead of you.” He may have been a touch twee but Michael Jeffery always had an individual word for newly-sworn ministers.

Gillard had been sworn separately at an earlier ceremony. The first to do so at this more public occasion was the Deputy Prime Minister, Wayne Swan, the man who is in danger of developing a smirk not unlike his Treasury predecessor, Peter Costello. Swan has looked awfully pleased since June 25 and never more so than yesterday. He has not yet surpassed his Nambour High School colleague but they’re level pegging at the moment.

The Senate leaders, Evans and Conroy, followed, and then Simon Crean loped up to the Governor-General. He first attended one of these ceremonies in 1990, as a new minister in the Hawke Government. Twenty years on, Crean is a trusted confidant, the new Minister for keeping the independents happy. He joked with Bryce, a picture of ease and confidence. The former leader, the first Labor leader to be denied the chance to face the voters, has outlasted most of his contemporaries and now sits at the apex of this government.

  • ABC News, September 11, 2010:

Then it was Rudd’s turn. He read his oath in a loud, strong, almost defiant, voice. As he shook hands with Bryce and turned his toothy smile to the cameras, we could see the spin merchant at his most professional. It was in keeping with the Lake Burley Griffin scenes on Saturday as he made his first appearance as the anointed Foreign Minister in company with the American Ambassador, Jeffrey Bleich. Like that other Queenslander, Peter Beattie, Rudd is a shameless media tart.

But he could not disguise the real Rudd throughout the rest of the ceremony. As Crean and Conroy chattered non-stop to one another, Rudd stared determinedly ahead. Occasionally, a sickly smile would grace his lips as he chose to look at the parade of ministers stepping up to be inducted into government.

When Arbib, Shorten, Feeney and Farrell took their turns, Rudd froze, po-faced. He would not look at the people who engineered his fall. It was a bare 82 days ago but it may as well have been minutes.

But it wasn’t only Rudd whose face and demeanour betrayed deeper thoughts during this constitutional ritual.

Stephen Smith gracefully accepted his sideways move to the Defence ministry. He must be sick of everyone saying he took one for the team. He knows he’s owed now, big time.

And what was Anthony Albanese thinking as he swore his oath? The Infrastructure Minister and Leader of the House hails from the NSW Left. He backed Rudd but saw his putative factional comrade from Victoria supplant the man who returned Labor to government after nearly 12 years of Howard. Under her leadership, the Left’s influence in the ministry has declined. Albo seemed grim yesterday, perhaps in anticipation of the battles to come. His performance in what could be an anarchic House of Representatives will be crucial to the success of the government.

The inscrutable Greg Combet gave nothing away. As Minister for Climate Change, the former ACTU Secretary may make this government if he can negotiate a path through the carbon price maze. Will the real Julia let him?

Then there were the boys from the NSW Right. Chris Bowen, the new Immigration Minister, seemed happy with the challenge he’s been handed but you sensed he probably wanted to be Finance Minister. Or perhaps he’s just the nominated hard man, charged with maintaining the government’s rightward shift on asylum seekers.

The affable Tony Burke stepped up to accept his commission as Minister for Sustainable Population, Communities, Environment and Water. He has a big job ahead of him but he could hardly fail to be pleased with his second-term progress up the greasy pole.

Nor could Jason Clare, the new Minister for Defence Materiel. The Member for Blaxland has a more than passing resemblance to the seat’s most famous former member, Paul Keating. Clare may well have congratulated himself on beating Keating onto the front bench in only his second parliamentary term. “He’s on his way,” you could almost hear some of the others thinking.

When it came time for that other member of the NSW Right cabal to make his oath, Mark Arbib appeared small and nervous. He recited his grab-bag of jobs and mis-read the oath. Crean and Conroy chatted animatedly whilst Rudd stared ahead. The Victorians and the Queenslander weren’t going to acknowledge the oily presence of the NSW assassin.

Others seemed happy with their lot, none more so than Craig Emerson, the new Trade Minister. A bigger job and a move into the Cabinet. What’s not to be happy about?

Ditto Health Minister Nicola Roxon. She’s a key member of the Cabinet in a frontline portfolio. Jenny Macklin, the great survivor, deputy leader to Crean, Latham and Beazley, also seemed content with Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs. Robert McClelland seems comfortable as Attorney-General. Martin Ferguson returned to his old job in Resources and Tourism, and ended the day conceding that he would now have to become a fan of Oprah Winfrey as she descends down under.

  • Channel 10 News, September 14, 2010:

Then there was the circle of close friends and political supporters. Brendan O’Connor and Warren Snowdon are ensconced in Gillard’s inner circle.

But were there muted mutterings about Penny Wong and Kate Ellis?

Wong, the new Finance Minister, is a stark contrast to the departed Lindsay Tanner. Gillard’s faith in Wong’s ability to argue the government’s economic case is a bold leap of faith. Wong appeared humble yesterday but she now stands at the epicentre of the government and memories of the ETS shambles will never be far away.

Ellis has been extricated from the Sports portfolio and given Employment Participation, an economic role that should enable her to develop a harder edge to her political persona. Responsibility for child-care will give her carriage of an important area of service delivery. Getting the policies put into practice hasn’t exactly worked too well for this government so far.

If Wong and Ellis are still on the way up, backed by the Prime Minister, the face of Senator Nick Sherry told of disappointment. The former Assistant Treasurer now presides over Small Business. He didn’t look happy.

Sherry’s old job has gone to Bill Shorten, the thrusting member for Maribyrnong. Addressing him as “Mr. Shorten,” his mother-in-law administered the oath and there was a moment of close attention paid to this ambitious young man. As Bryce signed his commission, Shorten looked over to Gillard and smiled. Rudd stared straight ahead.

The gangling figure of Peter Garrett has lived to fight another day. Minister for Schools on Saturday but now sworn as Minister for School Education – a “Yes, Minister” case of taking care of the tricky bit in the title – Garrett is finally relieved of any environmental duties and can now show his stuff or confirm once and for all the disaster of endorsing celebrity candidates. Those assembled yesterday will watch him closely.

As the ceremony ended, the new government assembled on the front steps of Government House for the class photo. Even Rudd seemed more cheerful, joking with Chris Bowen and then taking his place at the end of the front row.

In Sydney, Tony Abbott had just announced his shadow ministry. These Labor men and women could smile and laugh because whatever tribulations they have been through, they ended up – just – making it back into government.

They also know, in the words of some wily old politician, that Tony Abbott is merely their opposition. Their temporary friends and their past and future enemies were all at Government House yesterday.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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