Departments await sixth ministers in eight years in reshuffle revolving door

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has confirmed the reshuffle is due in coming days. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has confirmed the reshuffle is due in coming days. Picture: Sitthixay Ditthavong

The Prime Minister's cabinet reshuffle is set to reverberate across government as portfolios await another change in minister, with some expecting their sixth ministerial change in eight years.

Attorney-General Christian Porter is due back at work next week, but will return to find a new portfolio, as Scott Morrison confirmed both Mr Porter and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds would stay in cabinet in the coming reshuffle.

Changes were expected to be minimal within the party room. Mr Porter was expected to make a direct swap with Employment Minister Michaelia Cash, who is acting as Attorney-General and Industrial Relations Minister.

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton and Government Services Minister Stuart Robert were also expected to be rewarded in the changes.

Mr Morrison has resisted calls to stand down Mr Porter or conduct an inquiry into a historical rape allegation vigorously denied by the Attorney-General. However, earlier this week Mr Morrison's language turned, saying he had sought the advice of the Solicitor-General on Mr Porter's position, not because of the allegation, but because the first law officer of the land had launched defamation proceedings against the ABC for airing the rape claim.

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton had been linked to the position of Defence Minister but on Friday morning told Channel Nine he was happy in his current role.

"I think the PM has been clear in relation to Linda and Christian's positions, that is he wants them in the cabinet. If there is an announcement, he will make it next week," he said.

"I don't think the PM is afraid to sack anyone if they've done the wrong thing," Mr Dutton added, denying the prime minister was reluctant to move the pair to the backbench.

As with Mr Porter, the prime minister has moved to frame Senator Reynolds' redeployment as unrelated to accusations she mismanaged the rape allegation by former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins.

"Linda, in particular, had a very serious coronary condition and she's been seeking help for that for the past month," Mr Morrison said on A Current Affair on Thursday night.

"We're still talking to her doctors and her, with her permission. And we're working through that with Linda now in terms of what duties she can perform."

While the faces at the cabinet table may stay the same, two agencies - Defence and Services Australia - were set to get their sixth ministers in eight years, while the Attorney-General's Department was expecting a new minister while still waiting on a permanent secretary to be appointed.

At a time when the country was facing a more complex strategic outlook and attempting to navigate a $90 billion submarine procurement and build, there was a risk the direction would be set by the department, not the minister, Australian Strategic Policy Institute executive director Peter Jennings said.

"The throughput of ministers is not ideal because it's such a complex portfolio. I think on average it takes about six months for a minister to really get across the issues they have to deal with," he said.

"It's also an incredibly busy portfolio, there's not a lot of time to sit back and do deep strategic thinking, you're flung in the deep end and sink or swim. One of the consequences of that really rapid change of ministers is the direction of policy has not been as strong as it should."

Mr Jennings said that wasn't a reflection on the recent ministers in the role. He said it was a complicated portfolio that needed an activist minister with strong leadership.

"If the department shapes its own agenda, there's real risks in that if you get a Defence Department that is deep in its comfort zone and is really interested in managing affairs to suit Defence's convenience rather than being an instrument of national security which government should be driving," he said.

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Government Services Minister and close ally of the Prime Minister Stuart Robert has been touted as Mr Dutton's replacement in Home Affairs. Like Defence, if Mr Robert vacated the portfolio, it would be the sixth minister in eight years to take carriage of delivering social security.

Community and Public Sector Union national president Alistair Waters said redirecting resources to brief yet another minister was the last thing staff at Services Australia need.

"Since 2019, Services Australia workers have helped hundreds of thousands of Australians who have fallen on tough times during the pandemic, in the bushfires and now floods. They continue to work long and hard to support many more as we continue to recover," he said.

"If rumours are right, the prime minister will appoint the sixth minister for Human Services since this government came to office. Unfortunately, Coalition ministerial changes haven't led to a change in bad government policy before, but one can live in hope."

Mr Waters said union members wanted a new minister to "assess the damage" of caps on public service numbers.

Mr Porter has held the role of Attorney-General for more than three years, and has been a mainstay in the job under both Malcolm Turnbull and in Mr Morrison's government.

He reluctantly announced in 2018 the government would introduce a federal integrity commission, but the introduction of legislation has been delayed and is currently in consultation.

Executive-director for the Centre for Public Integrity Han Aulby said the integrity commission should be a priority for the incoming minister.

"There's no need to delay further," Ms Aulby said.

"Further delays just means more allegations aren't investigated and causes more damage to public trust in government."

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This story Departments await sixth ministers in eight years in reshuffle revolving door first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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