Less than a week after toppling Tony Abbott, Australia’s new Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has signalled a radical change of direction, appointing five women to his cabinet – five times the number Mr Abbott had in his initial line-up – and hinting at plans to scrap knighthoods and damehoods from the honours system.
In a clear break with the past, Mr Turnbull dumped older ministers and Abbott loyalists from senior government ranks, promoting women, moderates and talented young MPs – as well as rewarding key backers who helped him engineer his successful coup against Mr Abbott.
Apparently keen to stamp his own mark on the two-year-old government, the former lawyer and merchant banker also foreshadowed significant policy changes. Where his predecessor lauded coal as “good for humanity” and “an essential part of our economic future”, Mr Turnbull emphasised the importance of science, technology and innovation.
And where Mr Abbott insisted that federal funds be spent only on roads, leaving the states to grapple with public transport, the new Prime Minister – an enthusiastic user of buses, trains and ferries – said “we shouldn’t be discriminating between one form of transit and another... There is no place for ideology here at all”.
One of the staunch republican’s first acts may be to reverse Mr Abbott’s much mocked decision to resurrect Australian knights and dames – a move that, surreally, resulted in the fervent monarchist awarding a knighthood to Prince Philip, and which played a key role in his party’s decision to sack him.
Mr Turnbull described his new-look cabinet, which includes Australia’s first female Defence Minister, Marise Payne, and a new Treasurer, Scott Morrison, as a “21st-century government and a ministry for the future”. Among those elevated to the junior ministries are one of the country’s youngest ever federal frontbenchers, 25-year-old Wyatt Roy, and its first indigenous federal minister, Ken Wyatt.
In with the new means out with the old, and not all of the old went quietly. Kevin Andrews, sacked as Defence Minister, pre-empted Mr Turnbull’s announcement by calling his own media conference at which he warned that the move would harm the government’s relations with the military. Meanwhile, a right-wing backbencher, Cory Bernardi, warned that if the new leader lurched too far to the left, he could split the governing Liberal-National Party coalition.
Women still constitute only one-quarter of the Cabinet – but that is a big increase on 2013, when the newly elected Mr Abbott appointed just one woman. By the time he was dispatched to the backbenches last week, that figure had inched up to two.
Another big change: the Minister for Women is now a woman, Michaelia Cash. Denounced for sexism and misogyny by former Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Mr Abbott gave himself that role, and did nothing for women.
His knighthood for Prince Philip last January, following a disastrous first Budget and a succession of poor opinion polls, was the last straw for some of his colleagues. Less than a fortnight later, Mr Abbott faced a mutiny by backbenchers who tried, unsuccessfully, to trigger a leadership challenge.
After that crisis, he asked his Liberal Party for six months to put things right. He was given seven, but proved incapable of change. Now all eyes are on his successor.
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