Why did McGowan shuffle so many ministers?

Article by Mark Beyer for Business News

ANALYSIS: Aboriginal leader Kado Muir has publicly asked a question many people are asking privately: why did premier Mark McGowan make so many changes in Friday’s ministerial reshuffle?

The big change was anticipated – the health portfolio was moved from Roger Cook to Labor’s rising star Amber-Jade Sanderson.

But in addition, more than a dozen portfolios have been shifted to different ministers.

This was not anticipated, nor has it been clearly explained.

In most cases, the incumbents held their portfolios for just nine months, after Labor was re-elected in March with a record majority.

It means that, having got on top of their portfolios, the ministers and their personal staff need to learn about an array of new issues.

One example was the Aboriginal Affairs portfolio, which has been shifted from Stephen Dawson to a rookie minister, Tony Buti.

The unexpected re-shuffle prompted Mr Muir to say traditional owners have been left in the dark.

Many industry groups, who unexpectedly have a new minister, are in the same boat.

Mr Muir, who chairs the National Native Title Council, has posed the question: ‘why so suddenly?’

“The fleeting impermanence of ministerial appointments show the stark contrast of experiences and laws,” he said.

“We the Aboriginal people are left with an intergenerational burden of bad laws, while the minister representing the settler state rides off into the unknown and into obscurity.”

When asked about the numerous changes on Friday, the premier wanted to have a bet each way.

He said one of the hallmarks of his government was that it has been “incredibly stable” then claimed ministerial reshuffles of this kind are not unusual.

He cited multiple changes in the federal government ministry to support his assertion – but that is hardly a positive, when many changes in Canberra have been caused by scandal and forced resignations.

“We are trying to align people with portfolios that best meet their skills and abilities and to ensure we can deal with the challenges we face in the future,” the premier added, without offering any specifics.

That leaves commentators to speculate on what is really going on behind the scenes.

There are two negatives that logically counted against Mr Dawson.

One was his failure, in his capacity as industrial relations minister, to complete the all-important regulations for the new Work Health and Safety Act on time.

Mr Dawson quietly announced last week that the transition to the new laws, originally scheduled for January 2022, would be delayed by two months.

While the business lobby is comfortable with the delay, it is likely to have upset the unions that had been pushing hard behind the scenes for tougher WHS laws.

The industrial relations portfolio has been handed back to senior minister Bill Johnston, who commenced the reform process before the March election.

Mr Dawson faced a similar challenge in the aboriginal affairs portfolio, where the biggest task is to complete the regulations for the controversial Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act – and doing so in a manner that wins support from traditional owners.

That task has been given to new aboriginal affairs minister Tony Buti, who brings a strong legal background and strong knowledge of aboriginal affairs from his days in academia.

Mr Buti has also been given responsibility for racing and gaming, where his tasks include bedding down a credible regulatory framework for Crown Resorts, after three royal commissions across the country revealed the abject failure of casino regulation across Australia.

One of the clear winners was housing minister John Carey – he keeps housing and adds lands (from Mr Buti) and the new portfolio of homelessness (carved out from Simone McGurk’s responsibilities).

That seems a logical consolidation of ministerial responsibilities.

Another minister with big changes is David Templeman – he keeps his beloved portfolio of culture and arts, loses tourism to Mr Cook, but adds sport and recreation (from Mr Buti).

Mr Templeman has never been known for his sporting expertise but the change, at least, reduces the number of ministers being serviced by the Department of Local Government Sport and Cultural Industries.

Mr Templeman also takes on international education – another new portfolio created by the premier, to help lift the focus on a sector decimated by COVID travel restrictions.

Another minister with new responsibilities is Don Punch, who had been an enthusiastic advocate for the innovation and ICT portfolio but has now got small business.

Reece Whitby, who is close to the premier, has taken environment and climate action from Ms Sanderson.

The premier insisted Mr Whitby was up for the task, describing him as very talented and capable.

The premier used the same words when asked about the capacity of Ms Sanderson, who has only been a minister for nine months, to take over the health portfolio.

“She is a very capable and talented person,” he said.

“She picks up information very, very quickly and has a very strong intellect,” he added.

Prior to being elected to state parliament eight years ago, Ms Sanderson was assistant secretary of the powerful United Voice union (now the United Workers Union).

It will be intriguing to see whether she follows the lead of her factional ally Dave Kelly – who previously ran the same union – by reversing the privatisation of government services.

As water minister, Mr Kelly has scrapped several contracts the Water Corporation held with private contractors.

Serco Australia has already lost some of the contracts it held at Fiona Stanley Hospital and Ms Sanderson may look to expand that policy trend.

More generally, the health portfolio – filled as it is with intractable problems – represents a daunting challenge for Ms Sanderson.

Very few ministers emerge from the health portfolio with their reputation intact.

Just look at Mr Cook, who is understood to be relieved that he can focus on his industry portfolios while someone new takes over health, which he has run for five years since Labor was elected.

Mr McGowan says Ms Sanderson knows what she is taking on.

“I think she understands the magnitude of the task,” he said on Friday.

In three years’ time, as the next state election approaches, it will be fascinating to see if Ms Sanderson is still spoken of as a future leader.

As for the premier, he is planning to retain his current portfolios, which many observers feared would be overwhelming.

“I quite like being the treasurer and I find it coordinates well with being the premier,” he said on Friday

“I’m energised and happy to keep going.”

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