A year after a landslide election win seems too soon to have a ministerial reshuffle, but with his government languishing in the polls, a number of ministers performing poorly and an unrepresentative cabinet, Prime Minister Tony Abbott must surely consider this in coming months.
Stunts like flying across the world, supposedly to offer condolences to the government and people of the Netherlands on their losses suffered in the flight MH17 atrocity, will not be enough to win over the Australian electorate.
While they may deflect attention from the awful budget and get the Prime Minister out of the difficult task of negotiating deals with the Senate crossbenchers, they are unlikely to give Abbott enough world-leader status to increase his long-term vote.
For that, a real game-changer is required.
The first and most obvious option is to jettison key parts of the budget, a suggestion clearly flagged by former Coalition treasurer and experienced political operator Peter Costello. Such a move, particularly the dumping of Abbott’s paid parental leave scheme, would be welcomed by many of his parliamentary colleagues, including members of his own frontbench.
Unfortunately Treasurer Joe Hockey is sticking with the budget prescription and has even suggested a bigger dose of medicine should have been prescribed.
The second option is a major revamp of the ministry.
From the start, Abbott’s cabinet has been unrepresentative. It is not just that it has only one woman. One of its problems is that the men themselves are unrepresentative, a disproportionate number holding conservative views on social issues such as abortion and homosexuality.
As a practising Catholic, Abbott wrote in 2004 that the abortion rate in Australia was astain on our national character. ''I respectfully put it to church leaders that if ... senior Catholics were as morally indignant about the unambiguous moral tragedy of abortion as we are about the less clear-cut question of immigration detention, then there would be change.”
He said there would be far fewer abortions and we would have a happier and better society if we put as much interest in discouraging premature sexual activity as in discouraging drink-driving or cigarette smoking, if we re-established adoption as an alternative to abortion or sole parenthood, and if we cherished and celebrated motherhood as much as we cherished and celebrated success in the workplace.
Abbott’s views are shared by Minister for Social Services Kevin Andrews, who in 2006 outlined his opposition to abortion when speaking against making the morning-after pill, RU486, more easily available. Other current cabinet ministers who joined them to vote against the morning-after pill were Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss, Minister for Education Christopher Pyne and Minister for Health Peter Dutton.
The leader of the government in the upper house, Senator Eric Abetz, is another conservative Christian who a fortnight ago foolishly appeared to give his endorsement to the proposition that abortions led to breast cancer.
''I think the studies, and I think they date back from the 1950s, assert that there is a link between abortion and breast cancer,'' he said, prompting Australian Medical Association President Brian Owler to respond that ''If he's quoting papers from the 1950s, I suspect that's where he's living''.
The cabinet’s ignorant anti-science bias, also demonstrated by a number of members’ views on key issues such as climate change and stem cell research, and the cut to the CSIRO budget threatens Australia’s development. In addition, the heavy weighting of social conservatives in cabinet does not lend itself to a proper discussion of issues of concern in the community and may well explain why the budget failed to get the balance right.
Policy development is not helped when key members are kept out of the loop, as with the discussion on metadata, which excluded Minister for Communications Malcolm Turnbull.
But such policy failures would not be noticed if the government was performing well. It’s not.
Nearly one year after being elected and having made much ado about the supposed debt and deficit crisis, nothing has been done other than to make matters worse by abolishing the carbon tax, which raised $7 billion last year.
On top of that, unemployment now appears to be on the rise.
In such a situation, ministers’ performances attract scrutiny and parody.
The satirical website The Shovel had fun with its headline ''Link found between Eric Abetz and total stupidity'' and its ''report'' that scientists had first identified the link in the late 1950s and confirmed it with overwhelming evidence in a new comprehensive study.
Another who parodied himself was Attorney-General George Brandis, who gave a brilliant stumbling performance on Sky News, trying to explain the metadata intelligence agencies are seeking permission to record.
Brandis also failed miserably to explain why the government wanted to amend section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, going over the top in his rhetoric, thus destroying any chance the government had of persuading the wider community.
A key part of any ministerial job is explaining what you’re on about, and here, unfortunately for Abbott, the best communicator in the government is Turnbull.
There is one way to help the government and lower the Turnbull leadership threat.
Hockey is lamenting the fact that he is no longer popular. Abbott could kill two birds with one stone by giving Turnbull Treasury and leaving him to explain how cutting expenditure is good for the people.
Hockey would of course be entitled to another senior position. Defence, with its near invisible minister, might suit him.
Promoting Senator Marise Payne to cabinet as Attorney-General would double the number of women in the inner circle and shake up the boys’ club. Another contender for cabinet is Assistant Minister for Education Sussan Ley, who, with her eclectic background, could be an ideal replacement for Abetz at Employment.
Unquestionably something must be done, and done soon. In another 12 months all the talk will be about the impending election.