There is a saying somewhere in the annals of bloggers that good leaders of the opposition make bad Prime Ministers. This goes to the fact that the prerequisite skillset of an effective opposition leader are largely presentational whereas in government the emphasis is much more administrative. Since parliament reconvened we’ve seen many Ministers and Shadow Ministers on the opposite side for the first time and many of them have struggled with the transition.
Joe Hockey and Malcolm Turnbull were both Cabinet Ministers in the Howard Government and are clearly enjoying being back in charge, in question time they dispatch dixers and gotchers alike with insouciant swagger. It’s what you’d expect, they’ve been on both sides before, they know the weaknesses of being in opposition and now how to capitalize on it. Tony Abbott was also in Howard’s cabinet, but he’s in a new position to any he’s served in before. He’s tended to be more cautious and restrained than Turnbull and Hockey, but that’s not an especially bad thing. Better to be a restrained Prime Minister than a bumbling one.
Scott Morrison is a case in point of someone who doesn’t fully appreciation the distinction between opposition and government. He’s still prone to hyperbole which is fine in opposition but when you’re running to country you need to be more substantial than that. Hockey and Turnbull are stylish, Morrison is gauche.
On the opposition benches Bill Shorten started off ok, like Abbott he too seemed restrained and understated in his first question time which I kind of liked, it made him seem more mature, above the argy bargy of most Question Time combatants. Unfortunately someone seemed to pass him a memo to the effect of “Muscle up, you’re looking wimpy.” His subsequent performances have been very Lathamesque, full of machismo and overreach, very theatrical, very embarrassing.
Deputy Tanya Plibersek has been even worse. With the possible exception of Kevin Rudd himself, Plibersek was the most effective communicator in the previous government. She rose to prominence as a regular guest on the ABC’s Qanda program where her combination of thoughtfulness, gentle wit and conversational manner played very well but in the House of Representatives, where the rules are (and always have been) structured heavily in favour of the government, she has struggled. Her pedestrian knowledge of the House of Reps Standing Orders in particular has left her looking both clumsy and frustrated on more than one occasion. Her successor as Minister for Health, Peter Dutton was quick to notice this, fortunately for Plibersek, he bungled his attempts to exploit it by attempting to coin the nickname “Nasty Tanya.” A few years ago Dutton was widely touted as a future Liberal Leader…yeah me neither.
On the other hand Anthony Albanese, having previously served as Manager of Opposition business from 2006-2008 (not to mention Deputy Prime Minister) is overqualified for his position as Shadow Minister for Infrastructure and from time to time humiliates Ministers and the Speaker with his encyclopaedic knowledge of the standing orders. Joel Fitzgibbon (who is a surprisingly effective communicator despite often showing terrible political judgement) does much of the same. The current Manager of Opposition Business Tony Burke, shows a perfunctory knowledge of standing orders and parliamentary tactics he’s been competent but he should improve with experience.
Other notable mentions are Chris Bowen who has performed capably as Shadow Treasurer and Susan Ley who has fended off a coordinated attack from opposition members without doing anything too silly.
Finally we come to the Leader of the House Christopher Pyne. Pyne hasn’t presented himself as likeable in any sense these past two weeks (although I personally find his sassy humour to be a hoot) but there’s more to being an effective government than charm and charisma. His hypocrisy is temeritous and many observers are incensed by his snide use of the government numbers to bully the opposition about but his methods has been effective. His tactics have substantially blunted the oppositions attack and driven several of them to rashness. Albanese and Fitzgibbon might be able to duck and weave their way through Pyne’s obstacle courses but most of the shadow cabinet cannot and end up blundering around stupidly. Pyne’s worth to the government should not be underestimated.