In the race between the merit principle and sectional politics, the former is often cited, but the latter more often observed.
Now we have a frank explanation of how power is really apportioned within the Coalition: geography.
Thus, Victoria’s Darren Chester, widely agreed to be the Nationals’ most competent figure, gets punted from Malcolm Turnbull’s cabinet to be replaced by a rookie preferred by Barnaby Joyce.
Why? Because the replacement, David Littleproud, is a moral conservative and a Queenslander.
Consider his qualifications for federal cabinet: 18 unremarkable months on the backbench, notable for not much more than voting against same-sex marriage in the House of Representatives where it was his voice that called for a division.
That Joyce should swing such lead will be seen by most voters for the absurdity it is. This is the man whose stewardship of the junior Coalition party has been a liability through 2017, contributing to Turnbull’s humiliation over a banking royal commission, and resulting in Joyce’s own expulsion from the Parliament. And let’s not forget the $40,000 cheque he initially accepted from Gina Rinehart for his brilliance as Agriculture Minister?
Chester, on the other hand will be remembered as one of the few Nationals possessed of the courage and the simple 21st century modernism to stand with the Australian mainstream as an outspoken advocate for marriage equality.
What does he get for this willingness to line up with the PM no less? The axe.
It’s a reminder that one should never underestimate this government’s capacity to muff the politics, or worse, lurch gratuitously to the right even when the only pressure to do so comes from within.
The talking point in federal politics as 2017 winds up has been the extent to which Turnbull’s fortunes have improved in the final days as big problems like the dual citizenship fiasco, same-sex marriage and energy policy have been resolved.
Progress on these fronts has shifted the pressure to Labor, which is now struggling with the citizenship backwash threatening a series of ruinous byelections.
But where success emboldens some leaders, it seems to have no such effect on Turnbull.
After his initial promise in fixing Tony Abbott’s unconscionably bloke-heavy bias, Turnbull has elevated just two women this time and one of them, Bridget McKenzie, purely because she is the new Nationals deputy leader. Her portfolio of sport, rural health and regional communications is barely cabinet level.
Once again, competent women such as Julia Banks, Nicolle Flint, and Sarah Henderson must wait, having been overlooked in a Coalition that says quotas on gender are anathema, but defends trashing the merit principle on just about any other grounds.
Turnbull called his line-up diverse. Perverse would be more accurate.