Opinion

Winners and losers in end-of-year report card on Albanese ministers

Michelle Grattan
Updated December 8 2023 - 3:19pm, first published 5:30am

It's not just kids who get report cards (PDFs these days) as school breaks up. So do government ministers, when parliament rises at year's end.

WATCH: Victorian MP and member for Dunkley Peta Murphy has died at the age of 50 after a cancer battle.

Judgments about how members of the team have performed, often public but also private, are made by stakeholders, the media, colleagues and ultimately the prime minister.

As Christmas looms, the Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme, Bill Shorten, and Workplace Relations Minister, Tony Burke will be reckoning they deserve As.

Shorten this week has not only released his review of the NDIS, but seen national cabinet agree to a deal to curb the scheme's cost explosion, shifting (with the way smoothed by generous Commonwealth funding) some of the responsibility for disability services onto the states.

Shorten can claim to be the original "father" of the NDIS in the days of the former Labor government; having to reshape it to make it sustainable is the classic poisoned chalice.

We won't know for several years how well the changes to the NDIS itself and the federal-state agreement for more service-sharing are actually working. It will be a long reform process, and much will depend on whether the states meet their obligations. But a direction has been set.

Burke this week will be receiving high marks from the unions. Right at the end of the parliamentary sitting he clinched a deal with Senate crossbenchers, notably David Pocock and Jacqui Lambie, to pass key parts of his industrial relations legislation, dealing with labour hire misuse and wage theft.

Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke. Picture Keegan Carroll
Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke. Picture Keegan Carroll

Parts of the legislation, covering protections for gig economy and casual workers, remain held up until next year, but Burke has secured more of it this year than seemed likely only a few days ago.

For some other ministers, their end-of-year assessments say "substantial improvement needed".

Most recently, Home Affairs Minister Clare O'Neil and Immigration Minister Andrew Giles have struggled with the confronting test thrown at them by the High Court, forcing the release of people from immigration detention.

The government should have been prepared for that possible decision, with legislation ready to go. That it was not is as much (or more) the fault of the public servants as of the ministers, but it's the ministers who have to carry the responsibility.

The sprawling Home Affairs Department appears dysfunctional, with long-term problems and low morale. One of O'Neil's priorities in coming months has to be to demand it is put into more effective shape. After the sacking of former departmental head Mike Pezzullo for breaching the Public Service Code, O'Neil will be relying on the new secretary, Stephanie Foster, to drive the bureaucratic changes.

O'Neil, whose vast empire ranges from cyber security to migration and border security, has plenty of potential but a style that usually defaults to the politics. It's a better look when a minister rations their attacks on their opponents. This government in general and O'Neil in particular too often seem preoccupied with Opposition Leader Peter Dutton.

O'Neil is about to have another late-year test, when the government releases its migration policy. This is an inherently fraught area; the policy will have to be well-pitched, with answers to whatever criticisms emerge.

Giles, meanwhile, is in charge of administering the preventative detention scheme the parliament has approved - applying to a court for the re-detention of people considered very high-risk.

That will cover only a limited number of the former detainees. If others are arrested, Giles will have to deal with the bad publicity.

MORE MICHELLE GRATTAN COLUMNS:

For a couple of other ministers, it's been a very difficult year. Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney found the referendum campaign a constant battle and the defeat shattering. Burney must put that behind her and turn her efforts to beefing up measures for closing the gap, an enormously hard task.

Infrastructure and Transport Minister Catherine King has been on the back foot on two fronts. One was her unconvincing rejection of the bid by Qatar Airways for extra flights. More seriously, her announcement of cuts to parts of the infrastructure program (though not its total value) has produced blowback from the states. There'll be ongoing arguments about the details, putting further pressure on King.

In contrast, ministers such as Treasurer Jim Chalmers and Foreign Minister Penny Wong have travelled well this year. Chalmers has pushed into other areas (especially energy) and is visibly broadening and grooming himself as heir apparent.

As Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister, Richard Marles presents better in government than he did in opposition, although some experts question the adequacy and implementation of his defence policy and he's been under fire for his excessive use of VIP planes.

Education Minister Jason Clare performs convincingly but his tests are still to come, especially as Australia grapples with how to improve school outcomes (this week's PISA results reinforced the message).

The jury will be out for a long time on the performance of Climate Change and Energy Minister Chris Bowen, who's wrangling the early stages of the clean energy transition. The government has the targets and framework in place, but delivery is not straightforward and Bowen can be slow to admit when things are not on track.

Some commentators suggest a reshuffle is needed, but that would seem premature. However, more active prime ministerial and cabinet oversight is certainly required to sharpen the performance of the team.

What about the boss? Anthony Albanese is receiving poor marks just now. But things can change quickly.

This week parliamentarians mourned the death of Peta Murphy, a popular and effective Labor MP who lost a long battle with cancer. A byelection will be held early next year in her Victorian seat of Dunkley, which is on a margin of more than 6 per cent. This real-time electoral test for both Albanese and Dutton could set the political mood in the days leading up to the government's next budget.

Michelle Grattan

Michelle Grattan is a press gallery journalist and former editor of The Canberra Times. She is a professorial fellow at the University of Canberra and writes for The Conversation, where her columns also appear.

Get the latest Katherine news in your inbox

Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.

We care about the protection of your data. Read our Privacy Policy.