Turnbull's new Cabinet and the uphill battle to change Canberra's ways

Australia's new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull wants to return government to 'traditional' collaborative Cabinet decision making, but also make it more 'agile'. Good luck with that.

"There has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian than today, and I believe that today, I've announced the team, the government, the ministry, a 21st century government. A ministry that is ready to engage the future," said Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull as he announced his new front bench team on Sunday.

We're going to be sick of that word "exciting" within days, I'm sure, but Turnbull genuinely believes that Australia can be transformed by technology -- indeed, must be transformed. And he hammered that point home at Sunday's press conference.

"If we want to remain a prosperous, first-world economy with a generous social welfare safety net, we must be more competitive, we must be more productive. Above all, we must be more innovative," Turnbull said.

"Now, a lot of this change is cultural. It is really important for leaders, for prime ministers, for ministers, for people in the media to talk about the importance of change, to talk about the importance of science, to talk about the importance of technology. We are living in the 21st century."

So with that background, how might we read Turnbull's choices in appointing his ministerial team?

For a start, we need to move beyond a cartoon-level analysis, full of goodies and baddies and that dullard tribalist hashtag #fraudband, and look at how the team is structured, and who's been given the jobs -- both strategically and tactically.

The biggest structural change, in my view, is the appointment of Christopher Pyne as minister for industry, innovation, and science, with Assistant Ministers (as "parliamentary secretaries" have been re-named) Karen Andrews for science and Wyatt Roy for innovation. That clearly puts science and innovation into the service of economic development, and providing two junior ministers gives it policy-development muscle.

Andrews is a 55-year-old engineer from Queensland, who worked in power stations and chemical and petrochemical sites, before working in industrial relations and human resources. Amongst her achievements since entering parliament in 2010, she co-founded and co-chairs the Parliamentary Friends of Science group. Good choice.

Roy, another Queenslander, is well known for his youth -- at least while it lasts -- but he's also been speaking about the importance of startups to the future economy.

"Ultimately, what we would hope is that the next generation of Australians would feel as excited about starting a business as they would about going to the mines and driving a truck for AU$100,000 a year. And while small business startup rates are now at the highest level they have been at in over 10 years, the rate for people aged under 35 starting in business is actually falling," Roy told the House of Representatives in May.

"So we do need to have a cultural shift where we champion success in this country -- not attack it, not vilify people who have had success. We need to say it is a great thing that they have taken on some risk; they might have had some failure but they are ultimately helping to create future prosperity not only for themselves but for the country."

He's another one to watch.

The new minister for communications is Mitch Fifield, who also becomes minister assisting the prime minister for digital government. He'll be responsible for sorting out the National Broadband Network (NBN), which has only just switched on its FttN network. Obviously, how Fifield handles the NBN will be critical -- but it's early days yet, so let's come back to that.

One appointment that particularly fascinates me is the appointment of Jamie Briggs as minister for cities and the built environment, a junior position under Minister for the Environment Greg Hunt. I suspect Turnbull has been reading strategic analyst David Kilcullen, who I've heard speak about how the city and its environs is becoming the natural unit for understanding economies, not the nation-state.

"Liveable, vibrant cities are absolutely critical to our prosperity. Historically, the federal government has had a limited engagement with cities, and yet that is where most Australians live; it is where the bulk of our economic growth can be found," Turnbull said on Sunday.

"[T]he most valuable capital in the world today is not financial capital, there's plenty of that and it's very mobile. The most valuable capital today is human capital. Men and women like ourselves, who can choose to live anywhere."

Combine this dedicated cities portfolio with an overall emphasis on science and technology, and you've got smart cities. Here's someone who could help advance that idea. Briggs is relatively young, and has shown promise so far.

Unlike a corporate chief executive, a prime minister can only choose from the set of MPs and senators he's been elected to government with. That can be pretty random. But Turnbull has made what I think are astute choices in choosing who stays and who goes.

Gone are dinosaurs Kevin Andrews and Senator Eric Abetz, neither of whom have updated their modes of thinking since the sauropods stumbled offstage. Gone, too, is former Treasurer Joe Hockey, a potential rival who's seemingly been bought off with an attractive gig elsewhere.

However, Australia's favourite Attorney-General, Senator George Brandis QC, retains that title -- although he loses the arts portfolio to make way for his increased workload as leader of the Senate. And Peter Dutton remains minister for immigration and border protection.

Neither Brandis nor Dutton are exactly the sharpest pencils in the case, but their presence bulks up the conservative and Queensland numbers in the ministry. They'll probably do what they're told. And since they're largely irrelevant to Turnbull's plans for economic transformation, well, it can wait until the second round before they hear those immortal words: "You are the weakest link. Goodbye."

And finally, the appointment of Senator Arthur Sinodinos is a good political move. Despite the senator's trouble with recall while giving evidence to the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), he was well respected by both sides of politics during his tenure as chief of staff to former Prime Minister John Howard. He knows how to run a collaborative Cabinet, and he'll likely do a similarly good job in his new role.

Overall, Turnbull has assembled what promises to be a much-improved ministerial machine from the parts that came in the box. His challenges now will be to get everyone used to the new culture he hopes to develop -- and that includes the media.

Within moments of announcing his new team, Turnbull was already being asked what would be happening with government policies that were partway through the policy development process, things like the reforms of the tax system and higher education.

"I'm the prime minister, I'm not the president. We have a Cabinet system of government. It's a collective form of decision making. I am absolutely determined -- that is one of the many reasons why Arthur Sinodinos is to be the Cabinet secretary -- I'm absolutely determined that we have a proper consultative Cabinet system, and all of those issues will be considered. But enticing though your invitation is, I'm not going to respond with some direction or riding instruction to my ministers from this lectern."

If the Canberra press gallery had been listening, they'd have heard Turnbull say that the autocratic Prime Minister's Office is a thing of the past, but that things would be moving quickly.

Now that his ministry is sworn in, and now that Tony Abbott has finally vacated the office, we'll get to see whether this turns out to be true -- or whether old habits die hard.

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