ALBO’S FIRST TWO YEARS - PT 4: How PM’s Labor colleagues rate (and roast) his Cabinet

Headshot of Christopher Dore
Christopher Dore
The Nightly
13 Min Read
Anthony Albanese and Cabinet members Penny Wong, Jim Chalmers, Chris Bowen and Richard Marles.
Anthony Albanese and Cabinet members Penny Wong, Jim Chalmers, Chris Bowen and Richard Marles. Credit: William Pearce/The Nightly

Anthony Albanese will resist lobbying and deflate expectations of a reshuffle, choosing instead to stick with the same front bench through to the next election.

The Prime Minister believes stability is more of an asset than shaking off lingering questions over competence and performance of ministers in key portfolios as the Government slides in the polls.

Albanese thinks it entirely unnecessary to mess with his line-up despite obvious signs some ministers are flailing and threatening to create political havoc in electorally hot ministries.

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“Absolutely there should be a reshuffle, sooner rather than later,” insists a Labor insider.

Albanese, who throughout his own ministerial career and even in opposition never agitated to move from the one portfolio, believes stability is a more electorally compelling message.

And despite growing unease within government about its prospects heading into the likely March 2025 election, Albanese is dismissive of private expressions of pessimism by some uneasy colleagues.

The PM believes Labor, still ahead in the polls after two years in office, is in a powerful position at this point in the cycle. In his eyes it is a luxury not enjoyed by previous first-term governments.

“We are a stable government,” he has told colleagues.

And that means there will be no reshuffle, despite a widely held expectation he was considering one.

Albanese does not believe any of his ministers is underperforming.

A view that might come as a surprise to many of his ministers who — at least those who are not factionally aligned — barely conceal a cringe when Immigration Minister Andrew Giles, who does not sit in Cabinet, stands in Question Time.

Giles, a junior minister but with a red-hot portfolio, is one of Albanese’s closest factional allies.

Australian Immigration Minister Andrew Giles speaks during a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Monday, 27 November, 2023. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch) NO ARCHIVING
Australian Immigration Minister Andrew Giles. Credit: LUKAS COCH/AAPIMAGE

Albanese won’t dump him.

Observers have speculated that Albanese would be forced into a reshuffle by the early retirement of his closest confidante, Foreign Minister Penny Wong. But Wong will not be leaving politics early.

Albanese famously tells colleagues that “Penny will be around as long as I am”.

His deputy, and other close confidant in Cabinet, Richard Marles is being reviewed poorly in Defence, but he will not be moved, even though his preferred ministry is Foreign Affairs.

ALBO’S FIRST TWO YEARS:

Some party figures say Industrial Relations Minister Tony Burke, who also has leadership ambitions, needs a new challenge after landing the workplace laws.

Party sources say Catherine King has failed to impress and needs to move out of Infrastructure, Albanese’s pet portfolio, and Chris Bowen likewise should have time called in Climate Change and Energy. Bowen, for all his presentational preening and confidence, is considered a poison chalice.

They won’t be moved.

Then there are those who are unlikely to be around for a second term, such as Brendan O’Connor. Again. Staying.

No dramas, no scandals, no problems. Stability is an asset is the mantra out of Albanese.

Ambitious Labor MPs believe the Government could use a kickstart on a new reform agenda, which is non-existent after running a small-target election strategy in 2022.

MPs are urging Bill Shorten, the NDIS minister, to strike hard on reform to arrest the punishing bills and warped outcomes smashing the Budget. “It is a disgrace how much that thing is costing and how little good it is doing for that much money,” one MP said.

Shorten has taken a high-profile position as a key communicator of government lines in the media across broad policy areas despite being given the unglamorous portfolio. He would be considered a hero if he could pull off a massive fix of the NDIS and win Opposition support.

Some believe Shorten and and his former running mate Tanya Plibersek, two of Labor’s best front-bench performers both in policy and in the media, are being unhelpfully punished by Albanese.

But Albanese will not relent to promote the pair despite their skills and wasted potential. Both have been remarkably disciplined.

The Nightly has compiled an analysis of Cabinet’s best and worst performers based on feedback from Labor insiders.

RICHARD MARLES

Deputy PM and Defence

Victorian Right, lawyer, 17 years in Parliament

Lovely bloke. Polite, affable, sincere. Hardworking.

Loyal deputy. Crap Defence Minister. Politics is so unfair.

PARLIAMENT
Defence Minister Richard Marles with ADF chief Angus Campbell. Credit: News Corp Australia

Does a lot of defending, but mostly of his boss and his ministers.

Frequent flyer points have exploded since realising he can book the government VIP jet to get home in time to watch the Geelong Cats play on a Friday night. Jetstar planes apparently not fitted out to accommodate security or culinary needs.

Has won no critical acclaim for his handling of the Defence portfolio. Even though Labor is throwing more cash to buy stuff for soldiers and sailors to play with, it’s a notoriously difficult role, with historically few ministers winning a popularity contest up against often-competing interests, noisy strategic experts and the top brass in Defence HQ. Often defined as ex-mates — now mortal enemies — with Bill Shorten. Dream job is Foreign Affairs, but that’s taken by the PM’s political sweetheart, Penny Wong.

PENNY WONG

Foreign Affairs

South Australian Left, union lawyer, 22 years

Albanese’s closest political confidante. The most respected politician in Canberra, the polls say. Quite some feat for a senator from Adelaide.

TRADE ESTIMATES
Foreign Minister Penny Wong. Credit: News Corp Australia

Barely disguises absolute derision and disgust for opponents, often in her own party. Acts tired and bored in the Senate, unchallenged by the intellectual pygmies and plonkers sitting on the opposite side of the chamber. Privately, she’s warm, fun, astute and entertaining. One of the “Mean Girls” accused of bullying late Labor colleague Kimberley Kitching. Bullshit, she would say. Famously incisive and brutal as an inquisitor during estimates committee hearings while in Opposition, in the style of old-school Labor heroes Robert Ray and John Faulkner.

In her day job, captured by the know-it-all bureaucratic elites in DFAT. Should have a domestic ministry. As a leading Left ideologue, not suited to the foreign portfolio, where reviews are mixed. Pacific good. China. Hmmm. Israel. Yeah. Nah.

JIM CHALMERS

Treasurer

Queensland Right, political adviser, 11 years

Universally regarded as Albanese’s only genuine successor. Everyone, except maybe Tony Burke, agrees. Even the PM does, reluctantly, they say. Must be true because the incumbent in The Lodge privately can’t resist the odd playful dig about his man in treasury.

Kissed on the arse by a rainbow when so much cash, read tax, unexpectedly poured into government coffers in his first year enabled him to pull off the unimaginable — a Budget surplus. Old boss Wayne Swan, who famously spent way more money than we had while treasurer, promising surpluses that never came, would have been so pissed - sorry, proud! - of his young Padawan.

Treasurer Jim Chalmers and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.
Treasurer Jim Chalmers and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. Credit: LUKAS COCH/ LUKAS COCH

Tricky contortions required to manage the simmering rivalry, as the most important minister on one hand, while remaining loyal to his PM and ambitious for his Government, on the other.

Calm and effective in Parliament, growing more confident and bold but exceptionally cautious, given he’s a heartbeat away from The Lodge. Don’t drop The Ashes.

Often compared unfavourably and unfairly to political hero Paul Keating, as a performer and reformer.

TONY BURKE

Employment and Workplace Relations

NSW Right, union organiser and state politician, 20 years

“He is absolutely convinced that he is going to be prime minister, convinced.” To get there, Burkey needs the branch members, dominated by the Left (Israel is a disgrace, pray for Gaza) and the unions (bosses are crooks, workers unite). He is delivering for both constituencies. Deidre Chambers! What a coincidence!

Like Albanese before him, he has become the guru of parliamentary procedures, point of order Speaker. Outsmarts his opponent every Question Time. Very effective on policy and exceptional parliamentary performer who loves a stoush.

Anthony Albanese and Tony Burke
Anthony Albanese and Employment Minister Tony Burke. Credit: AAP

Could he do a Scott Morrison should PM Albo vacate the big chair? Scomo slid into The Lodge, to the great surprise of colleagues, through pure political and party room genius. Burke is “Albo Right”. Could Albo stymie young rival Chalmers by shuffling his numbers to Burke?

CHRIS BOWEN

Climate Change and Energy

NSW Right, former suburban mayor, 20 years

Ravens. Broken mirrors. Shoes on a table. Upside down horse shoes. That ladder. A black cat. Upright chopsticks.

Harry Potter-style curses hover like a dark cloud. The architect of the electorally poisonous treasury policies rejected by voters in the unlosable 2019 election. Before that, as immigration minister under Julia Gillard, he presided over the disastrous flood of illegal boats that formed a key pillar in Tony Abbott’s rise to power. Ditto his current portfolios of climate change and energy. Once it was Stop the boats, now it’s Stop the SUVs . What a nightmare.

Australian Climate Change Minister Chris Bowen.
Australian Climate Change Minister Chris Bowen. Credit: LUKAS COCH/AAPIMAGE

Not a bad bloke. Sort of smart, kind of good on his feet, definitely a snappy dresser with a sharp ‘do. Wags say his ties are brighter than he is. Harsh. Looks good in the gym. It all should fit together. Right?

KATY GALLAGHER

Finance and Women

Left, union organiser, former ACT chief minister, 7 years

Albo’s absolute favourite. Or is she just not Jim? One of the “mean girls”. Owed David Sharaz a favour, we heard in court, and her department later gave his partner Brittany Higgins a multimillion-dollar payout, few questions asked. Sharaz now lives with Higgins in France thanks to the windfall. Will lead Labor Left in the Senate when Penny Wong leaves.

Australian Finance Minister Katy Gallagher.
Australian Finance Minister Katy Gallagher. Credit: LUKAS COCH/AAPIMAGE

Diligent and serious, has worked hand in hand with Chalmers on the Budget and economic strategy. In many portfolios, to keep an eye on everyone, Albanese has assigned factional allies and mates to partner up with factional opponents in the senior/junior minister coupling. This is a perfect example. But Chalmers and “Katy” are said to work well together and get along.

DON FARRELL

Trade and Tourism

SA Right, trade union boss and lawyer, 14 years

The Godfather. 69 years old. All-powerful leader of the influential socially conservative (opposed to same-sex marriage for example) Labor union the SDA. They’re the “Shoppies”, the mob who got your union dues when you worked at Woolies while at school.

Controls a large bloc of votes in the caucus, and with that comes enormous power within Labor. Can make or break leaders. Backs Albanese, for now.

SENATE QUESTION TIME
Trade Minister Don Farrell. Credit: News Corp Australia

Unknown outside of politics (google Farrell and Dermott Brereton), has been quietly effective as Trade Minister, rebuilding trade relations with China, to the acclaim of producers everywhere.

MARK BUTLER

Health and Aged Care

SA Left, union boss, 17 years

“Butler could do so much better.”

Generally seen as a future deputy prime minister on a future left-right ticket, with a right-winger like Chalmers or Burke. So they say.

Long-term party operative. Health is a high-profile but not overly glamorous portfolio. Gets plenty of air time, but does anyone pay any attention?

MARK BUTLER MEDICARE CARD
Health Minister Mark Butler. Credit: News Corp Australia

Well-liked across the board but not the threatening type.

Maybe it’s the friendly dimples.

Student politics buddies with fellow travellers Penny Wong, and former South Australian premier Jay Weatherill

TANYA PLIBERSEK

Environment

NSW Left, public servant and adviser, 26 years

The People’s Princess. Completely ostracised by Albanese, her one-time pal from Sydney’s inner-city Left, after backing in the leadership of Bill Shorten and joining his ticket. Albanese has never forgiven her and thanked her by sending her to the political equivalent of Siberia, the lowly, albeit important, Environment portfolio.

“She is absolutely in the political wilderness.”

QUESTION TIME
Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek Credit: News Corp Australia

Has loyally continued on her way, fronting up advocating on the policy front and convincingly defending the Government generally in her many television appearances.

Lurks as a potential Labor leader but everything would have to go perfectly for her, and turn horribly bad for Albanese.

Presentable, personal and popular. Surely this can’t be it for Plibersek.

CATHERINE KING

Infrastructure and Transport

Victorian Left, public servant and consultant, 23 years

Hard to find anyone with a strong view on the Ballarat Battler, other than she probably should be given a different portfolio.

CATHERINE KING
Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development Minister Catherine King Credit: News Corp Australia

Tries hard on her feet, but generally thought to be out of her depth in Infrastructure and Transport, both pet portfolios for Albanese. Always ambitious in those roles, he is content to leave this uninspiring minister in the position.

AMANDA RISHWORTH

Social Services

SA Right, union organiser, 14 years

Solid and competent in a portfolio that calls for line and length.

Popular and effective local member in a suburban seat that screams middle Australia. Exceptionally in touch with battlers. Hard to dislike.

Minister for Social Services Amanda Rishworth
Social Services Minister Amanda Rishworth Credit: AAP

Activated her political gene as a teenager, when shafted while working at Toys R Us. Joined Don Farrell’s Shoppies, and has been fighting for exploited Tonka truck sellers ever since.

BILL SHORTEN

National Disibility Insurance Scheme

Victorian Right, union organiser, 17 years

Toiling away in the least glamorous portfolio you could possibly think of for a bloke who could have been PM. Any bitterness he might have for his predicament is well hidden, mostly, and his old rival Albanese could not legitimately accuse him of disloyalty. Like Plibersek, very solid media performer and does a lot of front-line defending of government ineptitude. The old Shorten zingers don’t have quite the same spark they once did, but he’s still more than capable of hitting the mark.

Bill Shorten
NDIS Minister Bill Shorten. Credit: AAP

Policy-wise, everyone uniformly agrees he’s having a crack to clean up the horrendous mess that is the NDIS. If he can fix it, no small feat, it would be a triumph all future governments, including conservative ones, will thank him for.

Bob Hawke made Bill Hayden governor-general as a reward for shafting him. Albo gave Shorten a shit sandwich. Times have truly changed. Maybe that’s what you get for losing the unlosable election. Some say he has not entirely shelved leadership ambitions.

LINDA BURNEY

Indigenous Australians

NSW Left, teacher and State MP, 8 years

Absolutely adored by the Indigenous community. Auntie Linda is a national treasure to many, who has been turned into stone by Albanese. The PM has absolutely ruined her by ignoring political advice, listening to the dreamers in the Indigenous elite to race ahead with the Voice referendum and asking Burney to own it.

Linda Burney.
Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney. Credit: AAP

Burney was always cautious about rushing to a referendum before mainstream Australia was ready. She was thrown in the deep end by Albanese, who himself was hopelessly out of his depth in selling the Voice. She wasn’t able to turn the PM’s wild swing at history into a reality. The result was unfortunate for everyone. Terrible for Burney.

She is shot now, and has been left out to dry by Albanese. He owes her.

MARK DREYFUS

Attorney-General

Victorian Right, barrister, 17 years

Mark Dreyfus
Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus. Credit: AAP

Following in the fine tradition of Federal attorneys-general, who always seem to be uniquely consistent, regardless of party: politically inept and woefully boring while somehow managing to be moronically arrogant and self-righteous. Always rumoured to be about to retire from politics so he can assume his rightful position as the king of the law, presiding over a courtroom as a judge. Has suffered recent family tragedy, and has largely kept his counsel, as a prominent Jewish Australian, about Israel’s conflict with Hamas.

CLARE O’NEIL

Home Affairs

Victorian Right, consultant, 11 years

Exceptionally confident (did someone say excessively confident) performer. McKinsey via Harvard might do that. Incredibly, has taken to staring down Peter Dutton in Parliament, but can’t work out whether he was soft on borders and national security, or too hard. Odd flex to highlight a Dutton strength, (strongman character), and a Labor weakness (borders). Has a habit, not shared by any of her colleagues, of staring down the barrel of the parliamentary camera when answering questions. Bit weird.

Home Affairs Minister Clare O'Neil
Home Affairs Minister Clare O'Neil. Credit: AAP

Stuck with hopeless junior minister, left-wing mate of Albanese’s, Andrew Giles, who colleagues say she doesn’t like. Happy to dump on him in public. Unfortunately the PM doesn’t agree with her, even though most of the colleagues do.

BRENDAN O’CONNOR

Skills and Training

Victorian Left, union organiser, 23 years

Diligent, and popular with the stakeholders in the industry.

Expected to retire next election. Some say move him now and promote young talent.

Skills Minister Brendan O'Connor speaks during Question Time
Skills Minister Brendan O'Connor. Credit: AAP

JASON CLARE

Education

NSW Right, political adviser, 17 years

Has it all, well, everything except ambition. Polished, looks a million bucks, absolute zinger machine, sincere on policy, great little backstory he loves repeating, funny, witty.

Some in his faction reckon he could still end up being a Labor leader one day, maybe in Opposition. Like the NSW Premier Chris Minns, he’s got the goods. Where is the ticker?

Education Minister Jason Clare (file image)
Education Minister Jason Clare. Credit: AAP

Has good lines in Education, and doing a bit, but when political and ideological agendas are running riot in our schools maybe he could do a little more.

Entertaining but frustrating for colleagues.

JULIE COLLINS

Housing

Tasmania Left, political staffer, 17 years

Small Business Minister Julie Collins.
Housing Minister Julie Collins. Credit: AAP

Like her home State. Sometimes you just forget it’s there.

MICHELLE ROWLAND

Communications

NSW Right, lawyer and local councillor, 14 years

The Valentino-wearing MP from Western Sydney. Enjoys broad respect and is active in the machinery of Labor and the government.

Communications Minister Michelle Rowland.
Communications Minister Michelle Rowland. Credit: SUpplied

Bright and feisty media performer but is stuck in a tricky, low-profile portfolio.

MADELEINE KING

Resources

WA Right, lawyer, 8 years

Madeleine King MP Shadow Minister for Trade, Resources with veterans at the Rockingham Navy Club
Resources Minister Madeleine King. Credit: Simon Santi/The West Australian

Unassuming but effective. Pragmatic. Battles away in an important but not overly prominent ministry. Has credibility in the portfolio following in the footsteps of Labor legend Gary Gray.

MURRAY WATT

Agriculture and Emergency Services

Queensland Left, lawyer, political adviser and State MP, 8 years

Pugilistic Queensland senator. Abrasive, turns it up to 11 in the sleepy Senate but an astute politician and performer. Exceptional talent and salesman in media performances who delivers effective attack lines against the Opposition. Stakeholders like him but he has some issues around policy, notably the live export trade.

Federal Agriculture Minister Murray Watt.
Federal Agriculture Minister Murray Watt. Credit: Danella Bevis/The West Australian

Has fronted up strongly during natural disasters in his short time as emergency services minister perhaps taking lessons from his old boss, former Queensland premier Anna Bligh, who was at her best during a flood and a fire.

ED HUSIC

Industry and Science

NSW Right, union official, 20 years

Super smart, and across his brief, sometimes getting too caught up in the detail. Still a bit of a political enigma.

Ed Husic
Industry Minister Ed Husic. Credit: AAP

Can come across as a bit terse and rude, and a little thin-skinned but has loads to offer. Has been in Parliament for 20 years and should have absolutely fulfilled his considerable potential by now but may be held back by the long list of NSW Right plodders ahead of him.

Could be anything if he gets out of his head.

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