Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s future path to the top job has been made easier after Christian Porter was dumped as Attorney-General.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Monday announced a cabinet reshuffle, as his government battles scandals amid allegations of sexual abuse and misogyny.
True to speculation, Mr Porter and Linda Reynolds were stripped of their portfolios.
It’s a significant blow to Mr Porter, who was widely regarded as having prime minister potential before historical rape allegations and his subsequent defamation action against the ABC pushed him from his standing.
In his place, ahead of a looming federal election and growing disquiet over Mr Morrison’s leadership skills, Mr Frydenberg is firming up his position as a future candidate.
Newly minted Defence Minister Peter Dutton – whose failed leadership tilt in 2018 sparked the takedown of Malcolm Turnbull – has too many enemies to be the LNP leader, political analyst Kevin Bonham says.
Meanwhile, Mr Frydenberg’s record is comparatively clean.
While there is no immediate threat to Mr Morrison’s leadership, the PM’s approval ratings have suffered.
Paul Strangio, an associate professor of politics at Melbourne’s Monash University, said “there was no question” Mr Frydenberg was a potential future leader.
“He’s mentioned regularly as the most logical heir apparent, given the portfolio he holds and his profile,” Professor Strangio told The New Daily.
Long touted as a rising star, the Treasurer has earned himself a high profile over his years in politics.
That’s partly due to his role as a parliamentary secretary handling deregulation, and because he holds the prized blue-ribbon seat of Kooyong in Victoria.
“People oppose him because he’s a Liberal, but he doesn’t tend to attract the same kind of opposition as Dutton or even Morrison,” Dr Bonham told TND.
“I don’t think he has a lot of enemies compared to someone like Dutton.”
Dip in the polls
Mr Morrison’s approval rating took a hit in the recent Newspoll, which showed Labor maintaining its 52-48 per cent two-party lead.
The poll, published by The Australian on Sunday night, found the PM’s satisfaction rating fell from 62 per cent to 55 per cent in two weeks.
It followed a litany of sexual misconduct and harassment allegations aimed at Coalition staffers and MPs, including Queensland backbencher Andrew Laming.
“It’s no surprise to see that reflected,” said Mr Frydenberg, when questioned about the polling.
“But the Prime Minister knows his focus must be on helping to steer our country through a pandemic, which is ongoing.”
Mr Morrison last week tried to apologise for his failings, saying “blokes don’t always get it right“, after copping widespread criticism for his clumsy attempt to reset debate on the treatment of women.
Despite Mr Morrison’s performance, Professor Strangio stressed it was “very premature” to speculate about Mr Frydenberg taking over as leader.
“Morrison’s approval rating has declined, but he still has a positive approval rating of around 15 per cent,” he said.
“A lot of other prime ministers would’ve died for that approval rating, like Tony Abbott or Julia Gillard, who were plagued by poor ratings.”
Mr Frydenberg’s growing influence over the party was exemplified on Sunday when he announced to reporters that Dr Laming would step down following revelations he relentlessly trolled women in his electorate.
Hours later, the Queensland MP complied, issuing a statement saying he will “not be contesting the next federal election in any capacity”.
The scandal leaves the Coalition in a tough spot.
In most workplaces, Dr Laming’s behaviour would result in him losing his job immediately.
But if he quits, it would trigger a by-election – a loss in which would mean the government would be in a minority.
Can Morrison weather this storm?
Dr Bonham said it was common for prime ministers to go through “very rough patches”, adding the PM could survive the sustained pressures over his handling of sex abuse claims.
“No politician is perfect, but Morrison does have some character flaws that are being exposed by this stuff, as with the bushfires,” he said.
“He’s been seen to be avoiding confronting issues. He tends to set up these deflection processes, saying ‘I wasn’t told’ or ‘the proper person wasn’t told’. It’s easy to see his handling of it as a bit evasive and slow to grasp the gravity.”
Although the new Morrison cabinet now has the most women at its highest level on record, it’s going to take more than a reshuffle to polish up his image with voters.
“What’s really interesting is that after the last election, Morrison was seen as someone who understands the Australian psyche … and yet suddenly we have to rethink that,” Professor Strangio said.
“Does he really understand contemporary Australia?”