Abbott chooses ‘a safe pair of hands’ in appointing Kevin Andrews to Defence, rather than competence or experience.


EVERY three years Kevin Andrews and his wife Margaret book themselves in for a joint ­session on a marriage counsellor’s couch — or the workshop, as he prefers. They have a solid and loving 35-year marriage, he insists, but he likens his relationship to the modern motor car. “It might last a lifetime,” the Minister for Social Services explains from a couch in his Melbourne electoral office as modern motor cars scurry along Doncaster Road, “but usually we get it serviced every two or three years.” Without that service the car, like his marriage, may still run along, seemingly OK, “but the tyres get a bit bald, the brake pads need replacing and, you know, the steering needs adjusting — if you’re fixing it up, you’re going to go on for longer.” The Australian.

Kevin Andrews, former marriage guidance counsellor and latterly Minister for Social Services has been re-deployed into Defence, typically regarded as a graveyard post for fading cabinet stars, rudely shafted in the twilight zone of their careers who know too much to be sacked and who thus need to be put somewhere safe but not too far out of the public eye while they enjoy a Coonawarra Cab Sav over a long lunch with a general or a contractor or international arms dealer or other vital network contact; in order that their après-shafting dignity and of course their loyalty may be maintained whilst others do any work as may be required and generally carry on as if nothing had happened. Happily, Andrews will still be able to demonstrate the odd Nelson touch and will be encouraged to raise his scope to a sightless eye as he did when he made his recent pronouncement that the Liberal defeat in the Victorian election had nothing to do with the unpopularity of the federal government or its prime minister. Similarly when accused earlier this month of conflict of interest in accepting race meeting tickets from online betting companies he could not see any conflict of interest despite his membership of a government which has put him on committees examining gambling. His explanation is both Nelson’s unwillingness to see with a dollop of John Clark and Brian Dawe.

“The Social Services portfolio includes the issue of gambling, therefore it’s relevant the minister meet with industry stakeholders on a regular basis,” he said.

The Nelson touch will doubtless come in very handy when reporting on the progress of the war on ISIS. The marriage guidance background should also prove a real asset in the new job whether it be counselling families of victims of recruiting barracks bastardry or soothing grief-stricken families of servicemen and women on the loss of their loved ones in battle on behalf of big oil and international capital in the hell-hole that is modern Iraq or Syria. Andrews will be able to pour oil on the troubled waters of inadequate pay, bullying, sexism, institutionalised misogyny, homophobia and other key workplace issues. Strangely, however, none of these talents were mentioned by the PM on Sunday who chose to focus on Kevin’s other attributes. Andrews will be a safe pair of hands, Prime Minister Tony Abbott volunteered, a safe pair of hands, he repeated, while announcing other changes on Sunday. Abbott’s endorsement of the hapless Andrews’ hands is typically ambiguous unless we are meant to imagine the new minister catching grenades and lobbing them back in Iraq or Syria or some similar theatre of military adventure. Perhaps Andrews will be on standby during parachute drops to Kurdish allies to ensure that Australia’s support does not fall into ISIL hands. He may even be permitted to practice a little conflict resolution or to turn his safe hands to midwifery or triage as the battlefield occasion demands. This would allow him time to distribute his handy marriage counselling vouchers to combatants. His brainchild while he was Minister for social service, the vouchers may well be still in sufficient supply to more than meet requirements in the field. In October there were 90% of the $200 vouchers remaining, a fact which confirms Andrews’ intuition that creative forward-thinking problem solvers like himself may often find their solutions ahead of the market. Doubtless it is one of the risks of leading from the front. Of course, Abbott’s words should not be taken literally, (if they must be taken at all) a safe pair of hands is a phrase which can cover a lot of things which may otherwise offend including lack of initiative, dull, insipid, pedestrian and of course, reliable, as in one who would not dare step out of line. True, he has overstepped the mark occasionally following his boss Abbott by making statements which were not exactly gospel truth but, hell, he didn’t put them in writing and by God they put the wind up the dole-bludgers. In June, he said: “In New Zealand, everybody who is seeking to get welfare payments, the dole equivalent, has a one-month waiting period.” He seems to have made it up, off the cuff, but only because of the steadiness of his safe pair of hands. The figure of speech contains an element of rebuke for former sand-groping Defence Minister, David Johnston who was in some trouble over his long liquid lunches and most notably for his ill-considered but heartfelt comment that he would not trust the ASC to build a canoe. Johnston probably torpedoed himself in word and deed and seems also to have failed to protect his rear from sniper incursions from the harrying of a PM’s department which invaded Defence long ago but he retains support from the Defence Association which immediately criticised Andrews’ appointment because the minister has previously openly declared no interest in Defence, a remark which Defence and its associates rightly found offensive. The comment, which ‘safe hands’ Andrews claims today has slipped his memory, has been recorded by the association which appears to keep excellent records of its support from Canberra. Whilst it may prove an impediment to Andrews, the comment would only encourage a PM and his department who have virtually taken up permanent camp in Defence anyway, leaving the new Minister plenty of time to engage his other interests such as opposing abortion or addressing right wing family groups visiting from the US such as the World Congress of Families., a controversial conference that endorses anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage messages. Andrews was persuaded out of attending but was still able to help out the cause when he let them put the text of his speech on their website nevertheless. Whilst he and his wife have moved on from the Catholic counselling service they co-founded in Melbourne in 1980 called the Marriage Education Programme its objectives remain dear to his heart and he has recently published research to show that couples who marry stay together longer than those who are mere de facto sinners and destined to go to hell anyway. Andrews, a profoundly conservative Catholic, has for years been influential in shaping Abbott’s policy in ways that ensure right-wing thinking is represented at every turn. Same sex marriage, abortion, euthanasia for example, are opposed by Abbott and Andrews. Chaplains in schools, on the other hand, are all the go. Whether his rigidity and inflexibility in areas of religious doctrine and social mores have been identified as bolstering his suitability for defence is unknown but the fact is that he starts his portfolio on the back foot. Before even being sworn in today, Andrews has had to take evasive action: Australia’s 52nd Defence Minister was forced to reassure the military community of his commitment to the task after it learned he had “no interest in defence issues”. Spokesman for the Australian Defence Association, Neil James, said the association was “reasonably disappointed” in the appointment of Mr Andrews, describing it as another “terminal posting” for a politician in the twilight of their careers.

“Defence is getting very, very tired of receiving ministers who are really in their last term or two in Parliament. What we need is younger and more able ministers with a future ahead of them,” he said.

James is being a little narrow in his perspective and need not be so despondent. The facts are that Abbott makes the real decisions anyway; Defence is already colonised by the PM’s department. He should take heart in Andrews’ one-eyed vision and his pair of safe hands. He should also be cheered to know that Andrews is part of the Peta Credlin’s Star Chamber and is said to be on good terms with the PM’s ‘boss’, a small cabal of ministers who are happy to play obedient courtiers in the Credlin court one of a select and dwindling few to have the king (or his queen’s ear). How Andrews will fare when it all goes bad in Iraq or Lebanon or Syria or Israel and Palestine or when ISIS acquires nuclear weapons or when Putin formally annexes Ukraine, or when facing the challenges of an aggressive China and a militarised Japan are matters which can be safely left to the future. So, too, it has been decided with all other pressing highly complex military demands which pullulate like mushrooms in our region. We are to count our blessings. Rather than risk the situation to an intelligent, informed, up to date, cabinet minister with a military background or any expertise let alone any demonstrated capacity to seize the initiative or exercise leadership, instead, our anointed Defence Minister is to be a dogmatic apostle of conservatism on every front, a charmed member of Abbott’s Star Chamber, a dangerously right-wing bigot with a safe pair of hands.