PM Dumps Vanstone From Cabinet

PM Dumps Vanstone From Cabinet

The Age (Melbourne)
Jewel Topsfield
January 24, 2007

WHEN she was asked if she should resign as Immigration Minister after a scathing report on wrongfully deported Australian citizen Vivian Alvarez Solon, Amanda Vanstone joked that she had the urge to burst into song.

“Look, there have been calls for me to step aside from, actually, March 1996,” she quipped at the launch of the report in 2005. “I'm thinking of trying to buy the copyright on Elton John's song I'm Still Standing, but I don't want to tempt fate. So I'll just play it to myself quietly at night.”

The plain-speaking South Australian senator was no longer singing yesterday, when she became the biggest casualty of Prime Minister John Howard's pre-election reshuffle.

Senator Vanstone is widely tipped for an overseas posting, possibly in China as she is learning Mandarin, although insiders have questioned the wisdom of giving such a loose cannon an ambassadorial role.

A clearly rattled Senator Vanstone said yesterday that it would be folly for her to decide her future so soon after being dumped from cabinet.

“I have just started today this rethinking process,” she said, when asked if she would stand for election when her Senate term expires in 2011. “My life deserves fair consideration. I'm not going to make those sorts of decisions in a couple of hours.”

Senator Vanstone, who was elected to the Senate in 1984 at the age of 32, is the longest-serving female senator and the longest-serving female cabinet minister in Australia's history.

Known for her gaudy short-sleeved shirts and even more colourful turn of phrase, she is both funny and formidable and refuses to suffer fools gladly. When former Labor senator Bob Collins, a portly man, made a pejorative comment about the size of Senator Vanstone's rear in 1991, she shot back: “It's better to be big in the backside than to have bulldust for brains.”

She astounded a group of Adelaide Rotarians in 2005 by recounting a conversation with Mr Howard about the ease of hijacking a plane using an HB pencil.

A moderate, Senator Vanstone voted in favour of stem cell research and giving Australian women access to the abortion pill, and she has regularly called for the legalisation of voluntary euthanasia.

But the senator, who was once described by an admiring Liberal colleague as “a political bovver boy”, has been given some tough portfolios.

One newspaper asked if she was the meanest person in Canberra when, as Minister for Family and Community Services in 2001-03, she presided over the Government's controversial welfare reform program. And the turbulent immigration portfolio, which Senator Vanstone inherited from Philip Ruddock in October 2003, was widely regarded as a poison chalice.

“It was impossible to win praise for the portfolio, in that everyone, if they don't have a Centrelink whinge, they have an immigration whinge,” one source told The Age.

Two major scandals were uncovered during Senator Vanstone's watch: the illegal deportation of Alvarez Solon and the mistaken detention of mentally ill Australian resident Cornelia Rau. However, many claimed these were a result of the culture of the Immigration Department under the Howard Government, and wide-ranging reforms were implemented under Senator Vanstone.

Refugee advocate Jack Smit, from Project SafeCom Inc, said the dumping of Senator Vanstone was a loss of intelligence from the front bench.

“(This is) merely a confirmation of the Prime Minister's long-term strategy, where most of the intellect and independent thinkers are punished and neutered for having an intelligent opinion or too much heart.”

However, several sources said Senator Vanstone was seen as lazy. They said she was unwilling to make decisions on ministerial interventions where the minister has the final say on whether applicants can have a visa allowing the cases to mount up.

“She would make decisions on a whim without a bigger rationale attached to them,” one source said.

Senator Vanstone refused to comment on the reasons the Prime Minister gave when he axed her on Monday.

Mr Howard told reporters that Senator Vanstone was “a very colourful person who had worked very hard”, prompting observers to claim he was damning her with faint praise.

When asked if she had regrets, Senator Vanstone said a life without regrets was a life unlived. But, typically, she refused to play victim.

“I am hardly going to wilt,” she said. “I can assure you I might not be standing in the same position, but I'm still standing.”