View from The Hill

Gillard seeks safe hands in reshuffle

The new cabinet has been sworn in. AAP/Lukas Coch

Julia Gillard’s reshuffle heavily rewards her supporters but also, notably, one senior member of the Rudd cabal.

The changes load up senior ministers with extra responsibilities, putting key areas shed by departing frontbenchers into the safest hands in this very difficult pre-election period.

Gillard used her announcement to separate last week’s horror from what she hopes will be a brighter future.

Labor has been driven by purpose, she said, but “unity has eluded us”.

“Like Australians around the nation, I was appalled by the events of last week”; the Labor party had been “self indulgent”, putting on an “unseemly display”. But out of this it was clear she had the confidence of her colleagues to remain as Prime Minister, the leadership contest was over, and the government could now go ahead “as a government of purpose and a government of unity”.

Loyalists in Team Gillard have prospered in the hand out of portfolios (so have women – thee more in the ministry).

The new ministers are Sharon Bird (Higher Education and Skills), Don Farrell (Science and Research), Catherine King (Regional Services), and Jan McLucas (Human Services). All had been parliamentary secretaries.

The five new parliamentary secretaries are Michael Danby, Andrew Leigh, Matt Thistlethwaite, Amanda Rishworth and Shayne Newmann.

Of these nine, the only black sheep – on the Rudd list (provisionally) – was Thistlethwaite, from the NSW Right, who was a former party secretary in that state.

But Gillard can point to her decision to add Simon Crean’s regional development and local government area to Anthony Albanese’s existing big jobs of infrastructure and transport, as a response to critics of her earlier vindictiveness against the likes of former cabinet minister Chris Bowen.

On the other side of the coin, some in the Rudd ranks, seeing Albanese as a perennial survivor, accuse him of hypocrisy, or worse. Gillard said: “I’ve always felt a sense of comfort with Minister Albanese and his position”.

Albanese, who is also Leader of the House, is very competent, although there must be a question about whether he will be able to find enough time for the amount of regional travel needed. (He did have regional development and local government in the Rudd government.)

Trade Minister Craig Emerson will also find himself extra busy. He has become Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research as well as keeping Trade.

Gillard insisted he would be able to handle both portfolios, saying he was now very experienced in Trade and also noting that the link between the two areas was the “Asian Century” on which he already assists the PM.

Junior minister Bird, a former high school and TAFE teacher, will do the grunt work on higher education. Farrell, on the science and research side, is one of the so-called “faceless men” who helped install Gillard in 2010 and a former official of the “shoppies” union (Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association).

Tony Burke’s new workload (the Arts) is at least pleasurable and he has Victorian MP Michael Danby to help – Gillard said Danby’s lifelong commitment to the arts started when, as a teenager, he worked in his mother’s art gallery.

The post that business will care particularly about is Resources, which has gone to ex-Woodside executive Gary Gray. He is popular with those in the mining industry, and broadly shares his predecessor Martin Ferguson’s pro-business attitudes. His appointment was predictably criticised by the Greens.

Gray’s old job of Special Minister of State has been piled onto Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus. The big question for Dreyfus is whether he will proceed the reforms to the political donation laws which have been languishing in the Senate and for which the government has the upper house numbers. Gray had wanted to reshape the package but many in Labor would prefer to see a bird in the hand.

Greg Combet retains both industry and climate change but now the two departments are being merged. This might be a relief for some Climate Change public servants, who might be able to rearrange their careers in the next few months. They have been staring at the prospect of an Abbott government scrapping the department.

The merger decision was taken ahead of the events of last week. Labor wanted to reap what economies there were rather than leave them for Abbott to put in his savings list.

The two additions to Cabinet are Gray and Jason Clare. Clare was cabinet secretary and has been promoted while retaining his current job of Home Affairs and Justice.

Like Bowen, a Rudd backer who resigned his tertiary education portfolio, Clare is considered a rising star of Labor’s next generation.

The respective fates of these two tell the story of the last amazing days. A week ago, Bowen was in cabinet; now he is on the backbench. Clare, also from the NSW Right and from western Sydney, has taken his cabinet spot.

For the future, Gillard has given no indication of taking on board any of the criticisms or warnings by departing ministers. To those like Ferguson who have called for the government to put aside the class warfare talk and to govern in the Hawke-Keating tradition, she said: “We have got to be clear about our values and about our priorities, and as a Labor government we do govern in the Hawke and Keating tradition… I believe in the power of markets, as did Hawke and Keating. I believe you can have well-functioning markets that enable you to run a nation and a society of fairness.”

Gillard did, however, indicate she had taken one policy message out of last week’s disaster, which included the crash of key media reforms. She won’t be carrying those as policy to the election. That’s something else that is over.

Update: Last week’s debacle has been dramatically reflected in the latest Newspoll with Labor’s primary vote plummeting to 30% and the two party preferred gap widening from 48-52 in early March to a landslide 42-58. In a fortnight, Gillard’s personal performance rating has slumped from 32% to 26%, her dissatisfaction is up from 57% to 65%, Tony Abbott is back in front as better PM, leading Gillard 43% to 35%.