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Gillard’s cabinet reshuffle favours factions, but will it save her in the polls?

Prime Minister Julia Gillard has announced an expanded cabinet of 22 ministers. Alan Porritt/AAP

After a weekend of speculation, Julia Gillard announced a new cabinet in a dramatic redistribution of ministerial portfolios this afternoon. The number of cabinet members has swelled to 22, with only Kim Carr leaving the inner circle.

A reshuffle of this kind is not uncommon in Australian politics. They are often caused by ministers deciding to retire or at times when the prime minister feels it’s time to refresh their ministerial stocks. In this case it seems to be a bit of both.

Nick Sherry’s retirement as small business minister has given Gillard the opportunity to build a cabinet to take into the new year and to the next election.

Currying factional favour

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was a factional flavour to the changes to the ministry. The new-look cabinet has consolidated the right faction’s power in the parliamentary ALP.

In a press conference to announce the changes, Gillard claimed the decisions to rearrange the cabinet were hers alone. But the promotion of two of the ALP’s former “faceless men”, who were integral to her ascension to the role of prime minister indicates a greater reliance on factional politics than her predecessor, Kevin Rudd.

Bill Shorten’s meteoric rise continues. His elevation to a cabinet position sees the high profile MP with reported leadership aspirations take up an important workplace relations portfolio that will play into his experience as a former union boss.

Fellow faction member Mark Arbib has been similarly rewarded and given a heavy load, gaining Shorten’s previous role as Assistant Treasurer, Sherry’s small business portfolio, Joe Ludwig’s position as Manager of Government Business in the Senate, while remaining Minister for Sport.

Nicola Roxon’s move from health minister to Attorney-General relieves her of a difficult portfolio she’s overseen since Labor formed government. It provides her with an opportunity to engage with legal policy matters – an area she worked in prior to her election to parliament.

Replacing Roxon is Tanya Plibersek, who held the housing and status of women portfolios. Seen as a strong performer, Plibersek will have to reward Gillard’s faith by managing health effectively.

The role of Kevin Rudd has been one of the problems Gillard has faced since taking over as Prime Minister. By leaving Rudd as foreign minister, Gillard has resisted the temptation to marginalise his contribution to the political debate. But by remaining as foreign minister, Rudd still has the potential to be the thorn in Gillard’s side, especially as speculation continues about whether he will challenge Gillard for the top job.

When there are “winners”, there are “losers” and in this reshuffle the biggest demotion was for Kim Carr, who moved from cabinet to the outer ministry. This demotion is not entirely surprising as he is from the party’s left, which is now clearly not the favoured faction of the Prime Minister, despite Carr’s backing of her rise to power.

Chris Evans and Joe Ludwig were both rumoured to be awaiting demotion after poor performances during the Qantas debacle and live exports controversy respectively, but both have emerged relatively unscathed. Ludwig has escaped the axe, maintaining the Agriculture portfolio. Evans has lost workplace relations but maintained his spot in cabinet and gained science and research from the wounded Carr.

Playing the polls

The reshuffle comes at a time when the government is still languishing in opinion polls. Despite enjoying a brief rise in popularity in November, the Labor government has now fallen further behind the opposition. Not only does the recent Age/Nielsen poll show falling support for Labor, but it also shows a fall in Gillard’s personal popularity as well. This would no doubt be deeply concerning for Labor, especially as 2011 was billed as the year of “decision and delivery”.

The reshuffle can be seen as Gillard getting ready for a make-or-break 2012. After all, next year will be the last full year before an expected election sometime in 2013. A reshuffle is also one of the tools a Prime Minister can use to try to influence the political debate, and this reshuffle may reinvigorate the government.

With voters still appearing to shun the government, the cabinet shake-up appears to be intended as a circuit breaker for the government.

But it may be the case that voters have already made up their minds and are now just waiting for the next election to reshuffle government themselves.

The Breakdown

Bill Shorten Was: Assistant Treasurer, Minister for Financial Services and Superannuation
Now: Minister for Workplace Relations (from Chris Evans), Financial Services and Superannuation

Greg Combet Was: Minister for Climate Change and Energy Efficiency
Now: Minister for Industry and Innovation (from Kim Carr), Minister for Climate Change and Energy Efficiency

Nicola Roxon
Was: Minister for Health
Now: Attorney General

Tanya Plibersek
Was: Minister for Human Services and Social Inclusion
Now: Minister for Health

Mark Arbib
Was: Minister for Indigenous Employment and Economic Development, Minister for Sport, Minister for Social Housing and Homelessness
Now: Assistant Treasurer, Minister for Small Business, Minister for Sport, Manager of Government Business in the Senate

Julie Collins
Was: Parliamentary Secretary for Community Services
Now: Minister for Community Services, Minister for Indigenous Employment and Economic Development, Minister for the Status of Women

Chris Evans
Was: Leader of the Government in Senate, Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations
Now: Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research, Leader of the Government in the Senate

Brendan O'Connor
Was: Minister for Home Affairs and Justice
Now: Minister for Human Services, Minister Assisting for School Education

Jason Clare
Was: Minister for Defence Materiel
Now: Minister for Home Affairs and Justice

Jenny Macklin
Was: Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs
Now: Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Minister for Disability Reform

Kim Carr
Was: Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research
Now: Minister for Manufacturing, Minister for Defence Materiel

Robert McClelland
Was: Attorney-General
Now: Minister for Housing, Minister for Homelessness, Minister for Emergency Management, Vice-President of the Executive Council

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