Labor’s coup plotters and political fix-it men have been suitably rewarded in Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s newly unveiled ministerial line-up. Yet if winners are grinners, the broadest smile was planted on former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s face as he announced his new, plum post as foreign minister at a press conference held on Saturday with the US ambassador.
Seen as a reward for his campaigning for Labor during the recent election, Rudd’s elevation from the backbench to replace the well-regarded Stephen Smith was an obvious move for Gillard given her predecessor’s diplomatic experience.
Strolling around Canberra’s Lake Burley Griffin with US Ambassador to Australia Jeff Bleich, Rudd told reporters he was proud to serve again, despite having to take orders from the person who toppled him from the top job barely three months earlier.
‘To serve as foreign minister of Australia is a great honour,’ he said, adding, ‘There are national interests in this country which extend far beyond the personal interests of an individual.’
Nicknamed ‘Kevin 747’ in mockery of his ‘Kevin 07’ moniker of the 2007 election campaign due to a penchant for overseas travel, Rudd’s first trip since his appointment will be to Australia’s major ally, the United States. He is expected to depart Friday, with his schedule including talks with Obama administration officials and attending meetings at the United Nations on behalf of Gillard.
In a statement announcing Rudd’s appointment, Gillard said the move was in response to an election promise to return the ousted Labor leader to cabinet, to a post he had coveted.
‘Kevin’s status as a former party leader and his undoubted capacity meant he is deserving of a senior portfolio where the government can best use his skills,’ Gillard said in the statement reported by the Courier Mail.
‘His experience and intense interest in foreign affairs makes this the obvious choice.’
However, the move was criticised by the woman who, had two independent lawmakers decided differently, might have been jetting to Washington in his place.
‘The leader that was sacked by his own party because he led the government off course...is now expected to navigate Australia through our foreign policies,’ Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop told reporters in Perth.
‘The leader who was sacked by his own party because he could not get along with people is now Australia's number-one diplomat.’
The man who Rudd replaced might have complained over his forced move to the tougher defence minister position, but Western Australia lawmaker Stephen Smith told reporters he was willing to take one for the team.
‘I made it clear to the prime minister from the first moment that I was in her hands and effectively at her disposal...When the prime minister indicated to me this week that she was proposing to appoint Kevin as foreign minister and she asked what I would like to do, I said defence,’ he told reporters.
‘And of course she has decided to appoint Kevin Rudd, an entirely appropriate appointment, a former prime minister. It reflects his standing as a former prime minister of our country.’
Gillard has furthermore nominated as one of Rudd’s priorities the establishment of a regional processing centre for asylum seekers on East Timor—a plan reportedly opposed by Rudd while in office, and also by East Timor lawmakers as previously reported by The Diplomat.
Winners and losers
While a triumphant Rudd secured the spotlight, Gillard’s cabinet reshuffle also threw up its share of political winners and losers in the new Labor minority government.
Senior members of the party’s Right faction who had led the move to oust Rudd all gained promotions, including key powerbrokers Bill Shorten and Mark Arbib.
Shorten, a Victoria MP and former union leader who had won praise for his work as disabilities minister, was promoted to the ministry as assistant treasurer, while his counterpart from New South Wales was made responsible for indigenous employment, sport and social housing.
Other key Right faction members to gain promotion included South Australian senator Don Farrell, made parliamentary secretary for sustainable population and water, and Victorian senator David Feeney, named parliamentary secretary for defence.
Yet Gillard stated that some of the biggest changes were the appointment of another former union leader, Greg Combet, as climate change minister, along with Craig Emerson as trade minister. Penny Wong was moved from her climate change post to become finance minister, while Treasurer Wayne Swan retained his position along with that of deputy prime minister.
The prime minister’s long-time ally from Victoria, Simon Crean, will be required to utilise all his negotiating skills acquired as a former union leader in his new post as regional development minister. Crean, also a former party leader, has been given responsibility for implementing a contract agreed with independent MPs Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor on regional programs, which proved crucial in winning their support for Labor.
Crean’s appointment followed Oakeshott’s decision to decline Gillard’s offer to become minister for regional Australia, an offer which the NSW independent said had also been made to him by the Coalition as both sides bargained for his support.
Another political winner was former environmental campaigner and rock star Peter Garrett, who despite being blamed for a botched home insulation scheme while environment minister, kept his cabinet place as schools minister.
Immigration is another political ‘hot button’ issue for Labor, and handling the current wave of asylum seekers will be Chris Bowen, who had won praise for his former role as financial services minister.
Although not able to boast an MP as young as the Coalition’s newly elected 20-year-old Wyatt Roy, young blood was rewarded in Gillard’s reshuffle.
According to the Australian’s James Massola, just 5 of the 14 ‘winners’–MPs appointed to the cabinet, the outer ministry or as parliamentary secretaries–were born before 1966. Among the ‘children of the 70s’ to win promotion was David Bradbury, born in 1976 and made parliamentary secretary to the treasurer.
Losers in Labor’s reshuffle along with the former foreign minister included Tanya Plibersek, who failed to win elevation to cabinet despite being made responsible for social services. Nick Sherry was also demoted from assistant treasurer to make way for Shorten’s rise, with the latter tipped as a possible future Labor leader.
The new ministry structure was described as representing the policy priorities of the new government – education, the regions and sustainability – although Gillard’s decision to split the education portfolio among three ministers was attacked by the university sector along with other commentators.
The Australian Financial Review’s political editor, Laura Tingle, described the new line-up as the opposite of the expected meritocracy.
‘Designing a smart and effective ministry, at a pragmatic level, entails bringing together a group of people whose jobs reflect the government’s priorities and workload, rewarding good performers, removing the lesser lights and reflecting the internal balances of power within a government. So it is a stunning achievement by Prime Minister Julia Gillard to have done none of those things in the ministry she arranged on the weekend,’ she wrote in a September 13 article.
Tingle criticised Gillard’s decision to scrap the portfolios of education, the status of women and disabilities, accusing her in her promotions of a weak decision to ‘blatantly reward the plotters behind the coup against Kevin Rudd.’
Meanwhile, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has delayed announcing his line-up due to the reported strategic surprises in the Gillard appointments.
According to the Australian, the Liberal leader is in talks with his Coalition colleagues over another frontbench position for the Nationals, who made gains in the recent election.
Despite speculation of a challenge to Bishop from Opposition finance spokesman Andrew Robb, Bishop was re-elected deputy leader and foreign affairs spokesperson at the party’s September 9 meeting.
No major changes are expected to the Coalition line-up, except perhaps for the elevation of former Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull to the shadow cabinet, possibly to communications or defence. Joe Hockey likely will remain shadow treasurer, with Robb and Bishop staying in their present posts.
With the latest Newspoll showing the two major parties still deadlocked in their public support, Abbott is expected to leave his team largely in place to exert maximum pressure on Gillard’s new ministry.
Yet according to pundits such as the Sydney Morning Herald’s chief political correspondent Phillip Coorey, Abbott faces an uphill battle in overthrowing the current minority Labor government.
‘The new government is a coalition of self-interest—and never bet against self-interest,’ he wrote in a September 13 article.
Rudd may be the obvious fall guy for Gillard, but for now the former leader is basking in the limelight again as he shares the stage with international leaders. Keeping his ambitions in check–and those of her party rivals and coalition allies–will be the main obstacle to a lengthy stay in office for Australia’s first elected female prime minister.