Australia Picks New Defense Minister in Cabinet Reshuffle

Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s first cabinet reshuffle will bring in a new defense minister.

Australia Picks New Defense Minister in Cabinet Reshuffle
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott will replace current Defense Minister David Johnston with Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews as part of the first set of changes to his Cabinet. Additional changes include appointing Josh Frydenberg, who will replace Arthur Sinodinos as assistant treasurer, and moving Health Minister Peter Dutton to take over the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. Sussan Ley, the Assistant Education Minister, will take over the Ministry for Health and Sport as part of the reshuffle, becoming the second cabinet-level woman in Australia after Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.

Johnston stepping down as defense minister comes after he faced a spate of criticism. Most recently, last month, Johnston criticized the Australian Submarine Corporation, a domestic, state-run submarine manufacturing firm, saying he would not trust it to “build a canoe.” As a result of Johnston’s gaffe, Abbott’s office was forced into damage control mode and issued a statement noting that “the Australian Submarine Corporation (ASC) plays a vital role supporting the Royal Australian Navy and our key naval capabilities.”

Johnston later half-apologized, saying, “Regrettably, in a rhetorical flourish, I did express my frustrations in the past performance of ASC. Johnston added, “In these comments I never intended to cause offense and I regret that offense may have been taken.” The ASC was under consideration for a contract to potentially build up to 12 new submarines in South Australia, but should the Australian government opt for the Japanese Soryu-class design, this could change.

Labor politicians have been constant critics of Johnston’s performance as defense minister. Johnston’s successor, Andrews, is already under fire over reports that he had once stated that he had “no interest” in defense matters.  Andrews, who will be Australia’s 52nd defense minister, says he does not recall stating that. The allegation that Andrews said he had “no interest” comes from the Australia Defense Association (ADA). “The ADA has a very long corporate memory. We never forget. The minister can’t remember the conversation. Hopefully we’ll move on from it,” said ADA executive director, Neil James. The Sydney Morning Herald further reports that Andrews, a known social conservative, will cause concern among the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender members of Australia’s armed forces.

In his speech announcing the reshuffle, Abbott noted that Johnston had done a “fine job” as defense minister and was criticized “unfairly.” He praised Johnston’s role in the response to the MH17 crisis. On Andrews, Abbott noted Andrews’ overall experience with government affairs, but did not offer any detail beyond that on how Andrews would specifically evolve Australia’s defense ministry and security posture.