Only a fortnight ago, it seemed as though Labor would end the year on a roll. The talismanic carbon tax legislation had passed the lower house, the polls were inching in the right direction, and the Government had engineered a cunning tactical manoeuvre to take advantage of disgruntled Liberal-National MP Peter Slipper, making him Speaker and gifting the Government an extra vote on the floor of the lower house.
But for the modern Labor Party, no victory is quite safe. The ALP followed its positive end to the parliamentary year with a confused and divided party conference, in which vigorous debates about issues such as gay marriage and the sale of uranium to India served mainly to remind commentators and journalists that the party remained firmly in the grip of factional warlords and the various unions that fund them. For reasons no-one quite can quite understand, the Prime Minister ended up the on the side of the uranium exports and against gay marriage, which roughly equates to being on the opposite side of the bulk of Labor’s ordinary members.
Gillard gave a lacklustre speech to the party conference, neither energising her party base — nor doing anything to heal the deep rifts between her supporters and those of Kevin Rudd (yes, he apparently still does have some friends left in the party). Understandably, she looked tired. Less understandably, she seemed to lack any spark of inspiration, a problem for a leader of a party that embraces progressive causes and that feeds off the desire of its members for a better society. Her curiously ungrammatical phrase of "we are us" was widely ridiculed.
Then again, who really cares about political party conferences? Certainly not ordinary voters, most of whom have rather little interest in the internal policy debates of the ALP about how to reform itself, who should get a conscience vote on what, and whether to sell uranium to India. The issue of gay marriage is certainly important, affecting as it does a large and important part of the community on a matter of clear discrimination. Even so, there is a difference between the position of a political party, and an actual debate on the legality of the issue on the floor of Parliament. This latter has not even happened yet, and won’t until next year.
The general irrelevance of politics just now seems to be born out by the main non-event of this week in Canberra, the government’s ministerial reshuffle.
Ministerial reshuffles are one of those time-honoured set-pieces of Westminster government. They are as inevitable as taxes, and at least as boring. Generally pursued by a government every 12 months or so, they are an opportunity to reward friends, punish foes, and move dud performers out of harm’s way. This being a government less patient than most, the reshuffle means that this is actually Gillard’s third ministry since becoming Prime Minister, less than 18 months ago.
This week’s reshuffle is no exception.
Ostensibly triggered by the decision of Tasmanian Nick Sherry to step down from his junior ministry portfolio dealing with Small Business and Superannuation, Gillard and her backers have taken the opportunity to move a number of ministers around the cabinet table. As often happens in Labor reshuffles, the victims are not so much Julia Gillard’s enemies, such as Kevin Rudd and his supporters, but rather the hapless and friendless, like former Industry and Innovation Minister Kim Carr and Attorney-General Robert McClelland.
McClelland is the big loser in the reshuffle, losing the prestigious role of Attorney-General to the former Health minister, Nicola Roxon. McClelland becomes the new Minister for Emergency Management, which presumably means he keeps the emergency management roles that are currently housed in the Attorney-General’s department, but loses everything else.
Former Human Services minister Tanya Plibersek gets the Health portfolio, promoting another woman into cabinet and rewarding a consistent media performer in an increasingly marginal inner-city Sydney electorate. Greg Combet also gets more responsibility, despite having his work well and truly cut out with the implementation of the carbon tax, adding Kim Carr’s old portfolios of Industry and Innovation to his current portfolios of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency. Carr has been kicked out of cabinet altogether, retaining the vestigial junior ministry title of "Manufacturing and Defence Materiel". Then again, losing your job is probably appropriate for a minister representing the manufacturing sector, which has been contracting for years.
Chris Evans also loses out. The former Immigration minister had been in charge of Employment, Workplace Relations Tertiary Education, but now becomes Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research minister, a kind of omnibus higher education portfolio that combines the teaching aspects of universities with scientific research agencies like the CSIRO, the ARC and so on. Evans makes way in industrial relations for none other than Bill Shorten, who is the new Employment and Workplace Relations minister. With the business community signalling that it is prepared to push back hard against any union militancy in the wake of the Qantas imbroglio, the thinking seems to be that Shorten’s reassuring media presence and proven negotiating nous will be needed in coming months, as the Fair Work Act comes under renewed pressure.
The other big winner was NSW Right faction apparatchik Mark Arbib, who has been promoted to Assistant Treasurer and Minister for Small Business. Arbib is of course one of Gillard’s key factional allies. The Queenmaker controls a significant power base in the Right of the party, but unlike Shorten has no plausible leadership ambitions of his own.
Mark Butler also enjoys a promotion, entering cabinet with his current portfolio of Mental Health and Ageing, and picking up Social Inclusion along the way. Butler is a smooth and likeable South Australian powerbroker whose meteoric rise has been little noticed; unlike many of his colleagues, Butler has a knack of avoiding emnities and has performed well in mental health.
Oh, and Peter Garrett seems to have been whacked over the head again: there are reports that Gillard wanted to sack him altogether, but that he refused and threatened to resign his seat in Parliament if fired. Garrett has been given a minder in the form of Gillard-backer Brendan O’Connor to make sure he doesn’t upset the powerful private schools lobby in his ongoing review of schools funding as Schools Minister.
A number of struggling ministers survived. Tony Burke keeps Water. Chris Bowen keeps Immigration and Citizenship. Joe Ludwig keeps Agriculture. It might have been wiser to have moved one or more of these three, particularly Ludwig, who was manifestly out of his depth during the cattle export crisis. But Joe Ludwig is the son of Bill Ludwig, the powerful boss of the Australian Workers Union in Queensland. He is, as they say, protected.
What does it all mean? Not much, really. A number of commentators have argued that it signals that Gillard is under pressure and is struggling to retain her authority. Well, tell us something we don’t know. The Prime Minister has never enjoyed a period of plain sailing — indeed, scarcely even any break in the storm clouds — so her current embattled status should come as no surprise. Nor is it surprising that rumours continue to mount of a possible challenge by Kevin Rudd sometime in the new year. In the end, such rumours are simply the inevitable by-product of the current political situation.
Probably the best way to understand this reshuffle is as the inevitable realignment of factional interests within a government that is really a type of confederacy, endemically at war. The demotion of McClelland might have happened under any leader, as he has few factional allies and has been an underwhelming performer. The elevation of Arbib and Shorten, meanwhile, is simply the final fulfilment of promises made when Kevin Rudd was removed last year.
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