The Cabinet Deck Gets Yet Another Shuffle


Will the last Labor stalwart to leave please turn out the light on the hill? That joke did the rounds of Twitter this weekend — before two more high profile figures, Greg Combet and Simon Crean, announced they were leaving politics.

The clean out in the wake of Kevin Rudd's resurrection has been brutal, with the government losing decades of experience and no little talent. Those rushing for the exits as this parliamentary term draws to a close include Crean, Combet, Stephen Smith, Craig Emerson, Martin Ferguson, Nicola Roxon, Peter Garrett, Chris Evans and Harry Jenkins – all of them senior ministers or senior parliamentary officers in the various incarnations of this Labor government, including under Rudd. Not to mention Julia Gillard herself.

It's customary to write these sort of articles with a long lists of ins and outs. Scrolling down the list of the new ministerial responsibilities, ordinary voters will find a few old faces. But the new names are plentiful.

Gillard loyalists Wayne Swan and Stephen Conroy are missing, even if they say they are staying in politics (there is much speculation that Swan will also pull the plug). Swan is replaced by Chris Bowen as Treasurer; Conroy by Anthony Albanese as Communications and Broadband Minister.

Gillard supporter Tony Burke, who with Gary Gray had offered to resign, keeps his spot in cabinet, but has been handed the poisoned chalice of the Immigration portfolio, where he has the job of racing the Coalition to the bottom on the ever-troubled issue of “the boats”. The previous victim of this portfolio, Brendan O'Connor, has been rewarded with a switch to the far less sensitive job of Employment, Skills and Training.

Bill Shorten has been given the plum post of education. Shorten will have his work cut out in the days ahead, as he tries to cut a deal with the states and territories to bed down the Gonski reforms. Should he lock in Victoria and perhaps Western Australia, Shorten will have gone a long way to Abbott-proofing the Gonski reforms from an incoming Coalition government. It['s a portfolio that should play to his negotiation and media skills.

The other key portfolio that changes is Climate Change, which is reunited with Environment under South Australian Mark Butler. Butler is a good media performer who has performed reasonably well as the Minister for Mental Health and Ageing, but this position will be far more challenging. Rudd has clearly signalled that he will look to abandon Julia Gillard's fixed price for carbon emissions before the election, taking Australia immediately to a floating price linked to the European scheme. Such a move will cause yet another write-down in federal revenues from carbon permits, but it has the political advantage of allowing Rudd to say he's gotten rid of the hated carbon tax once and for all.

Coming back into the cabinet are a number of Rudd supporters, most notably Victorian Left leader Kim Carr, who gets his old portfolios of Higher Education and Innovation and Industry back. These were policy areas that manifestly languished under Gillard, who cut billions out of higher education in a vain attempt to keep the budget in surplus. Carr's reputation in the universities sector is very good, and he is also an old-style industry policy guy who will complement Rudd's professed belief in a country “that makes things”.

The up-and-comer in the reshuffle appears to be Corio MP Stephen Marles, who has been given Craig Emerson's Trade portfolio. Marles is considered to be a real talent inside the party. He now has a chance to get a couple of months of ministerial experience in the run up to the election later this year.

Also in are a number of women who backed Kevin Rudd. Jacinta Collins gets Butler's old gig in Mental Health and Ageing, Julie Collins gets Housing, Community Services and the Status of Women, and Catherine King gets Regional Australia and Local Government.

Given the scale of the reshuffle, it's also worth pointing out that a few portfolios keep their ministers. Gary Gray keeps Resources and Energy, Bob Carr remains the Foreign Minister, Tony Burke keeps Arts, and Kate Ellis keeps Early Childhood.

What does it all mean, this close to an election? In coming days we'll look at the legacy of Julia Gillard and some of her key lieutenants. But some thought must be given to whether good government is assisted by this constant reshuffling of responsibilities. Labor must face the uncomfortable fact that there is some truth in Tony Abbott's claim that this is a chaotic government.

Ministers do not always prosper in lengthy tenures — Chris Bowen was education minister for only seven weeks in February and March — but the instability in Labor's executive in recent years has been extreme. This will be either the sixth or seventh cabinet (depending how you count such matters) of this term of Parliament. When we consider the very thorough reshuffle required by the abortive coup of this March, many portfolios are seeing their third minister in under a year.

Perhaps more importantly, the departures also make it harder for Labor to retain several marginal seats. The electoral maths is already difficult for Labor this time around, given that the government in already in a minority in terms of the lower house, and must actually win seats to stay in government. The bail-out of some strong local members makes that task harder.

Stephen Smith, for instance, has represented the seat of Perth for two decades; he has very strong local recognition and a good personal vote. With Perth already marginal and Labor struggling in Western Australia generally, his seat must now be in real danger. Craig Emerson's outer Brisbane seat of Rankin was always under threat; this makes it that much harder for the government to retain it. Greg Combet's departure will also hurt Labor in Charlton, based around outer Newcastle and Lake Macquarie. And the retirement of Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott make their two seats practically certain gains for the Coalition.

One thing Kevin Rudd and his new cabinet do have going for them is that most cherished phenomenon of modern politics: a poll bounce. The latest polls, taken since last Thursday, see Labor back to 49-51 in two-party preferred terms. That's more than competitive. Time will tell whether the honeymoon lasts. But for now, at least, it's game on.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.