Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced his ministerial team, opting for less familiar names as he seeks to distance himself from predecessor Julia Gillard and narrow the ruling Labor party’s deficit in opinion polls.
Rudd also rewarded some of his supporters, with deputy Anthony Albanese given the communications post, Joel Fitzgibbon agriculture and powerbroker Bill Shorten adding school education to his portfolio of workplace relations. The new ministry of 30, sworn in today, will have 11 women.
“I have assembled today a strong economic team,” Rudd told reporters in Newcastle. “We’ll have the largest number of women of any cabinet in Australia’s history.”
Rudd, 55, needs to rally Labor and clarify his policy priorities as polls taken in the wake of his return as leader indicate he may help avert a wipeout by Tony Abbott’s opposition coalition at this year’s election. The party’s talent pool has been drained by ministerial resignations, dismissals and reshuffles from three leadership spats since Gillard ousted Rudd in 2010.
“The prime minister will be impressing on his team that there can’t be any slip-ups and it needs to portray a unified front,” said Haydon Manning, a politics professor at Flinders University in Adelaide. “The fact that a lot of the names in the ministry won’t be familiar to many in the public isn’t the main concern. It’s all about getting the message across that this can provide credible government.”
Albanese’s communications portfolio will see him take over responsibility for the broadband network and retain his infrastructure brief, Rudd said. Brendan O’Connor was given the employment portfolio; Kim Carr innovation, industry and science; Catherine King regional Australia; Tony Burke immigration; Mark Butler climate change and Richard Marles trade. Penny Wong will remain as finance minister.
While Rudd hasn’t committed to Gillard’s pledge to hold an election on Sept. 14, he must hold it this year. Governor General Quentin Bryce swore in the ministers and parliamentary secretaries in Canberra today.
“The new ministry isn’t even the B team, it’s the C team” Abbott, 55, told reporters in Canberra today. “Not too many days will pass under Kevin Rudd when people will feel nostalgic for Julia Gillard.”
The appointments come after polls conducted by Newspoll, Galaxy and ReachTEL, conducted after Rudd’s June 26 removal of Gillard, show that while Rudd’s return has boosted support for Labor, the party would still lose the election if it were held now.
A Newspoll published in The Australian newspaper today shows Rudd is ahead of Abbott as preferred leader by 49 percent to 35 percent. The poll, conducted June 28-30, has the coalition in front of Labor by 51 percent to 49 percent on a two-party basis, designed to gauge which party is most likely to form government under Australia’s preferential voting system.
That two percentage-point gap is narrower than a 14 percentage-point gap a week ago. The survey of 1,149 people had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points. Newspoll is 50 percent owned by News Ltd. and 50 percent by Millward Brown Inc., a market-research company.
“Honeymoon is a good term for it,” Norman Abjorensen, a Canberra-based political analyst at Australia National University, said by phone yesterday, referring to Rudd’s poll bounces. “The opposition have had a free run recently and suddenly you have the worst possible scenario for Abbott -- Rudd returning.”
Rudd’s ouster of Gillard, 51, who subsequently announced her retirement from politics, resulted in the resignation of seven ministers including Treasurer Wayne Swan, who has been replaced by Rudd loyalist Chris Bowen.
Former party chief Simon Crean today said he would quit parliament at the election. The then-Regional Development Minister Crean attempted in March to bring on a challenge to Gillard, which failed when Rudd decided not to run.
Other prominent names who plan to leave parliament or have quit include Greg Combet, Stephen Smith, Joe Ludwig, Craig Emerson, Peter Garrett and Stephen Conroy. The resignations followed then-Attorney General Nicola Roxon and Senate leader Chris Evans in February, which forced a reshuffle.
Rudd has been criticized by colleagues including Swan for an autocratic style, raising questions over whether Labor can rally behind him before the election. Swan last year described him as a man of “great weakness” who demeaned party colleagues during his tenure as prime minister from 2007-2010.
Rudd said he returned to the leadership to avoid a “catastrophic” election defeat for Labor. He faces the challenge of uniting his party and deciding whether to support some big-ticket policy items that Gillard struggled to sell to voters. Those include the nation’s first levy on greenhouse-gas emissions and a tax on mining company profits that budget documents show may reap A$1.8 billion ($1.64 billion) less revenue than previously forecast for the financial year ended yesterday.
Rudd will have a chance to address the issue of asylum seekers when he visits Indonesia on July 4 and 5 to meet with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Hundreds of illegal migrants, often from war-torn Middle Eastern and South Asian nations, have drowned in the waters between Indonesia and Australia, with sections of the community concerned those who do arrive receive undeserved welfare payments.
Same-sex marriage, which Rudd now supports, is another issue where he is seeking to create policy differences with Abbott, saying the opposition leader should reverse his policy and let coalition lawmakers vote in parliament according to their views on the issue.
Abbott, a Rhodes Scholar and former amateur boxer who studied for the priesthood, has been painted by Labor as a social conservative with sexist views. Gillard last October stood up in parliament and accused Abbott of “repulsive double standards when it comes to misogyny and sexism.”
One reason Rudd may be promoting the number of women named in his ministry is to put pressure back on Abbott, said Stephen Stockwell, a political analyst and Griffith University professor of journalism and communications in Brisbane.
Others given new portfolio commitments today include Julie Collins with housing, Sharon Bird with regional development, and Melissa Parke with international development.
“Rudd can argue with good reason that the relatively large number of female appointments to the ministry is merit-driven because a lot of the senior Labor figures retiring at the next election are men and many of the party’s talented younger people are women,” Stockwell said. “It may also help win back some of the female voters turned off by the way he defeated Gillard.”