Australia PM poised for first cabinet reshuffle

Reuters News
Posted: Dec 11, 2011 5:28 PM
Australia PM poised for first cabinet reshuffle

CANBERRA (Reuters) - Australia's Prime Minister Julia Gillard is expected to unveil changes to her frontbench on Monday, focusing the government on jobs and labor relations as she tries to reverse plummeting voter support ahead of elections in two years time.

In the first recasting of ruling Labor's cabinet since elections last year ushered in the first minority government in decades, Gillard will promote junior minister Bill Shorten to a new super ministry for jobs, prosperity and industrial relations, the Herald Sun newspaper said.

But major economic, defense and foreign ministry portfolios would remain unchanged, with Gillard not seen wanting to provoke a fight with Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, the former leader she deposed last year as Labor struggles in opinion polls.

Support for Labor and for Gillard fell again in a Nielsen poll in the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper on Monday, reversing recent end-of-year gains as the government introduced hard-fought reforms including a carbon price.

Opposition conservatives lead Labor by 57 percent to 43 -- a 2 percent swing in a month -- while Gillard's position as preferred prime minister fell 3 points to 42 percent, against 46 percent for Opposition Leader Tony Abbott.

The prime minister is bracing for a battle with employers over changes to work laws championed by Gillard, but which business groups say have made it too easy for workers to strike and too difficult for employers to negotiate effectively with unions.

Marius Kloppers, the boss of the world's biggest miner BHP Billiton, said recently Gillard's Fair Work Act had "broadened the range of issues that can be put on the table," while Rio Tinto this month accused the government of having an "aggressive" industrial relations agenda.

Shorten, 44, regarded by some political watchers as a prime ministerial contender, impressed senior colleagues with his aggressive criticism of moves by Qantas to ground its fleet over an industrial dispute in late October and his defense of the government's labor relations umpire.

He is a former head of the powerful Australian Workers Union and was one of ruling Labor's so-called "faceless men" who engineered the political coup in 2010 to oust Rudd.

In other changes, Gillard was expected to expand her 20-member cabinet by at least one, but Attorney-General Robert McClelland was expected to be replaced by Health Minister Nicola Roxon, also 44, who introduced controversial plain pack tobacco laws being challenged by tobacco giants.

As attorney-general, Roxon will spearhead the government's defense of the world-first laws against court challenges from Philip Morris, British American Tobacco and Imperial Tobacco.

Climate Change Minister Greg Combet would also be rewarded for his work in overseeing the design and implementation of carbon price legislation, the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper said, without naming sources.

(Reporting by Rob Taylor; Editing by Ed Davies)