CANBERRA - Australia's Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has been chosen to head the Social Services Ministry in a major Cabinet reshuffle, a move widely seen as a promotion following his handling of controversial asylum-seeker policies.
Defence Minister David Johnston, under fire for saying last month that he would not trust government shipbuilding firm ASC - which was being considered to construct a new fleet of submarines - to "build a canoe", was dumped from the front bench yesterday. The remark fuelled expectations that most of the work for the A$40 billion (S$43 billion) submarine programme will go offshore.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott said the shake-up was for jobs and families, and stressed a focus on financial issues as he deals with the fallout of an unpopular belt-tightening Budget.
"It is a sign that this government wants the economy to be front and centre in the coming year," he told reporters.
He is nearing the end of his first full year in office, hobbled by missteps and a souring economy that have dragged his approval ratings to historic lows.
Faced with a collapse in commodity prices and an unruly Upper House Senate that has held his first Budget hostage since May, voters have abandoned his conservative government more quickly than any other in three decades.
The elevation of Mr Morrison to social services minister underscored the shift in priorities, away from the secretive programme of "turning back the boats" of thousands of asylum seekers that helped the government win power a year ago.
That policy has been criticised by the United Nations, but Mr Abbott lauded Mr Morrison as "the master of difficult policy and administration" for almost entirely stemming the flow of boats over the past year.
"He is a very tough and competent political operator," Mr Abbott said of Mr Morrison, who has been tipped by some commentators as a future leader of the conservative Liberal Party. "He's also a very decent human being."
Under Canberra's tough immigration policy, asylum seekers arriving by boat are transferred to offshore camps for processing. Even if their refugee applications are successful, they will only be permanently resettled outside Australia.
Only one boat has reached the Australian mainland since last December, compared to almost daily arrivals under the previous Labor administration.
Health Minister Peter Dutton will move to immigration, while Assistant Education Minister Sussan Ley will double the number of women in Cabinet with her assumption of the health and sport portfolios.
Kevin Andrews, whom Mr Abbott said was a "very safe pair of hands", was moved from social services to defence.
Acting Labor opposition leader Penny Wong said the reshuffle did not signal a change in the government's policies. "It is a vote of no confidence in the PM's Cabinet," she said. "You don't need to have this extensive a reshuffle if your Cabinet is performing well."
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