Immigration minister promoted in Australia cabinet reshuffle

Immigration minister promoted in Australia cabinet reshuffle
This file photo taken on July 25, 2014 shows Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison speaking at a press conference in Sydney.

CANBERRA - Australia's Immigration Minister Scott Morrison was Sunday chosen to head up 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 a government shipbuilding firm could not be trusted to "build a canoe", was dumped from the front bench.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott said the reshuffle would "reset and refocus" his government for 2015, following a challenging year that has seen it lose support in opinion polls amid community disquiet over a tough cost-cutting budget.

He told reporters in Canberra the changes were a signal that his government "wants the economy and the budget to be front and centre in the coming year".

"In the end, nothing is achieved without a strong economy." Abbott had tried to rein in a federal deficit forecast to balloon to Aus$40.4 billion (US$33.2 billion) this financial year according to government figures released last week, while boosting the flagging economy which is struggling to move away from mining-led growth.

The prime minister praised Morrison, who has been tipped by some commentators as a future leader of the conservative Liberal Party.

"Not only is he a splendid advocate but he is the master of difficult policy and administration, as he has abundantly demonstrated in all but stopping the boats over the last 15 months," Abbott said.

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 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 Abbott said was a "very safe pair of hands", was moved from social services to defence. He had previously served as minister in the ageing, employment and immigration portfolios under the Howard government from 2001 to 2007.

The reshuffle followed the resignation Friday of Assistant Treasurer Arthur Sinodinos, Howard's former chief of staff, who had already stood aside from his post earlier in the year for the duration of a New South Wales state corruption inquiry.

He was replaced in his role by rising star Josh Frydenberg, Abbott's parliamentary secretary.

Acting Labor opposition leader and senator Penny Wong said the reshuffle did not signal a change to the government's policies.

"It is a vote of no confidence in the PM's cabinet," Wong told reporters.

"You don't need to have this extensive a reshuffle if your cabinet is performing well." 

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