Abbott reshuffles Cabinet amid poor approval ratings

Abbott reshuffles Cabinet amid poor approval ratings
Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison speaks at a press conference in Sydney. Morrison was December 21 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.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has overhauled his Cabinet to try to "reset" his government, boost the economy and reverse his deep unpopularity.

In a major reshuffle yesterday, just one year and three months after his landslide election win, Mr Abbott dumped Defence Minister David Johnston and handed a wide-ranging welfare portfolio to Mr Scott Morrison, the hardline immigration minister who is considered one of the government's few star performers. Mr Abbott also added a second woman to his Cabinet after heavy criticism of his male-dominated government.

Facing dismal approval ratings and internal bickering within the ruling coalition, Mr Abbott said the Cabinet changes were aimed at boosting the economy and adding jobs. Australia's unemployment rate worsened due to a mining slowdown, rising this month to 6.3 percent, the highest level in more than 12 years.

"This is a ministry for jobs and families," Mr Abbott told reporters, referring to Mr Morrison's new portfolio, "and it is a sign that this is a government which wants the economy and the budget to be front and centre in the coming year."

Mr Abbott jettisoned Mr Johnston, who recently angered the state-owned naval shipbuilder Australian Submarine Corporation by saying it could not "build a canoe". He will be replaced by Mr Kevin Andrews, an experienced minister described by Mr Abbott as a "safe pair of hands".

In other changes, Mrs Sussan Ley becomes the second woman in the Cabinet as Health Minister, alongside Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who is considered one of the government's standout performers. The outgoing health minister, Mr Peter Dutton, will take on the tricky immigration portfolio. He will try to maintain the government's tough stance which has effectively ended the flow of asylum-seekers arriving by boat.

Mr Morrison, the man behind Australia's tough immigration policies which have been condemned by the United Nations and human rights groups, will now have the opportunity to soften his image. He will take on a "super-sized" portfolio, including welfare, families and childcare.

Mr Morrison will also have responsibility for Mr Abbott's plan to introduce one of the world's most generous paid parental leave schemes, a policy set to be wound back because it is too costly.

The reshuffle comes three weeks after Mr Abbott admitted that things had been "ragged" amid criticism over the spiralling budget deficit and unpopular cuts to health and education.

In recent weeks, Mr Abbott has dumped and tweaked unpopular measures such as a proposed new A$7 (S$7.50) fee for people to visit the family doctor.

Analysts had said he would also reshuffle his Cabinet to try to change perceptions that the government was off course. The latest Newspoll survey from Dec 2 showed the ruling coalition trailing Labor by 46 percent to 54 percent, with 57 percent of people saying they were dissatisfied with Mr Abbott's performance. Just 33 percent were satisfied and the remainder undecided.

Dr Zareh Ghazarian, a political analyst from Monash University, said yesterday's changes marked a "significant reshuffle" to give the government a new public face.

"The government is in real trouble," he told The Straits Times, adding that if it could not give itself a fresh "can-do" image, "it will be a one-term government".

The opposition said the sweeping reshuffle showed that the government was in chaos. "I think it is a vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister's Cabinet," said acting Labor leader Penny Wong.

Dr Ghazarian said it was a perfect time for a reshuffle as many voters were distracted by their holiday plans and the aftermath of last week's siege in Sydney.

"Politics is not at the forefront of a lot of voters' minds at the moment," he said.

This article was first published on December 22, 2014.
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