Julia Gillard reshuffled her frontbench yesterday, promoting two key supporters in a move interpreted by some as bolstering her power base and by others as politically risky at a time of more bad poll news.
Bill Shorten's elevation to the Cabinet and Mark Arbib's promotion within the junior ministry came as a poll published in Fairfax newspapers showed a drop in support for Gillard and her Government. Labor's primary vote has fallen by one point to 29 per cent while the Coalition's has risen by four points to 49 per cent.
Shorten, appointed Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations, Financial Services and Superannuation, and Arbib, named Assistant Treasurer and Minister for Small Business as well as remaining Minister for Sport, backed Gillard in her leadership coup against Kevin Rudd.
Rudd remains Minister for Foreign Affairs after the reshuffle, which boosted the Cabinet size from 20 to 22.
"He is doing an exceptional job as Foreign Minister ... [doing] foreign policy work in our proudest tradition, punching above our weight," Gillard declared of the man widely believed to covet his old job.
Other winners in the first real reshuffle since the 2007 election were Nicola Roxon, appointed Australia's first female Attorney-General, and Tanya Plibersek, promoted to Cabinet to take over from Roxon as Minister for Health. Roxon is considered to have worked hard in her difficult former portfolio, while Plibersek is regarded as a talented media performer.
Mark Butler will also move into the Cabinet as Minister for Health and Ageing and Social Inclusion.
Commentators saw the changes - sparked by the retirement of Nick Sherry, Minister for Small Business - as an attempt to inject fresh blood into the Government and reposition it for the two years leading up to the next federal election. Gillard said they reflected her focus on jobs and economic growth, and on sharing the benefits of the nation's wealth. "This new mixture ... will give us the focus and the firepower we need in 2012 to pursue the Government's priorities," she said.
But analysts doubt the reshuffle will boost the Government's fortunes.
"I can't see how this is going to turn anything around dramatically," said David Burchell, a political scientist at the University of Western Sydney.
He said "shuffling the deckchairs" would not dispel the lingering resentment among some voters about the way Gillard came to power.
Shorten is regarded as one of the Government's best performers; so is Greg Combet, the Minister for Climate Change, now given the extra responsibilities of industry and innovation. Among the losers was Innovation Minister Kim Carr, demoted to a junior ministerial role, and Robert McClelland, who lost the Attorney- General portfolio but managed to stay on in Cabinet as Minister for Emergency Management and Housing. Carr is viewed by some as a key backer of a leadership challenge by Rudd.
Other key positions have not changed. Wayne Swan stays on as Treasurer, Stephen Smith as Minister for Defence, Penny Wong as Minister for Finance and Chris Bowen as Minister for Immigration and Citizenship.
Some see the reshuffle as a gamble that could create more internal dissent.
The latest Nielsen poll gives Labor just 43 per cent of the two-party preferred vote, 14 points behind the Coalition. Gillard's approval rating has slipped four points to 35 per cent, while Abbott's is steady at 41 per cent.
Greg Combet: Heads up super ministry of climate change, energy efficiency, industry and innovation.
Tanya Plibersek: Elevated to Cabinet as health minister.
Nicola Roxon: Becomes Australia's first female federal attorney-general.
Bill Shorten: Goes from assistant treasurer to workplace relations portfolio and joins Cabinet.
Kim Carr: Dumped from Cabinet. Takes on manufacturing portfolio.
Nick Sherry: Retires to the back bench.
Chris Evans: Stays as leader in the Senate, but plays second fiddle to Combet as tertiary education, skills, science and research minister.
Robert McClelland: Dumped as attorney-general to become housing minister.