Australian PM shuffles gov’t frontbench

SYDNEY, Reuters

Australian Prime Minister John Howard announced an expected reshuffle of his conservative government frontbench on Tuesday, reinvigorating his Cabinet for a tough election battle next year.

With the Liberal/National coalition polling neck and neck with the opposition Labor party, Howard promoted a number of younger faces to the frontbench while some long-serving older members stepped back into retirement.

“It’s probably presenting a slightly more human, middle of the road face with a view to the election,” said Jim Jupp, visiting fellow in the research school of social sciences at the Australian National University.

Howard said he had been presented with a good opportunity to reshape his Cabinet going into an election year. “I think some generational change and renewal is desirable,” Howard told Australian Broadcasting Corp. television.

In the most high profile change, industrial relations reformer Peter Reith — once seen as a possible contender for prime minister — will take over from long-serving John Moore in the key portfolio of defense. Senator Amanda Vanstone will replace Jocelyn Newman, who quit the welfare portfolio of family and community services to return to the backbench.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Minister John Herron will step down with Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock taking on his responsibilities.

Howard said junior minister Tony Abbott would take over Reith’s industrial relations portfolio. Reith drove industrial relations reforms for Howard, but his ambitions as a future leader were hurt by a bitter waterfront dispute in 1997 and again this year by a scandal over the misuse of his government telephone card.

He will be charged with implementing a defense force overhaul announced earlier this month, in which Australia will spend an extra A$23.5 billion (US$12.7 billion) over 10 years to revive its military and play a wider regional peacekeeping role.

Jupp said the reshuffle removed Reith from the politically sensitive industrial relations post ahead of the election, while helping Howard move more to the Liberal party’s traditional political center ground.

Howard has vowed to lead his government to the next election, due in October 2001, while Treasurer Peter Costello remains firmly in the picture as Howard’s likely successor.