By Tim Johnston
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Facing major challenges in the polls, Prime Minister John Howard of
Australia announced a long-awaited cabinet reshuffle Tuesday as he
prepared for a tough election later this year.
Howard’s ratings are being battered by a revitalized opposition
party and his handling of the war in Iraq, and analysts have said that
his coalition government could fall victim to a mauling similar to that
suffered by his allies in the Republican Party in the United States
New polling figures released Tuesday indicated that the coalition
government led by Howard — one of the longest-serving prime ministers
in Australian history — could be as much as 10 points behind the
opposition Labor Party.
"These are quite appalling figures," said Paul Williams, a political
scientist at Griffith University in the state of Queensland. "They
would be frightening for a government backbencher in a marginal seat."
The new cabinet announced Tuesday represents some high-profile
changes, and provides clear clues as to where Howard’s center-right
coalition believes it will face the biggest challenges during the
run-up to the elections expected toward the end of the year.
"It’s a question of putting the best- performing ministers in
sensitive portfolios," Williams said. "I think John Howard would be
making these changes even if Labor wasn’t barking at the heels of the
Malcolm Turnbull, a former merchant banker and rising political star
who has only been in Parliament for two years, is to take over the
water and environment portfolio and will face off against Labor’s
environmental spokesman Peter Garrett, the former lead singer of the
rock band Midnight Oil.
In a move toward revamping the immigration portfolio, Howard
replaced Amanda Vanstone with former Workplace Relations Minister Kevin
Andrews, shifting the focus from ethnic diversity to citizenship.
Clashes on Sydney beaches in 2005 between Australian youths of
Lebanese and European heritage raised the debate on values and
citizenship. There are still tensions with some members of the Muslim
Howard, a critic of Australia’s policy of multiculturalism, would
prefer that immigrants relinquish allegiance to their former homelands
and commit to Australian "mateship."
Polls have shown that many voters blame the drought that is racking
Australia, by some measures the worst in more than a century, on global
warming. It has focused critical attention on the Howard government’s
environmental record, including his refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol,
which was designed to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
Joe Hockey, the current Human Services minister, is to take over the
Employment and Workplace Relations portfolio. He will be at the center
of one of the key battles leading up to the election as the government
defends the controversial industrial relations legislation it enacted
last year. The government has said the law makes the work force more
flexible and therefore more competitive, but its opponents say it gives
too much power to employers at the expense of workers and will lead to
less job security.
The cabinet changes come less than a month after the opposition
Labor Party changed its own leadership, giving them a distinct boost at
the polls. A Newspoll survey published Tuesday in the newspaper The
Australian indicated that the new Labor leader, Kevin Rudd, had a 56
percent job approval rating — up 15 percent from last month, and well
ahead of the 46 percent for Howard.
Labor also holds a steady five-point lead over the Liberal-National
coalition in primary voting intentions, but after allowing for votes
for losing candidates which are redistributed under Australia’s
preferential voting system, Newspoll estimated that Labor could be as
much as 10 points ahead.
But despite the problems facing the Howard coalition, few people
think he will be easy to beat after almost 11 years in office. "Labor
has been in this position before at the beginning of an election year,
but John Howard is one politician you don’t want to write off," said
Williams, of Griffith University, citing the advantages of incumbency
and an upcoming budget that will provide an opportunity to ratchet up
The online sports betting company Centrebet, which has shown
remarkable accuracy in the past, agreed, and by their odds Howard is
still in the lead, though they have significantly narrowed the distance
between the two candidates in light of recent Labor advances.
The Newspoll survey also indicated that the war in Iraq was likely
to play a much greater role in this round of voting than it has in the
past. Australia has less than 900 troops in Iraq, and has yet to suffer
a combat fatality.