SYDNEY – After the resignation of two of her most senior ministers prompted a Cabinet reshuffle ahead of a national election, Prime Minister Julia Gillard on Saturday denied that her government was in shambles.
Saturday’s announcement that the two ministers had quit came only three days after the Labor leader said elections would be held in September, an unusual step in Australia, where polls are usually only called a few weeks in advance.
Gillard said Attorney General Nicola Roxon, the first woman in the job and a staunch supporter of the prime minister, and Senate leader Chris Evans, who has at times been acting prime minister, are leaving the Cabinet immediately.
But she denied that the move has thrown her coalition government into chaos.
“Why on Earth would anybody say that?” Gillard said.
“No. 1, I’ve named the election date, giving people more stability and certainty than they’ve ever had before,” she told reporters in Canberra.
“No. 2, I’m here today making what is a very long-planned announcement, having had the opportunity to discuss with both Chris and Nicola their views about their futures during the course of last year.”
Gillard said she had known for a year that Evans, who was minister for tertiary education, skills, science and research, and Roxon did not want to stand for re-election and she had waited for the best time to make that announcement.
“This is the right time to announce this change, moving as we are into the parliamentary week,” Gillard said.
Roxon, who was health minister for four years before becoming attorney general a year ago, cited her young family as the reason for her departure.
“All of us need to make decisions about the right time to leave and I believe the right time is now,” said Roxon, who will resign her Cabinet post now and retire at the election, meaning there will be no need for a by-election.
Evans said he will retire sooner, once a replacement can be approved for his seat in the Senate, which does not require a by-election as senators are chosen by their party.
Both Roxon and Evans said they are confident Gillard can win the election even though opinion polls suggest the conservative opposition, led by Tony Abbott, will take power.
The opposition seized on the reshuffle, saying it was a “horror start” to the year for Gillard after a string of controversies, including ex-Labor lawmaker Craig Thomson being charged with fraud.
Thomson, an independent who quit Labor at Gillard’s insistence last April over long-standing claims he misused trade union funds in his previous position as a union official, was arrested by police Thursday on fraud charges stemming from those allegations.
The Cabinet reshuffle means former senior barrister Mark Dreyfus will become the next attorney general and Chris Bowen, currently immigration minister, will take on Evans’ portfolio when they are sworn in Monday.
Gillard said Bowen, had sought a more challenging role than the immigration post. Brendan O’Connor will replace Bowen, with immigration set to be a key election issue as Australia struggles to stem a record influx of boat people seeking asylum.
Assange set to run
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange will run for a seat in the Australian Senate during this year’s elections, his organization announced last week, with his mother saying he would be “awesome” in the role.
WikiLeaks unveiled the plan Wednesday with a tweet that read “Australia: Julian Assange has confirmed he will run in the 2013 national election for the Australian Senate,” just hours after Prime Minister Julia Gillard said the nation will vote on Sept. 14.
The 41-year-old’s mother, Christine, was delighted. “He will be awesome. In the House of Representatives we get to choose between U.S. lackey party No. 1 and U.S. lackey party No. 2 — between the major parties.
“So it will be great to ‘Assange’ the Senate for some Aussie oversight,” she was quoted as saying.
Assange, who announced his intention to stand for Senate last year, has been holed up in the Ecuadoran Embassy in London since June, after claiming asylum in a bid to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he faces allegations of sex crimes. Britain has refused to grant him safe passage out of the country.