27/03/2013 - 09:42

Little time for Gray to settle into new role

27/03/2013 - 09:42

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Last week’s failed leadership tilt has sparked further upheaval in the Labor caucus and yet another ministerial reshuffle.

Little time for Gray to settle into new role

Last week’s failed leadership tilt has sparked further upheaval in the Labor caucus and yet another ministerial reshuffle.

WITH confidence in the federal Labor government at an all-time low, new Resources and Energy Minister Gary Gray has signalled his intention to provide a safe pair of hands in the key portfolio.

Mr Gray, a former ALP national secretary who holds the marginal Western Australian seat of Brand, was one of two junior ministers promoted to cabinet by Prime Minister Julia Gillard this week. Ms Gillard was forced to reshuffle her ministry for the fifth time in less than three years in the wake of an extraordinary week in federal politics, during which supporters of Kevin Rudd demanded a leadership spill, only for Mr Rudd to refuse to throw his hat into the ring. 

In the 24 hours after Ms Gillard was re-elected unopposed at a special caucus meeting, the government lost a wealth of ministerial experience and talent. Chastened by the catastrophic upheaval of the previous day’s events but unwilling to support the prime minister, several of Mr Rudd’s most prominent backers queued last Friday to announce their resignations, one by one, in the same room at Parliament House.

By the end of the day the government had lost the services of cabinet ministers Martin Ferguson and Chris Bowen, junior minister Kim Carr and all three of its whips, including chief government whip Joel Fitzgibbon.

Former Labor leader Simon Crean, whose remarkable interjection demanding Ms Gillard call a spill had capped off a week of unrelenting leadership speculation, was already gone. His sacking at the hands of Ms Gillard following his press conference was so swift that, by the time he entered the chamber for question time 30 minutes later, he was sitting on the back benches.

In the wake of his resignation, Mr Bowen was described by Mr Rudd as a future prime minister. High praise if from someone other than Mr Rudd, given his greatly diminished credibility within the Labor Party. 

The biggest departure of all though was that of Martin Ferguson, a parliamentary veteran who was lauded by the resources industry as an insightful and consultative minister.

With the government wrought by internal bloodletting and destabilisation, the need for Ms Gillard to stamp her authority on the ministry was essential. The promotion of Rudd supporter Anthony Albanese (who retained transport and infrastructure, and gained regional development and local government) was an anomaly in a reshuffle that rewarded loyalty, with senior Gillard backers Craig Emerson and Greg Combet handed extra responsibilities.

Mr Gray’s support for Ms Gillard has been similarly unwavering but his appointment to the resources portfolio is likely to serve the additional goal of restoring the business community’s confidence in the government, following the departure of his respected predecessor. 

Mr Gray is well versed in the resources industry, having spent six years working as an executive at Woodside Petroleum last decade. Industry groups welcomed his appointment, with Association of Mining and Exploration Companies chief executive Simon Bennison saying Mr Gray was well placed to take on a portfolio “in desperate need of reform”. 

“Gary’s experience in the resources sector will be invaluable in addressing many of the issues facing the industry,” Mr Bennison said in a statement.

“Over recent years Gary has shown his understanding of many industry issues, particularly as they relate to the workforce. He is certainly capable of managing the portfolio and has an excellent rapport with industry.”

A key area in which Mr Gray has backed industry is in his support for enterprise migration agreements. He faced a union campaign against his preselection for the 2010 election on the back of his support for EMAs, while his advocacy of 457 visas has put him at odds with the prime minister’s pro-local jobs rhetoric of late.  

While defending the government’s mining tax, Mr Gray has also backed rises in state mining royalty rates; a stark contrast to Treasurer Wayne Swan’s threats to withdraw infrastructure funding from the states if they did not curb increases. 

A calm and capable media performer, Mr Gray has made clear his intentions to play it safe in his new role and bring certainty to industry.

“I think the important thing … is to ensure that, to the extent possible, it’s business as usual; that confidence is given to our big resource investors, that we keep the progress that’s being made to support small businesses, and that we understand the tough times that tourism’s going through around the country,” Mr Gray told ABC’s Lateline program this week.

With opinion polls suggesting the Labor government will lose the September 14 federal election, Mr Gray’s impact is likely to be limited by his relatively brief time in the job. 

The largely working-class electorate of Brand has remained Labor-held throughout its 29-year existence, but the strong swing towards the Liberal-National government in the WA state election does not bode well for the three seats Labor currently holds at a federal level. 

Even if Labor were to make a spectacular comeback and win the election, Mr Gray will face an uphill battle to retain his seat.

 

WINNERS

GARY GRAY will take on the pivotal role of minister for resources and energy. 

ANTHONY ALBANESE scored a promotion despite being a key Rudd backer. The transport and infrastructure minister regained the regional development and local government portfolios. 

CRAIG EMERSON is now the minister for tertiary education, skills, science and research as well as the minister for trade and competitiveness.

GREG COMBET will head up the newly merged Department of Climate Change, Industry and Innovation. He has remained a loyal Gillard supporter over the years, alongside Dr Emerson.

LOSERS

SIMON CREAN was the first of several ministers to fall, with Prime Minister Julia Gillard immediately sacking him from the frontbench in the wake of his disastrous call for a leadership spill. 

MARTIN FERGUSON resigned as resources minister after 13 years on the Labor frontbench. He said the party’s “class-war rhetoric” had to cease if the party was to govern for all Australians.

CHRIS BOWEN is thought to have been one of the key plotters behind the attempt to restore Kevin Rudd to the top job. He fell on his sword despite being lauded by Mr Rudd as a future prime minister.

KIM CARR resigned as minister for human services, replaced by Queensland parliamentary secretary Jan McLucas. Senator Carr, a leading figure of the party’s left, has been a long-time Rudd backer.

 

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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