Australian Prime Minister John Howard today announced a major Cabinet reshuffle ahead of federal elections later this year, signalling climate change as a key issue but standing firm on his support of the Iraq war.
Howard appointed new ministers for immigration, environment and employment, all topics likely to dominate the conservative coalition’s bid for a fifth term against an increasingly popular Labour Party leader.
The prime minister appointed former merchant banker-turned-politician Malcolm Turnbull as minister for the newly-renamed Department of Environment and Water Resources, replacing Senator Ian Campbell.
With Australia gripped by its worst drought in more than a century, recent polls have shown that climate change and water management have become hot issues for voters.
Capitalising on the concern, the opposition Labour Party recently appointed former pop music star Peter Garrett, now a politician, as its new environment spokesman.
“The next election will be a very tough one for the government. That is something that I have acknowledged for a long time and I acknowledge it again,” Howard said in Canberra. “There is no doubt that issues relating to climate change and water are going to be very important.”
The prime minister also named current Employment and Workplace Relations Minister Kevin Andrews to lead the immigration portfolio, replacing Senator Amanda Vanstone, as the government moves this year to impose a compulsory English language and Australian values test on all would-be citizens.
The current human services minister, Joe Hockey, was named the new employment minister amid polls showing voters have refused to embrace a sweeping packet of labour law reforms passed by Howard’s government last year.
The new Cabinet leaves Howard’s key economic and foreign policy advisers, including Treasurer Peter Costello, Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer and Defence Minister Brendan Nelson, in their posts.
However, the appointments come as new polls show Howard’s popularity slipping against Labour Party leader Kevin Rudd, and declining support for Australia’s involvement in the Iraq war.
A random telephone poll of 1,152 voters published in The Australian newspaper today showed that Howard’s approval rating had slipped to 46%, while Rudd’s rose to 56%.
The poll, which was taken from January 19 to 21 also found that 62% of Australians either strongly or partly opposed Howard’s handling of Iraq and that 71% of voters believed the war would be an important issue at elections due in late 2007.
Howard showed no sign of backing away from his pro-war stance.
“When I took the decision back in 2003 to become part of the coalition the polls were about the same,” Howard said. “I believed it was right then and I still believe the decision we took was right.”
Howard has repeatedly rejected calls for him to set a deadline for removing Australia’s 1,300 troops from the Middle East.
Earlier this month, he expressed support for US President George Bush’s plan to increase American troops in Iraq, but said Australia was “unlikely” to follow suit.
Howard denied suggestions that the Cabinet shake-up was an attempt to breathe life into a party grown stale after more than a decade in power.
“I think it is an effective concentration of the fire power of the prominent people within the government,” Howard said. “I would have thought running out of puff is when you don’t make difficult decisions, rather than the reverse.”
The new ministers will be sworn in at a ceremony next Tuesday, Howard said.