THE GILLARD government’s turbulent start to the new parliamentary year continues with the shock resignation of two of Labor’s most senior Cabinet ministers, the Attorney-General Nicola Roxon and the government’s leader in the Senate, the Higher Education Minister, Chris Evans.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced a mid-level reshuffle of her Cabinet this morning announcing, among other changes, Australia’s third Attorney-General and Immigration Minister since Labor took power in 2007.
Both Ms Roxon, one of Ms Gillard’s closest allies, and Senator Evans, who, as Senate leader, is the third in line to the prime ministership, have resigned their Cabinet posts, with Ms Roxon to serve on the backbench until the September 14 federal poll when she will exit politics altogether.
Senator Evans will step down from the Senate in the coming months when a suitable replacement can be found, to be appointed by the West Australian Premier Colin Barnett on advice from preselector of the state’s Labor branch, in keeping with parliamentary conventions.
While Ms Gillard retains the power to choose her ministers, the leadership position in the Senate will require a ballot of the ALP caucus to be held on Monday morning and is likely to be hotly contested.
Possibilities for the leadership role are the Finance Minister, Penny Wong, from Senator Evans' Left faction, and the Right's Stephen Conroy, the latter widely considered as the frontrunner.
Left faction organiser Kim Carr is also understood to be considering standing for the position.
Ms Gillard confirmed this morning her fellow Victorian MP, Mark Dreyfus, QC, will take over as Attorney-General.
The Prime Minister unveiled a number of other changes to the ministry this morning at a press conference in Canberra.
Chris Bowen vacates the Immigration portfolio, which will be filled by Brendan O’Connor, with Mr Bowen to replace Senator Evans as Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research.
He will also assume responsibility for the Small Business portfolio.
An emotional Ms Roxon said she was ‘‘very torn’’ about leaving but that her desire to spend time with her husband and their young daughter had won out.
Ms Roxon said she believed Mr Dreyfus would step into her vacate Cabinet role seamlessly.
Senator Evans said there were no shortage of people who could serve in his role as senate leader.
Having migrated from Wales with his family at the age of nine, Senator Evans said he would always be grateful for the opportunities he had enjoyed in Australia.
"I am making the move now because I know the party is in very good shape and this will allow the Prime Minister to lead a ministerial team who are ready to serve on into the next term,’’ he said.
"It will also allow for renewal and a new leadership team in the Senate."
‘‘They will all have to make their decisions... there will be a strong field of candidates.
‘‘It is a challenging job, it does take a lot of time and energy.’’
Ms Gillard defended the timing of the reshuffle, which comes just three days before the first parliamentary sitting period of the year, saying there were realities such as personal, health and family decisions to take into account.
‘‘This is what government is about...I can’t wish away the real world ... but this is the team I intend to take to the next election,’’ she said.
She said Mr Bowen had been looking for a new challenge and had been working in a difficult portfolio for some time.
In a surprising twist, Ms Roxon thanked former prime minister Kevin Rudd during her resignation announcement, a sharp turnaround from the blistering character assassination delivered during last February’s leadership ballot.
The former Attorney-General was less than civil in her comments about the opposition leader Tony Abbott.
‘‘My only regret as health minister is the inordinate amount of time we were too long fixing many of the problems that Mr Abbott left from his time as health minister,’’ she said.
While both Ms Roxon and Senator Evans were confident Labor could win at the election, the situation is problematic for Ms Gillard, who was forced to deal with the renewed Craig Thomson issue just two days after her extended election campaign gamble, and now has to contend with losing two senior ministers in the same week.
Last week, former Attorney-General and Kevin Rudd supporter, Robert McClelland, declared he would also not recontest his Southern Sydney electorate seat of Barton at the September election.
Former federal attorney-general Robert McClelland, who has decided - after 17 years in parliament - not to seek preselection for his Sydney seat of Barton.
Mr McClelland was dumped from the frontbench by Ms Gillard after he supported Mr Rudd in a 2012 leadership challenge.
Additionally, with Indigenous Olympian Nova Peris confirmed as Labor’s top pick on the NT Senate ticket, current Labor NT Senator Trish Crossin will bow out of Labor’s ranks in September following Ms Gillard’s "captain's pick" to install Ms Peris as Labor's first indigenous woman in parliament.
Senator Crossin is disappointed but ruled out standing as an independent after 30 years' membership of the ALP and trade unions.