The long goodbye: Roxon and Evans call it quits
PRIME Minister Julia Gillard capped the third day of her self-declared election campaign with the resignation of two key frontbenchers, leaving her to fend off accusations Labor was spinning out of control.
Ms Gillard announced a shake-up of her frontbench yesterday following the resignation of two of her most trusted ministers, Attorney-General Nicola Roxon and leader of the government in the Senate, Chris Evans.
The Prime Minister's latest shock announcement came just three days after she stunned both her party and political observers by calling an election for September 14.
Nicola Roxon, left, Julia Gillard and Chris Evans. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
Shocked Labor MPs, struggling to regain their balance over the ''crazy-brave'' announcement on Wednesday, were again left reeling by the timing of the personnel changes, which Ms Gillard insisted was entirely hers to control. The changes saw the elevation of four known Kevin Rudd supporters.
Ms Gillard said both outgoing ministers had privately indicated their desire to leave politics as long as 12 months ago, but that she had required them to wait until the best time for the government.
''We agreed at the right time they would relinquish their ministerial roles and I would make new appointments,'' Ms Gillard said. ''This is precisely the right time as Parliament resumes next week … this is the appropriate time to announce those decisions.''
But exasperated colleagues did not share her view. ''If this is the best time, then I know nothing about politics,'' said one.
The resignations have also raised talk of rats leaving a sinking ship and had internal critics claiming it again showed the Prime Minister's political judgment remained problematic with her government seen as lurching from crisis to crisis.
The biggest winner in the reshuffle is Melbourne-based former barrister and Queen's Counsel Mark Dreyfus. The widely respected jurist leapfrogs the outer ministry and other colleagues by going straight from parliamentary secretary into cabinet as Attorney-General.
Another big winner is Immigration and Citizenship Minister Chris Bowen, who moves to Senator Evans' former portfolio of Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research. He also picks up Small Business.
He will be replaced by Brendan O'Connor in the immigration portfolio.
Former soldier, the NSW Right-aligned Mike Kelly also comes into the ministry with Defence Materiel.
The Senate leadership post is subject to a ballot of the ALP caucus, which will be held on Monday in Canberra. It is expected to be filled by Communications Minister Stephen Conroy after Finance Minister Penny Wong chose not to run.
The pair of ministers formally stepped down yesterday during a press conference in Canberra, both offering the same reason for leaving - a desire to spend more time with their families.
An emotional Ms Roxon, who was federal health minister for nearly four years before becoming Australia's first female attorney-general last year, said she was ''torn'' by the decision to move to the backbench and quit at the next election. From Tuesday, Ms Roxon will serve out the remainder of the parliamentary year on the backbench.
''When I was elected 15 years ago, I hadn't even met my husband, Michael, and my daughter Rebecca was a long way from being born,'' she said. ''If I run for office again, she'll almost be in high school before I might retire.''
The seat of Gellibrand is held by Ms Roxon by 73.9 per cent, the second safest seat in the country. She was parachuted into the role by Senator Conroy and stood for election in 1998.
Two-time mayor of Maribyrnong Michael Clarke said he expected Labor would again install an outsider to the seat. ''We've had Nicola and before that Ralph Willis, a federal treasurer - you are looking at a seat that can only be for someone that has been destined for higher things,'' Mr Clarke said.
He listed Ms Roxon's local support for the Sunshine Hospital and its $200 million-plus expansion as one of her greatest local achievements.
''What a monumental loss, not just for the people of Gellibrand … She would be one of the finest politicians of all time anywhere, really capable, really clever and her outcomes were fantastic stuff,'' Mr Clarke said.
Senator Evans, who has been making the long air journey between Canberra and Perth for almost 20 years, said simply, ''the time has come''.
But their shock double-departure has added to concerns the government cannot get clear air nor avoid self-imposed mistakes.
In the three days since Ms Gillard stunned the political community with the high-risk strategy of a 7½-month election campaign, her government has been rocked by the return of the controversy surrounding Craig Thomson. He faces a slew of criminal charges from his time as a union official before entering Parliament.
It also followed closely on the heels of the awkward dumping of Labor senator Trish Crossin in favour of the party outsider, star-candidate Nova Peris.
Adding to the atmosphere of disarray was the ALP's vice president, Tony Sheldon, a key member of the New South Wales Right faction, who used an address to Young Labor to slam ''B-grade ministers'' and complain of a moral crisis within Labor.
The reshuffle prompted despair among some pro-Rudd MPs, with one describing it as ''a total joke, we're a laughing stock''.
The latest resignations come hot on the heels of the announcement of another former Labor attorney-general, Robert McClelland, that he will not recontest his south Sydney seat of Barton in September.
Signalling his intended line of attack as MPs return to Canberra, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott called on Ms Gillard to regain control of her government in the interests of stability.
With DEBORAH GOUGH