Australian Prime Minister John Howard announced a major reshuffle of his Cabinet yesterday, promoting controversial Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock to the role of federal attorney-general and shifting other key ministers.
The move came a year before an expected federal election, at which Howard's conservative coalition government will seek a fourth term.
Ruddock, who recently celebrated 30 years in federal parliament, has earned plaudits from within Howard's Liberal Party for running the nation's tough immigration policy, but has been attacked by human rights groups for ordering the mandatory detention of all asylum seekers caught trying to sneak into the country.
Justice for Refugees South Australian chairman Don McMaster said Ruddock would be remembered as "a very hardline immigration minister with draconian policies."
Howard told reporters the changes will continue "the process of renewal and regeneration" within his government.
"They will reinforce the government's commitment to its goals for Australia of national security, economic strength and social stability," he said.
But the opposition Labor Party, currently languishing in the polls and seeking to make political capital out of the changes, said Howard was forced into the changes by incompetent ministers.
"Every minister who has been shifted has been exposed by Labor as incompetent and unable to manage his or her portfolio," Labor leader Simon Crean said in a statement.
Howard's deputy and likely successor, Treasurer Peter Costello, kept his job.
Announcing the changes, Howard said he decided against creating a homeland` security ministry to combat terrorism.
"The more I look at the administrative arrangements that exist in this country in these areas, compared with those of the United States and the United Kingdom, I'm satisfied that the arrangement here is as good, if not superior, to those that operate in America," Howard told reporters.
Among the major changes were Employment and Workplace Relations Minister Tony Abbott moving to the politically sensitive Health Ministry and Communications Minister Sen. Richard Alston leaving that job ahead of his retirement from the Senate.
Alston, who had been spearheading the government's move to fully privatize former communications monopoly Telstra, will be replaced by the current attorney-general, Daryl Williams.
Kay Patterson was demoted from the health portfolio to take responsibility for the less high-profile family and community services portfolio, while Amanda Vanstone, a veteran Howard supporter, moves to Ruddock's former post as immigration minister from family and community services.
Kevin Andrews, another close ally of Howard, was promoted from minister for aging to take Abbott's post as workplace relations minister.
Howard said recently he would likely call an election in the second half of next year, having ruled out going to the polls early.