Kevin Rudd is set to announce a new ministry and possibly also changes to carbon pricing policy as he races to renew Labor’s image before the election.
The ministerial reshuffle – plugging the gaps caused by six ministerial resignations after the leadership change – could be announced on Friday and the new line-up will meet Monday to consider changes to key policies.
With the legislation setting up Julia Gillard’s new needs-based education funding scheme passing parliament on the day she was deposed, Rudd has indicated he will maintain the so-called Gonski plan and enter negotiations with the states that have not yet signed on, in particular Victoria.
On asylum policy, the previous Cabinet was considering what one source called a “smorgasboard” of options to try to stop people smugglers bringing asylum seekers to Australia, and these remain available to Rudd.
On carbon policy, Rudd has said only that he is a strong supporter of a carbon price, and is likely to consider bringing forward the 2015 start-date for a floating carbon price.
Changes to the carbon pricing scheme will be discussed by the new Cabinet next week. It would see Australia’s price fall into line with the EU price of around $6 a tonne. But the bring-forward was also considered and rejected by Julia Gillard’s Cabinet because they were costly to the budget and administratively difficult, with flow on effects for the rest of the carbon pricing system. Change would have to be presented as an election pledge because parliament has risen.
Rudd is reportedly also considering reversing some of the cuts to single parent welfare payments introduced under his predecessor.
The new prime minister’s first challenge was to get through his only parliamentary question time Thursday, where he sought to flip the political debate to a policy comparison between the major parties and to demand an end what he has called “the politics of negativity”.
As he scrambled to reorganise after the dramatic overthrow of Julia Gillard on Wednesday night, the resignation of more than a third of its frontbench and years of divisive leadership instability, Rudd declared it was now “time for the old politics of negativity to be dead and buried”.
But he gave only very general hints about his own policy priorities, saying regional Australia was “writ large” in his heart. He said there would be “no leaving the bush out”.
Meanwhile, the ministerial corridors of parliament house were full of bags of shredded paper and boxes of belongings as departing ministers and staff packed up to leave.
New treasurer Chris Bowen underlined Rudd’s promise to rebuild relationships with the business community, calling the heads of the Business Council of Australia, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Australian Industry Group and the Council of Small Business on his first morning in the job to arrange meetings.
With Gillard sitting on the backbench, Rudd indicated the election might not be on her nominated date of 14 September, saying he would return to the practice of previous prime ministers and not signal it in advance.
He said he would take into account the fact that the G20 meeting was being held in St Petersburg on 6 and 7 September, the fact that the local government election was already set for 14 September and the current coincidence of the election date with the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur, when deciding on a date.
But he pointed out time was running out for an election to be held, telling Abbott “if he’s looked at the dates there won’t be a huge variation one way or the other”.
After just a few hours to prepare and without a new ministry in place, Rudd’s answers were mostly vague, and wherever possible he returned to the claim that his return to the prime ministership would draw a line under “negative politics”.
Abbott said Rudd was trying to avoid answering questions about why he had dragged Gillard down, “like Pontius Pilate, the PM is washing the blood off his hands”, he said.
Rudd was sworn in as prime minister for a second time on Thursday morning, three years after being deposed. He addressed the parliament shortly afterwards, paying tribute to Gillard and appealing to politicians to be “a little kinder and gentler with each other”.
But Abbott said Rudd “owed Australians an explanation”.
“The former prime minister should have been dealt with by the Australian people at an election, not by the faceless men last night. If the former prime minister’s achievements were so substantial . . . why was she dragged down last night,” he asked.
When he announced his candidacy, Rudd promised “no retributions, no paybacks, none of that stuff”, but Julia Gillard, Swan, climate change minister Greg Combet, education minister Peter Garrett, trade minister Craig Emerson, communications minister Stephen Conroy, agriculture minister Joe Ludwig all immediately announced they were standing down from the frontbench. Gillard, Garrett, Smith and Emerson said they would not contest the forthcoming election, as did defence minister Stephen Smith.
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