ONE thing can be said for Julia Gillard: she will not die wondering. Early in her life she chose a path and devoted herself to seeing it through, pursuing her political ambition with a fierce, clinical, almost bloodless determination. Now that she is Prime Minister, she is doing whatever she can to try to hold on to the job.
Gillard's prime ministership is in deep trouble. The public has made a harsh, overwhelmingly negative judgment of her and she must restore her fortunes, soon. Hence her ministerial reshuffle - an audacious attempt to remake her government as she prepares for her second full calendar year as Prime Minister.
Every reshuffle requires painstaking care and precision, not just in the reorganisation of ministers but in the messages that precede and follow the changes. It is the political equivalent of making a souffle: everything must be just so.
Gillard's souffle is not a success. It is as though she approached the kitchen bench, assembled the ingredients, and then donned wicketkeeper's gloves and welding goggles before trying to separate the eggs.
It is internally inconsistent, and driven by an affection for superficialities and her rising paranoia about Kevin Rudd.
The corollary is that the Prime Minister will face a showdown with Rudd next year. The Foreign Minister foreshadowed that with his public intervention on behalf of Kim Carr yesterday, praising Carr as an outstanding innovation and industry minister who had saved the Australian car industry.
This was a pointed reference to what appears to be the issue that created distance between Gillard and Carr, who until this year had worked together closely. Rudd, as prime minister at the height of the global financial crisis, had demanded written undertakings about future investment from the major car makers in return for the government's establishment of the green car fund.
Early this year, Gillard tore up the agreements and junked the fund in order to rustle up money to pay for the rebuilding of Queensland after the floods, and told Carr about it later. As a result, the future of the three domestic car makers in Australia is uncertain and the government now has to try to persuade them to stay.
Carr is now gone from the cabinet, busted down to the outer ministry. Gillard demonstrated her talent as a negotiator by combining a newly created Manufacturing portfolio with the traditional area of Defence Materiel in her offer to Carr. Astutely, she reasoned that it would be harder for Carr to say no and storm off to the backbench, given his years of work formulating and implementing Labor's manufacturing policy.
Gillard guessed right, but consider the result. A few months ago, when there was a contraction in the domestic steel industry, the future of manufacturing became a massive issue, one more mini-crisis for Labor requiring Gillard's intervention at a hastily convened summit. Now, it is not a matter worthy of direct cabinet representation.
The PM had not intended for Carr to be the only minister ditched from cabinet. She also had Robert McClelland, the attorney-general, in the gun. The mild-mannered McClelland fought back, calling in his favours from his New South Wales Right grouping, and managed to stay, fouling up Gillard's original intention of replacing him in the cabinet with Mark Arbib.
But McClelland had to be moved out of the attorney-general's portfolio because the PM had earmarked that for Nicola Roxon, whom she decided to demote from Health. Gillard has made much of Roxon's status as the first female attorney-general but that cannot mask Roxon's demotion from a big-spending ministry at the heart of Labor's political mission. Roxon had to be moved because the PM judged her not to have generated enough favourable publicity for Labor after the government had spent so much money on health.
Thus Tanya Plibersek, a telegenic favourite of the ABC's Q&A audience, got Health. Many of the decisions in this reshuffle appear to have been driven by similar considerations. Ministers who scrub up well on panel shows or are willing to talk under water on Lateline or charm the interlocutors on 7.30 have done well.
The general take on the reshuffle is that Gillard has rewarded right-wing powerbrokers who helped her topple Rudd last year. That is definitely an element of it, but the reality is more complex.
Bill Shorten deserves his elevation to cabinet as Workplace Relations Minister. He was devastated when Rudd chose not to make him a minister after the 2007 election, but he swallowed his medicine and got to work as a parliamentary secretary and more recently as assistant treasurer. Shorten is a potential future leader of the ALP and Gillard was right to promote him, regardless of whether he organised numbers for her last year.
The promotion of Arbib to take over as Assistant Treasurer is more nakedly political. The abilities Gillard sees in him appear to have eluded the notice of many of his colleagues. As for keeping him on as Sport Minister because 2012 is an Olympic year … well, only in Australia.
But even as she has sought to assert herself, Gillard has created more problems. The humiliation of Carr has only served to energise Rudd. Promotion of Shorten gives the NSW and Queensland right-wingers who are now her main sponsors one more non-Rudd leadership option, in addition to Stephen Smith, should they decide next year that her position is terminal. As a ruthless, unemotional operator herself, she would understand the thinking.
Shaun Carney is an Age associate editor.