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Australian PM Reshuffles Cabinet - 2003-09-29

Australian Prime Minister John Howard has announced a major reshuffling of his senior ministerial team. Among the biggest changes is the promotion of Philip Ruddock, the tough immigration minister. He's been given the powerful position of attorney general.

This is the biggest cabinet reshuffle since Mr. Howard came to power in 1996. His government must call an election before the end of next year, and these changes are designed to present a strong and re-invigorated image to the electorate.

The architect of Australia's hard-line refugee policy, Philip Ruddock, has been appointed attorney general, Australia's chief law officer.

As Australia's immigration minister for the past seven years, Mr. Ruddock established the country's controversial "Pacific Solution." The measure called for asylum seekers heading to Australia by boat from Indonesia to be taken to processing camps in the South Pacific rather than be allowed onto the mainland.

The move proved popular at the polls but was criticized by advocacy groups as "inhumane."

The appointment of Ruddock as attorney general is largely seen as a reward for helping usher in a win for the Howard administration in the November 2001 elections. The Howard government swept to a third consecutive term in office on the back of its tough stance on illegal immigration.

The new immigration minister is Amanda Vanstone, a long-time Howard loyalist and an outspoken and experienced politician.

Other significant changes are in the areas of health and communications.

The prime minister said the reshuffle will make a strong government even stronger. "These changes will continue the process of renewal and regeneration," he said. "They will reinforce the government's commitments to goals for Australia, of national security, economic strength and social stability."

Opposition politicians in Australia have criticized the changes. The leader of the Greens, Bob Brown, said the appointment of Philip Ruddock as attorney general is hypocritical given the international criticism his asylum policies have provoked.

Simon Crean, the leader of the main opposition Labor party, says Mr. Howard has been forced into a major reshuffle because of the incompetence of his ministers.

Opinion polls have consistently placed the Howard government ahead of its rivals and indicate the prime minister is on track to win a fourth term in office.