In an entirely minimalist pre-election reshuffle, Julia Gillard has shifted Trade Minister Simon Crean to her former portfolio of Employment, Education and Workplace Relations, with Foreign Minister Stephen Smith picking up Crean’s workload.

There will be no further changes until when and if Gillard wins the forthcoming election.

Gillard has avoided the problem of the potentially disruptive presence of Kevin Rudd in Cabinet before the election by indicating the ousted Prime Minister would be welcomed back in a “senior capacity” if Labor won the election.

With at most months and possibly only weeks from an election, Gillard has clearly preferred a reshuffle that minimised disruption.  While Crean is regarded as a safe pair of hands, the former leader and strong supporter of Gillard is an experienced, effective political performer with a long history in the union movement and experience in a similar portfolio under Paul Keating.

But Crean, like Gillard, has also found himself offside with the union movement.  Crean burnt up most of his leadership authority in a prolonged, successful and ultimately overlooked campaign to reduce union control of the ALP as part of a process of party modernisation after he replaced Kim Beazley as leader in 2001.  He was also considered a strong performer in the Rudd Ministry, with even political opponents recognising he has handled the trade portfolio well and aggressively prosecuted the case for free trade, despite being lumbered with the task of keeping the Doha Round on life support.

Stephen Smith now has full control of the foreign affairs and trade portfolios, unifying what were until the 1980s separate portfolios.  Bureaucratically, Trade has been part of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade since the Hawke era.

Kevin Rudd, who issued a statement indicating he was happy to serve “in an appropriate way”, has clearly been omitted from the pre-election Cabinet for stability purposes, and correctly so as Gillard moves to establish a more traditional Cabinet process than Rudd’s own mixture of bilateral and kitchen Cabinet decision-making.

However, his omission now creates the same problem for Julia Gillard that Malcolm Turnbull created for Tony Abbott when he decided to remain in Parliament – if he is to serve after the election, which frontbencher will lose their spot to him?  At least Gillard is losing Lindsay Tanner, thereby creating a senior vacancy, but there will be more junior performers who think they have as much entitlement to Tanner’s position as their former leader.