Is this the most nonsensical, craven, plain dumb reshuffle ever devised by a prime minister? It’s hard to recall a worse one. There was one of John Howard’s when he gave Wilson Tuckey a junior ministry — but Howard was a prime minister with authority, political nous and a firm grip on his party.

Julia Gillard has none of those things.

A bare two weeks ago, Labor had real momentum. It had finished the parliamentary year on a high with the Slipper coup and the mining tax bills through the House of Reps, put the seal on Gillard’s “year of decision and delivery”. Attention was turning to Tony Abbott’s relentless negativity and his need to change his tactics over the summer break. Some were talking about the need for a reshuffle of the Coalition frontbench.

But in that time Gillard has brought Labor’s momentum to a halt and wrenched the political spotlight back onto her tensions with Kevin Rudd and her own lack of authority and judgment.

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All of it has been unforced and unnecessary. No one made Gillard omit Rudd from her conference speech. No one forced her into being rolled by her own faction on gay marriage. And Nick Sherry’s departure could have been dealt with via a minor redistribution of responsibilities. Instead, there’s yesterday’s mess, only necessary if you ignore the 700 words of pointless blather about the economy from the prime minister with which she introduced the reshuffle yesterday and agree this is all about rewarding Bill Shorten and Mark Arbib and punishing those considered less than enthusiastic Gillard supporters.

There are a couple of good points. Shorten will do a better job in industrial relations than Chris Evans. Shorten has improved in parliament since he was first promoted into the ministry, when every trip to the dispatch box induced chortling mockery from the opposition benches. Business might find that its incessant bleating about the need for IR reform, untainted by actual evidence of any kind, meets a sterner response now than it did from Evans. Nicola Roxon probably can’t be much worse as attorney-general than Robert McClelland. Mike Kelly is back in Defence where he belongs.

But the creation of a super-portfolio of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education under Greg Combet — because Shorten couldn’t get something without Combet getting something — is unbalanced and unlikely to improve the government’s focus on any of those portfolio issues. Arbib has been given significant additional responsibilities despite displaying no remarkable talent as minister for sport. Robert McClelland’s make-work cabinet portfolio of “emergency management” is risible. Were they even trying when they came up with that?

Then there’s the treatment of Kim Carr, hitherto the key minister on the most significant domestic economic issue facing the government, the impact of the resources boom on manufacturing. Despite his own strong views on industry assistance, Carr oversaw measures that avoided the blatant protectionism now being espoused by the opposition and the government interventionism being demanded by manufacturing unions. His reward after a difficult year is a humiliating demotion, dispatched to the outer ministry with a bodgied-up role as minister for manufacturing and defence materiel. He’ll probably come into the ministerial wing one day and find his office has been moved down into the basement.

Shabby stuff from Gillard.

But what impresses about the reshuffle is not its ineptitude and grubbiness so much as the lack of authority displayed by Gillard. This is so obvious, she may as well have created a ministry “for ministers I can’t sack” and stuck McClelland, Carr and Evans in there. Peter Garrett too, according to rumours. Having decided to wield the knife, Gillard appears to have been discombobulated when ministers declined to politely turn their backs so she could stick the blade in, or their factional protectors intervened. The result is a bloated cabinet of 22, permanent testimony to Gillard’s lack of authority.

Nor does the reshuffle address the government’s two long-term problems – the tension between Gillard and Rudd, and its inability to convince voters of its economic credentials. At the centre of the latter is Wayne Swan’s lack of cut-through, despite being an excellent treasurer. When Lindsay Tanner was finance minister, he could play the attack role traditionally required of the treasurer. Penny Wong is a nonentity in the role. The only threat she poses to opponents is putting them to sleep. Together, Swan and Wong mean the opposition — despite being frighteningly incompetent on economics — is winning the argument right from the start.

Nor is there anything to cause Rudd to lose any sleep in yesterday’s events. If anything, he’ll be encouraged by a display of fragility and poor judgment from the prime minister.

It’s as if, having stoically endured all manner of adverse conditions throughout the year without flinching, Gillard has stumbled the moment the pressure finally came off. Abbott must be unable to believe his luck.